Wildflower Wednesday: A Look at Summer’s Blossoming Bounty with Carol Gracie

Carol Gracie, queen of  flora, is at it again. Carol Gracie

The author of Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History has a new project in the works. The forthcoming book, to be called Summer Wildflowers of the Northeast, isn’t technically a field guide; but we’re betting it will be no less comprehensive. In it, Gracie plans to give a full account of the fascinating history of summer wildflowers: what pollinates them, what eats them, how their seeds are dispersed, as well as their practical and historical uses. The facts are further complemented by Gracie’s striking photographs, which we’ve sampled below. Be on the lookout for this one!

Carol Gracie is an acclaimed naturalist, photographer, and writer. Now retired, she worked for many years as an educator and tour leader with the New York Botanical Garden before teaming up with her husband, Scott Mori, on botanical research projects in South America. Her books include Wildflowers in the Field and Forest.

Enjoy these beautiful photos, and let us know in the Comments section which flowers you’ve noticed so far this season.
[portfolio_slideshow size=large id=31278 autoplay=false random=false
centered=true carousel=false navstyle=graphical navpos=top
pagerstyle=thumbs pagerpos=bottom]

Wildflower Wednesday — False hellebore


© 2012 Carol Gracie.
The pleated leaves of false hellebore growing among
skunk cabbage and marsh marigold.


False hellebore

False hellebore (Veratrum viride) is a plant that grows in swampy areas often intermixed with skunk cabbage. Although it is a large plant with a long, upright inflorescence of flowers, it can go unnoticed because of the similarity of the leaves in size and color to those of skunk cabbage. Closer examination will show the differences: the leaves of false hellebore are pleated and grow up the stem rather than just from the ground like those of skunk cabbage.


Like some other wetland plants, including skunk cabbage, it has deep, tenacious roots that help hold it in place in the wet, sometimes flooded swamp.

And as with many poisonous plants, false hellebore is also important medicinally. A compound responsible for lowering blood pressure is obtained from its roots.


Plants do not flower until they have reached maturity at about 10 years, and then only erratically. The flowers of false hellebore must be examined closely to be appreciated. They are about 1” across and the same green as the rest of the plant with bright yellow anthers being the most noticeable part. Each tepal has a pair of nectar-producing glands at the base. Ants visit to feed on this sweet resource.


Learn more about false hellebore and other spring wildflowers in Carol Gracie’s book, Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History.


Wildflower Wednesday — White Baneberry


© 2012 Carol Gracie.
Children should be warned not to eat the attractive
fruits of white baneberry, which are highly toxic. For obvious
reasons they are commonly called “doll’s eyes.”

White Baneberry – Evil Eyes

The common name for white baneberry, “doll’s eyes,” belies this plant’s toxic nature. Far from being something for a child to play with, the white and black fruits (the “doll’s eyes”) of white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) are highly poisonous. The black dot on the round white fruits of white baneberry is the remnant of the flower’s stigma. The fruits are particularly attractive when their thick stalks, as well as the main stalk to which they are attached, turn a bright pink. The “bane” in baneberry indicates that the plant can cause illness or even death if ingested. However, many types of birds feed on them fruits without ill effect.


Baneberry’s small white petals are the source of a rose-like fragrance that is attractive to many species of insects. Strangely, the main pollinator of this species in the Northeast is an introduced species of European snout beetle. The beetles have perhaps replaced a native beetle that was the original pollinator of this species.


Another species of baneberry (Actaea rubra) can be found in the Northeast as well. It is similar in appearance to white baneberry with some minor differences in the shape of its inflorescence (flower cluster), and a major difference in the color of its fruits, which are a bright red with a small black spot. It is commonly called red baneberry and blooms a bit earlier than white baneberry where both occur.


Learn more about both baneberries and other spring wildflowers in Carol Gracie’s book, Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History.


Wildflower Wednesday — Fringed Polygala


© 2012 Carol Gracie.
Two magenta flowers of fringed polygala are held above
the glossy green leaves of this plant of the forest floor.


Fringed Polygala – An Instant Favorite

It’s love at first sight when a hiker catches his first view of the shocking pink flowers of fringed polygala (Polygala paucifolia). Its strangely shaped flowers might fool someone into thinking that this is a member of the orchid family, or perhaps the pea family. No other flower in the Northeast looks quite like it—that is no other flower of its size (ca. 1.5 inches long). The other members of the same genus are so tiny that they require examination with a hand lens to see the detail.

