Solomon’s Seal Smooth Giant False and Starry

The group of Solomon’s Seal plants look similar, especially early in the year when the greenery is just coming up. They all have parallel-veined leaves along a single arching stem and six-pointed flowers.

The plants themselves are different enough to warrant being placed in two different genera. At one time the Solomon’s Seals were all considered members of the Lily Family, Liliaceae. Further research resulted in their classification as members of the Ruscaceae Family, but that is now in question.

Naming and classifying plants is not an easy task as there are several plant taxonomy systems that one might follow. Here at wildeherb we tend to follow the old Cronquist system with its major divisions of Monocots and Dicots, but we do take efforts to highlight accepted newer names for our vegetative friends.

Blossoms tell the story as far as which plants belong to which species. After all flowers are the reproductive parts of the plant. The central idea of a species is that members of a species will be able to reproduce the next generation. Species are isolated from one another by not being able to cross breed or interbreed to produce viable offspring. Hybrid species can be formed, but they do not contribute to the furthering of either parent species.

Comparing flowers, or deciding which plants are of the same species, often comes down to comparison of the floral parts. A case in point is Whorled Pogonia, a native orchid that we were lucky enough to see blooming in 2010 here on the mountain top.

Another example where we need to compare floral parts to for sure distinguish the species from each other are the Solomon’s Seals. The leaves for these related plants could be described as linear, entire, oval shaped leaves having a short tip and arranged alternately along a single arching stem.

Flower placement is axial or terminal in the Solomon’s Seals. Axial flowers hang down from the leaf axils in two Polygonatum species. Terminal flowers grow at the tips of the arching stems in two¬†Maianthemum species.

Smooth Solomon’s Seal, P. biflorum, and Giant Solomon’s Seal, P. canaliculatum, have flowers that dangle from the leaf axils. Smooth Solomon’s Seal has typically two yellow-green bell-shaped flowers per leaf axil. Giant Solomon’s Seal has the same type of flower as Smooth, but they’re usually in a small cluster of 2-10 flowers. Also, the stature of Giant is usually much bigger than Smooth.

Smooth Solomon's Seal with its dangling axial flowers.
Smooth Solomon's Seal with its dangling axial flowers.

Photo above taken 30 April 2010.

False Solomon’s Seal, M. racemosum, and False Starry Solomon’s Seal, M. stellatum, have their blossoms at the tip of the single arching stem. False Solomon’s Seal has a branched cluster of a few dozen small white blossoms. False Starry Solomon’s Seal has fewer, but larger, flowers and they come right off the main stem with no branching.

False Solomon's Seal with its terminal cluster of flowers.
False Solomon's Seal with its terminal cluster of flowers.

Photo above taken 31 May 2007.

Fruits are somewhat different among the Solomon’s Seals, but we’ll have to wait a while for them to turn from green into their final colors before making comparisons.

Incidentally, if you’re using an older wild plant guide the Maianthemum species are probably labeled as Smilacina species. False Solomon’s Seal may be listed as S. racemosa and False Starry Solomon’s Seal may be called S. stellata.

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Maple-Leaved Viburnum Blooms Pink and White

Maple-leaved Viburnum, Viburnum acerifolium, started to bloom around the middle of May here in South-central PA. It’s a woody shrub that can flower from a single stalk as a young plant. When this viburnum gets a little older, it may flower profusely with clusters at the ends of each branch on the larger plants.

Clusters of maple-leaved viburnum flowers.
Clusters of maple-leaved viburnum flowers.
Flower cluster and leaf of maple-leaved viburnum.
Flower cluster and leaf of maple-leaved viburnum.

Flowers occur in flat-topped clusters at the branch tips. Leaves are similar in shape to maple tree leaves, thus giving this understory shrub its name.

Maple-like leaves in pairs.
Maple-like leaves in pairs.

Flower buds are pink to white in color, while the inner flower parts are mostly creamy white.

Pink flower buds of maple-leaved viburnum.
Pink flower buds of maple-leaved viburnum.

Pink flower buds of Maple-leaved Viburnum open up into white flowers with long stamens projecting upward. Anthers on the tips of the stamens make the flower clusters looked dotted.

A few viburnums listed in Peterson’s Edible Plant Guide are edible, but others in the Viburnum genus have bitter fruit. No medicinal qualities were noted in Peterson’s Medicinal Plants Guide.

