Wildflower Wednesday — False hellebore

Veratrum_Caltha_Symplocarpus


© 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 — Fringed Polygala

Polygala_paucifolia

© 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 — Early Saxifrage

Micranthes_virginiensis

A mature plant of early saxifrage growing
on a moss-covered rock cliff. Some of the
basal leaves are still red.

Early Saxifrage – The name “saxifrage,” from the Latin saxum meaning “rock” and frangere, “to break,” was given to members of the genus Saxifraga because many saxifrage species grow in crevices of rock cliffs where they appear to have caused the cracks in the rock. Our own early saxifrage often grows in just such places.

The plant maintains a basal rosette of leaves throughout the winter, the toothed leaves sometimes becoming bright red during that season. In spring the leaves turn green, and the flower buds at the center of the rosette open, first at ground level, and then on ever elongating and branching stems until the plant reaches 15” in height.

Saxifrages, in general, are known for their hardiness, growing in high mountains from the Alps, to the Andes, to the Himalayas. In fact, one saxifrage, Saxifraga oppositifolia, is one of only four plant species to grow in the northernmost place on earth where plants are able to grow, at 83°24’ N on Lockwood Island, off the north coast of Greenland. Recent molecular studies have resulted in almost all species of our eastern North American saxifrages being transferred to the closely related genus Micranthus; thus this species, formerly Saxifraga virginiensis, is now known as Micranthus virginiensis.