The flaring wings and propeller-like fringe on the flower’s tip give it the appearance of a small magenta airplane. Only by pressing down on the “fuselage” of the flower can you find its reproductive structures. The two sides of the flower that form the forward-pointing portion open up and the stamens and pistil are exposed—just as they would be if a bumblebee were to land on the flower. And, indeed, like many of our spring wildflowers, bumblebees are the principal pollinators of fringed polygala.

Fringed polygala often grows in large colonies and particularly favors mossy sites. A small plant, the contrasting glossy green leaves and pink flowers make a striking ground cover.

Learn more about fringed polygala and other spring wildflowers in Carol Gracie’s book, Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History.


Wildflower Wednesday — Blue Cohosh

Caulophyllum thalictroides

The seed coats of blue cohosh seeds become blue over
a prolonged period from August through September so
that some are always attractive to birds during the
time of fall migration. © 2012 Carol Gracie.


Blue Cohosh – A Deceptive Plant

The flowers of blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) don’t attract much notice in spring. They are small and rather dull yellowish-green or purplish-brown. However, they bear looking at with a hand lens to better appreciate their strangely modified, fan-shaped petals that serve as glistening nectaries. The nectaries attract insect pollinators—in this case, various species of flies. What appear to be petals are actually the flower’s sepals.

It is the “fruit” that attracts the eye in late summer and autumn. The term “fruit” is put into quotation marks because what appear to be juicy blue fruits (from which the plant gets its common name) are actually the seeds of the plant with bright blue seed coats. By appearing to be fruits, the seeds appeal to birds at the time of migration, when they need a good source of fuel to continue their southward journey. Birds eat the “fruits,” gaining no energy from them, and excrete them further along their route, thus serving as dispersal agents for the plant.

k9668Read more about blue cohosh and other spring wildflowers in Carol Gracie’s book, Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History.

Wildflower Wednesday — Miterwort

Mitella diphylla

The quarter-inch flowers of miterwort resemble floral snowflakes.
This close-up view shows one of the several flowers that are
arranged on an upright stalk arising from a basal rosette
of hairy leaves. © 2012 Carol Gracie


Miterwort (Mitella diphylla) – may be one of our most beautiful and least appreciated wildflowers. Because its habitat is deep forest it is noticed by few who venture into the woods in spring, and even when spotted, it requires close inspection with a 10x magnifying hand lens to see its delicate beauty. However, it is well worth getting on one’s hands and knees to do so. The intricate filigree surrounding the tiny, white cup-like flowers gives them the appearance of 5-parted snowflakes.


Miterwort is named for the shape of its tiny fruits, said to resemble the hats (miters) worn by bishops of the Catholic Church. Even if the flower stalk bends over, the fruits always orient themselves such that their opening faces upward, thus ensuring that they are in the proper position for their unusual method of seed dispersal. The shiny black seeds are ejected from the fruits by the force of raindrops, a method termed splash-cup dispersal. Depending on the angle and force of the rain, seeds may be splashed up to a meter from the plant.


Miterwort will be in flower in the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut area within the next week or two. Look for its thin flower stalks subtended by paired leaves on your next woodland walk.


Learn more about miterwort and many other spring wildflowers in Carol Gracie’s book, Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History.

Wildflower Wednesday — Wild Ginger

Week 05 Asarum_canadense


A beetle’s eye view of a wild ginger
plant showing the interesting flower
prostrate on the ground.


Wild ginger – As one might suspect from its common name, wild ginger has been used as substitute for the spice known as ginger, which comes from an entirely unrelated plant. Early colonists were eager to find flavorings to replace those that they knew from home, and the rhizomes of wild ginger filled that need. All one needs to do is scratch the exposed rhizome (an underground stem that is often exposed at the top of the soil) to smell the gingery fragrance. However, research has shown the rhizomes to contain aristolochic acid, a known carcinogen, so this use is no longer recommended.


The odd maroon and white flowers of wild ginger lie on the ground, hidden under the heart-shaped fuzzy leaves. They attract few insect visitors, and thus are usually self-pollinated, but the primary method of propagation is vegetatively by the spreading rhizomes. Thus, the plants in a colony of wild ginger are genetically identical and form a clone. Gardeners are fond of wild ginger for use as a ground cover in a shade garden.