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Cleavers Weeds Make Bedstraw for Deer

White-tailed deer
Image via Wikipedia

Walking near the edge of the farmer’s field you can see many weeds where the open field meets the trees. On 15 May 2010 I saw this familiar weed, Cleavers, that grows in fields, waste places and along the side of the road.

A few days earlier there was an untouched stand of this weed and the large grouping looked pretty cool. Always have your camera with you! When I came back to photograph the weeds, I saw that someone had been there before me.

Matted circles show where deer most likely bedded down the night before.
Matted circles show where deer most likely bedded down the night before.

These weeds get about three feet tall and are prone to laying over to the side when they get that tall. The circular patches with the weed tramped down tell the story. The tallness of the weeds would serve to hide the deer even as they lay there.

Cleavers, Galium aparine, is a member of the Bedstraw Family, Rubiaceae. I guess it makes sense that an animal would use a plant referred to as bedstraw to make their bed. People figure some things out for themselves and other things we learn by watching. If people witnessed these large mammals lying down among the cleavers or bedstraw, people probably tried it for themselves. Early botanists may have named this family of plants because of their usefulness as bed stuffing.

Small white flowers cluster on stalks that project from the leaf axils.

Small white flowers project from the whorled leaf axils.
Small white flowers project from the whorled leaf axils.

Leaves are in whorl formation with six to eight, mostly eight, leaves. Cleavers has a sticky feel that is due to the tiny prickles that you can just see on the stems and leaves in the photo above. (Click on photo for a larger image.)

The other day I went back up to the field to see if I could get some better pictures of the cleavers flowers, but the farmer had sprayed some herbicide to ready the field for planting. The cleavers had already died back, which reinforces the idea that you should take more pictures than you think you need to assure that you get at least one good shot.

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Whorled Pogonia 2010, A Flowering Year For A Wild Orchid

2010 was the first year that we witnessed flowers on this member of the Orchid Family, Orchidaceae. From a florist’s point of view the strap-like blossom of Whorled Pogonia, Isotria verticillata, is nothing to write home about. Heck, it’s barely noticeable that it’s a flower, unless you know what to look for.

Whorled pogonia rises up from the ground with a single, hollow stem. The stems are light-colored grey and smooth.

At the top of the 6 – 12 inch stem is a whorl of five leaves, and sometimes six.

Six Whorled Pogonia plants of different heights.
Six Whorled Pogonia plants of different heights.

I’m assuming that the smaller plants in the photo above are later or smaller versions of the taller plants, instead of the rare Small Whorled Pogonia, Isotria medeoloides. Until I saw some of the Whorled Pogonia blooming this year I was uncertain which pogonia we had. The two Isotria species appear the same except for stature and the length of the sepals.

The sixth leaf on a few plants seems to be an afterthought.
The sixth leaf on a few plants seems to be an afterthought.

Leaves are pointed ovals that are widest near the tips.

Flowering Whorled Pogonia with parallel-veined leaves.
Flowering Whorled Pogonia with parallel-veined leaves.

Linear or parallel veins in the leaves help to identify the pogonia as a member of the Monocotyledon which include the grasses, grains, lilies and orchids.

From the center of the whorl of leaves arises a singular flower. A flower stalk holds the blossom about an inch above the circle of leaves. The blossom arches over to one side. Three muted yellow petals enclose the stamens and inner flower parts.

The blossom itself appears somewhat closed as it is enveloped by the very long, strap-like sepals. The sepals are brown to dark maroon with a shiny surface and they stretch out about three inches long. The sepals of Small Whorled Pogonia may be about an inch long in comparison.

Photograph of Whorled Pogonia on 17 May 2010.
Photograph of Whorled Pogonia on 17 May 2010.

The extra long sepals are diagnostic for distinguishing Whorled Pogonia from Small Whorled Pogonia.

Extra long sepals of the flowering pogonia orchid.
Extra long sepals of the flowering pogonia orchid.

Photo taken 15 May 2010.

Edge-on view of a whorled pogonia flower. Photo taken 15 May 2010.
Edge-on view of a whorled pogonia flower. Photo taken 15 May 2010.
Flowering Whorled Pogonia on 17 May 2010.
Flowering Whorled Pogonia on 17 May 2010.
Another specimen of flowering whorled pogonia.
Another specimen of flowering whorled pogonia.
Looking down on the flowering orchid.
Looking down on the flowering orchid.

