Out in the woods – Podophyllum peltatum

Mayapple, American mandrake, Hog apple

For plant collectors, Podophyllum name sparks instantly the ‘rare plants’ lust. Like with the Arisaema species unfortunately the North American continent wasn’t left with much, one Podophyllum species – the Mayapple. It has its charm and personality and it will very slowly form a colony in the woodland garden.

Podophyllum peltatum colony

Podophyllum peltatum colony

It emerges in early spring with a couple of tightly closed leaves, which expand umbrella-like afterwards and cover one solitary, white flower. The fleshy fruit (hog apple, wild lemon) becomes yellow when ripe and is enjoyed by a variety of small animals, who are also the principal seed dispersers (the fruit is the only part of the plant that’s not toxic).

Podophyllum peltatum flowers

Podophyllum peltatum flowering

But there’s more about the Mayapple than just being a great plant for the shade garden – its Medicinal uses:

The Mayapple has been a staple medicinal plant in the repertoire of the Native Americans, which used it as: boiled roots (laxative), juice of the fresh rhizome (improve hearing), powdered root (skin ulcers and sores, purgative). At some point the Mayapple resin (extracted from the rhizome) was considered one the most powerful laxatives available but because of its toxicity this use disappeared.

Pharmaceutical research proved that certain chemical constituents of the Podophyllum species can be used as anticancer agents. The substance responsible is called podophyllin and it is a resin contained in the rhizome (see the use of powder root to treat skin ulcers). This resin is composed of several toxic glycosides, the most active being podophyllotoxin. Derivatives of the podophyllotoxin (etoposide and teniposide) are formulated today into anticancer drugs used in chemotherapy to inhibit the growth of tumors in various types of cancer.

Unfortunately, in a few regions of the Indian Himalayas, another species, Podophyllum hexandrum, also exploited as medicinal, has become endangered due to overharvesting in the wild. I hope we won’t start destroying our Mayapple populations too. Actually, Podophyllums are very easy to cultivate – all you need is shade …and seeds of course (or rhizomes cuttings).

Note: The genus name comes from the Greek ‘anapodophyllum’ meaning a leaf like the foot (podos) of a duck (anas) and peltatum – refers to the specific attachment of the leaf stalk near the centre of the leaf blade.

Noisy Merry-bells

Uvularia grandiflora – Large-flowered bellwort, Merry-bells

Spring is a busy time when it comes to wildflowers – lots of species start flowering almost at the same time, especially when the springtime gets condensed in a couple of months. While I try no to discriminate, some will be overlooked for now and I will highlight just a few; for example would be hard to ignore the Merry-bells! They start to flower at the same time, or a bit after Trillium grandiflorum, depending how shady the location is.

Uvularia grandiflora - just starting to flower

Uvularia grandiflora

Unlike some other wildflowers, Uvularia grandiflora is not a stranger for the cultivated woodland garden. Although not that popular as it should be, it is appreciated for its elegant habit and clusters of pendulous yellow flowers with twisted tepals, always ringing loudly for attention.

Uvularia grandiflora flower close up

Uvularia grandiflora flower close up

More than this, it is an important food source in the spring, providing nectar and pollen for bumblebees, mason bees and other bee species. It will grow to form a nice, tight clump in a few years, so it can be used solitary although it looks fantastic in large groups.

Note: Another native bellwort – Uvularia sessilifolia has smaller flowers and non-clasping leaves.

Out in the woods – thrilled about Trillium

Trilix (Latin) = having a triple thread

If nothing else about wildflowers, one image can still thrill anyone  – the white carpeting of the woodland floor when Trillium grandiflorum is flowering; in southern Ontario sometime from late April to May.  Unfortunately, our car committed suicide, so I took this picture close to home in a remnant neighbourhood forest. You’ll just have to imagine this small patch of Trillium multiplied by hundreds, as it happens in the wild wooded areas.