Wildflower Wednesday — Violets

Week 04 Viola_rostrata with West VA White butterfly



A West Virginia White butterfly
visiting a flower of long-spurred
violet (Viola rostrata).

Violets – Almost everyone loves violets and associates them with spring. But violets have played an interesting role in history as well. As a token of his love, Napoleon was known to have presented the Empress Josephine with a bouquet of her favorite sweet-scented violets on each anniversary. However when Josephine had not produced an heir after 13 years of marriage, Napoleon divorced her and married the young Marie Louise, who quickly provided him with a son to carry on his dynasty. When Napoleon died, his locket contained a lock of Josephine’s hair and pressed violets, evidence of his everlasting love. Violets have played a role in local New York history as well. Rhinebeck, NY, on the east bank of the Hudson River was the self-proclaimed City of Violets. At the turn of the last century, when fragrant European violets were all the rage for bouquets and nosegays, unused estate greenhouses were used for the growing of these violets, which were sent by train to Manhattan and to cities beyond.

Violets come in a variety of colors: all shades of lavender through purple, as well as white and yellow. A European species, Viola tricolor, known in this country as Johnny jump up exhibits all three colors. It’s from a cross of two other European violets that the popular garden pansies were developed.

Our native violets are commonly pollinated by an early-flying butterfly known as the West Virginia White, which in the caterpillar stage feeds on members of the cress family including the toothworts.

Wildflower Wednesday — Pink Lady-slipper

Pink Lady-slipper


Photo credit, C Gracie.
Lady-slipper orchids are perhaps the best known and most loved of all of our native orchids.

Their large, slipper-shaped flowers are curious in shape and devious in the manner in which they manage to get pollinated. Bumblebees must force their way into the slit that bisects the pouch of the flower. Once inside, the slip closes and they are trapped, buzzing around until they see the light from the two small openings at the top of the flower. They must exit via one of these openings, and in doing so, brush against the female stigma, where pollen from a previously visited flower is scraped off and pick up additional pollen from the large anthers that they will transport on to a subsequent flower.

For a high-res version of this image, please contact blog@press.princeton.edu.

Read more in Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast
by Carol Gracie

Wildflower Wednesday

Wildflower Wedneday — Jack-in-the-Pulpit



Photo credit, C Gracie.
The imaginative name for this plant comes from the perception of the upright central portion’s resemblance to “Jack,” a preacher, in his leafy, overhanging “pulpit.” The tiny flowers of this species are found at the base of “Jack.”

The flowers of a plant are either male or female, determined primarily by the resources of the plant. Larger plants with two leaves usually have female flowers, since greater resources are needed for a plant to be able to produce fruits and seeds. Jack-in-the-pulpit has the interesting ability to change sexes from one year to the next depending on the stored food available in its underground corm. 

For a high-res version of this image, please contact blog@press.princeton.edu.

Read more in Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast
by Carol Gracie

Wildflower Wednesday

Wildflower Wednesday — Mayapple



Photo credit, C Gracie.
The large, white flowers of Mayapple are hidden under the plant’s large leaves and often overlooked by walkers. The large and attractive flowers are worth searching for to enjoy their beauty. (tip: only Mayapple plants with two leaves produce flowers.)

Mayapple grows in large clonal colonies, usually in moist areas. Their ripe fruits cause them to topple over allowing box turtles to reach the fruits, which they eat and then disperse the seeds. Although toxic, Mayapple and its relatives are a source of compounds important in medicines used in the treatment of various types of cancer.

For a high-res version of this image, please contact blog@press.princeton.edu.


Read more in Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast
by Carol Gracie

Wildflower Wednesday

Wildflower Wednesday — Columbine



Photo credit, C Gracie.
We have few red-flowered plants in the eastern United States, most likely due to our paucity of hummingbird species as compared to other parts of the country. Red is a color known to be attractive to hummingbirds, but not as much so to other potential pollinators. The blooming of columbine coincides with the return of ruby-throated hummingbirds from their winter locales and provides them with a welcome source of nectar after their long journeys.

The nectar is held at the tips of the long spurs, where it is accessible only to hummingbirds and some bumblebees. Columbine is frequently found growing on rocky ledges and cliff faces.

For a high-res version of this image, please contact blog@press.princeton.edu.


Read more in Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast
by Carol Gracie

Wildflower Wednesday