Looking down on the orchid…can you see its flower? The stem enters the ground in the upper left of the photo above.

Very few of the whorled pogonia were blooming. Even though there were only 3 of 68 plants blooming in one area, and slightly north a different patch had a single plant blooming in a group of eleven, I was very excited to see them flowering. I’ve watched these orchids for years now, wondering which pogonia I was looking at. Now I know that we have Whorled Pogonia in our forest.

Star-of-Bethlehem Just Another Roadside Alien

Ornithogalum umbellatum
Image via Wikipedia ..pretty lily

Star-of-Bethlehem was another roadside alien with pretty flowers that caught my attention. A return trip to the same location saw more pocketknife action.

Always keep some plastic bags in the trunk, you never know when they’ll come in handy. They’re great for carrying plants, dirt and all!

Star-of-Bethlehem acquired from the roadside.
Star-of-Bethlehem acquired from the roadside.

A long green stripe on the underside of each petal helps to identify this plant as Star-of-Bethlehem, Ornithogalum umbellatum. You can see the green stripe in a few flower buds that are closed. (Click on photos to see closer view.)

Narrow leaves, each having a white midrib, might get a foot long, but they softly arch over forming a mound. All leaves are basal, and leaf margins are entire or toothless.

Star-of-Bethlehem is a Spring-flowering perennial with thin, strap-like foliage that reminds one of grape hyacinth or another bulb plant. Six petals, six stamens and parallel-veined leaves mark this plant as a member of the Lily Family, Liliaceae. Other members of Liliaceae include tulips, hyacinths, onions, trilliums, and of course, lilies.

Midnight acquisition, five-finger discount, extreme gardening…whatever you call it, I picked up a specimen of this spring flowering bulb from the roadside. It was transplanted into a flower garden that marks the septic tank on our property. Since the septic was pumped out recently the plants near the dug out area were moved out-of-the-way. I was glad to see the Star-of-Bethlehem came back this year. When this plant gets a little bigger the flower spray should be awesome.

Flowering Star-of-Bethlehem.
Flowering Star-of-Bethlehem.

In the photo above you can see a few spent flowers and a few that have already closed up for the day in addition to the two open blossoms. Flowers are only open in the sunshine. When there are several blooms open at a time, this plant is an eye-catcher. The blossoms are held in clusters and each flower is about an inch wide.

Nothing edible about this poisonous plant as the bulbs and leaves contain toxic alkaloids (Peterson’s Edible Plant Guide). For enjoyment in the garden only.

The blooming period for Star-of-Bethlehem in South-central PA was about one week in 2010.

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Yellow and Blue Flowers Dot the Lawn Yard

Spring color arrives in many places, even the yard. We don’t care too much about keeping just grass in the lawn or yard. We even let weeds come to their flowering if we feel like mowing around them. Sure, that will only bring more weeds the next year, but who’s really gonna stop them without chemicals? Hey, our drinking water is down there!

I enjoy seeing the Common Cinquefoil, Potentilla simplex, happily dotting the grass with bright yellow smiley faces. In some places the yellow flowers are joined by the light blue blossoms of Ground Ivy, Glechoma hederacea.

Ground Ivy is also known as Gill-over-the-Ground, which sounds totally Irish, doesn’t it? Perhaps the name suggests where it originally came from as this member of the Mint Family, Lamiaceae, is alien to North America.

Leaves were once used to ferment and flavor beer, as noted in the Audubon North American Field Guide to Wildflowers. Indeed, the name Gill is traced to the French word for ferment, guiller. So, we can deduce that Gill-over-the-ground is an European introduction.

Gill-over-the-Ground is a perennial, scentless mint that trails along the ground, rooting at the leaf nodes in ivy-like fashion.

Blue and yellow yard flowers.
Blue and yellow yard flowers.

Blue flowers of ground ivy and yellow flowers of common cinquefoil don’t hide too well among the grass in the lawn.

Ground ivy flowers are irregular in shape with petals fused to make an upper lip, two side petals and a lower lip. The upper lip has two rounded lobes, the side petals flare out to the sides, and the lower lip is broad with three lobes. The inside of the flowers are spotted with dark blue while the rest of the flower is light blue.

Flowers come out from under the leaf axils.
Flowers come out from under the leaf axils.

Photos above taken 6 May 2010.

Round leaves grow opposite one another with scalloped edges, or bluntly rounded teeth. Stems creep along the ground, just like the name “ivy” foretells. Ground ivy prefers shady, moist areas.

Springtime flowers of ground-ivy or gill-over-the-ground.
Springtime flowers of ground-ivy or gill-over-the-ground.

The image above shows Ground-Ivy flowering along a trail on 30 April 2010 at Little Buffalo State Park. Note how the flowers seem to peek out from under the leaves.

Although I haven’t yet tried it, Peterson’s Edible Plant Guide tells us that ground ivy makes a pleasant herbal tea.

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Fringed Polygala Flowered Extensively in 2010

2010 was a nice flowering year for Fringed Polygala, Polygala paucifolia, Gaywings, or Fairywings. The bright pink blooms were first seen 13 April 2010 and they flowered through the first part of May. The image below shows the gaywings flowers, but there aren’t as many open flowers and the ones that are open are faded and drying out. One good rain and they’re done for the year.

Faded flowers of Fringed Polygala, aka Gaywings.
Faded flowers of Fringed Polygala, aka Gaywings.

In the image above there is a lot of new growth as evidenced by the light green leaves. Note the darker older leaves that are slightly larger in the center of the photo, taken 6 May 2010.

Some of the plants that flowered early in the group already have their small flat seed pod developing.

The seedpod will get a little bigger before it disappears. Perhaps the connection that holds the seed to the plant will break off and let the seed roll to a new location. Maybe a critter will come by and eat it. Who knows?

Polygala spreads primarily by underground runners and grows in forests in the Eastern U.S.. The blooming period for fringed polygala was about three weeks long for 2010.

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Bastard Toadflax a Parasitic Woodland Herb

I can’t believe anyone would name a plant Bastard Toadflax. That funny sounding name deserves some explanation, don’t you think?

The Audubon North American Field Guide to Wildflowers tells us that Bastard Toadflax, Comandra umbellata, is a parasitic plant associated with trees and shrubs. Because the little plant is green, which means it contains chlorophyll and can do photosynthesis, we know that it’s not totally dependent on woody plants for its nutrition. I wonder if the bastard part of the name has to do with its being parasitic?

Also known as Star Toadflax because of the star-like appearance of the flowers, this small perennial herb grows in open woodlands and fields to a height of about 8 – 10 inches. Note the old oak leaves in the background of the image below.

Bastard toadflax, the woodland plant with a funny name.
Bastard toadflax, the woodland plant with a funny name.

Alternate leaves are small ovals with rounded tips and practically no stem. The leaf edges are entire, or untoothed. Leaves and flowers share the same stem with the flowers arranged in a loose cluster at the stem tip.

White cup-like flowers, less than a quarter of an inch across, have five rounded ‘petals’, which are actually sepals, that yield a star-like appearance.

Flowering Star Toadflax.
Flowering Star Toadflax.

Fertilized flowers will develop into small edible nuts. These nutlets could be eaten by mice, chipmunks, squirrels, groundhogs, birds, deer, bear – all of which we’ve seen in the immediate vicinity. I tasted the little nuts one time. They were a little walnutty tasting as I remember.

You could see the fruitless stems where other nutlets had once grown. Did another animal nibble from this same plant? Or had the fruit not developed properly and drop off long ago?

I guess one would could film a plant 24/7 to answer those questions. Hmm, sounds like a fun project!

  1. find flowering plant
  2. set up video cam 24/7
  3. watch fruit develop
  4. see what happens to the fruit!

Since we don’t have that much time we’d have to read a little more to find out who consumes the bastard toadflax nutlets.

The Animal Kingdom might not be the first place you’d look for information on plants like the bastard toadflax, but try to remember that we’re all interconnected to the habitats we share. Reports of animal studies and observation records have helped to form our knowledge on how plants are used by animals.

For example, zoologists will perform necropsies on dead animals. An important part of those animal autopsies is to open up the gastrointestinal tract to see what the animal recently ate. Gathering this type of data helps us to understand animal-plant interactions.

I don’t know of any source where you can go to look up what plants are eaten by whom, but the knowledge gained and shared by a number of biologists over the years has shaped our collective knowledge of these things.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service shares Plant Profiles that may indicate whether a plant is used by wildlife for food or cover. An example is New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus. Scroll down to Wildlife Habitat Values under Classification and you’ll see that large mammals and terrestrial birds make some use of the NJ Tea plant.

No such information was available for Comandra umbellata.

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