Trillium grandiflorum

Trillium grandiflorum – Large-flowered trillium

Not that the provincial flower of Ontario needs a description; it is all about the number 3: 3-petaled white flowers (rarely pink) with 3 green sepals above a whorl of three leaves. Usually as they age the white flowers turn light pink. Unfortunately, it goes dormant by mid-summer but after the spring display we can forgive this little shortcoming.  Sometimes, individuals with green bands on the petals can be spotted – they look interesting but it’s said to be a result of a phytoplasma infection.

Mixed in with T. grandiflorum is often Trillium erectum – Wake-robin trillium, Stinking Benjamin. It displays stunning dark-red flowers above the foliage – three pointed petals framed by 3 green or reddish green sepals. The scent of the flowers is the source for the common name Stinking Benjamin – they emit odours to attract carrion flies, which are their main pollinators.


Out in the woods – the Blue Cohosh

A short hike revealed quite a change of the woodland floor with a few ‘faces’ familiar to everyone, like the trout lily (Erythronium americanum), spring beauties (Claytonia spp.), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) and Trillium ready to flower but also forgotten woodland treasures such as the Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides).

Spring woodland flowers


 Caulophyllum thalictroides – Blue Cohosh, papoose root, squawroot

Blue cohosh is an impressive plant, easy to recognize in early spring by the strikingly beautiful purple, almost back shoots. The foliage will change later to green and resemble the meadow rue (Thalictrum), hence the epithet ‘thalictroides’.

‘Cohosh’ is believed to derive from an Algonquian word meaning ‘rough’, referring to the texture of the plant’s rhizome, while ‘blue’ comes from the unusually blue seeds. Also the stem and leaves are covered with a bluish film early in the summer.

Caulophyllum thalictroides shoot in early spring

Caulophyllum thalictroides shoot in early spring

The small purplish or yellowish green flowers would not qualify for a beauty contest but not the same goes for the blue seeds adorning the stems in the fall. For combinations in the garden, only imagination is the limit: a mix palette with early spring flowering native species (Claytonia, Erytronium, Sanguinaria) or for an European decor combined with: Corydalis solida, early primroses, Anemone nemorosa, Ranunculus, so on…For part-shade to shade locations, in rich humus soil.

 Other uses:

Blue cohosh was used medicinally (powder rhizomes) by various native American tribes, mainly to promote childbirth (‘squawroot’) but also for: anxiety, rheumatism, stomach cramps and genito-urinary dysfunctions. It contains a number of active compounds among which caulosaponin is a powerful stimulator of uterine contractions (under medical attention it is still used in modern herbal medicine as a natural labour-inducing stimulant).

More Bloodroot

Sanguinaria canadensis – Part II

It’s raining cats and dogs here (instead of flowers); a good time to get back to the bloodroot. It flowered over the weekend – a sure sign that the woodland floor is slowly awakening. Not much is happening in our gardens either, except another early riser that I’ll talk about soon.

Sanguinaria canadensis is a variable species and sometimes you can stumble upon forms with pink-lilac flowers (after opening they turn white), with increased number of petals or slightly different petal shape (the group from the gallery has unusual pointed petals).

Sanguinaria canadensis - pink form

Sanguinaria canadensis – pink form

I admit it is not a  glamorous flower, it is more than that. Sitting down on an old stump to watch them glistening in the filtered sun rays I was overwhelmed by the smell of the spring forest, the mixture of the decayed leaves, fresh greens and the warmth of the soil.

To see a World in a grain sand
And a Heaven in a Wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
                        William Blake (from Auguries of Innocence)


An after Easter portrait – Symplocarpus foetidus

Chocolate eggs hunting and skunk cabbage viewing may sound unusual but it certainly works for some as an Easter tradition.

All nature lovers in North America are familiar with the eastern skunk cabbage (polecat weed) – Symplocarpus foetidus, a true spring harbinger, a curiosity, a reason to go hiking in the woods in early spring, a conversation subject but most of all a warm-blooded plant!

Eastern skunk cabbage is the first plant to appear and flower in the frozen landscape due to its ‘central heating system’. The pointed inflorescences break through the ice and snow as heavily spotted, reddish thick-textured spathes that enclose the sexual parts (spadices).

“As my eye sweeps over the twenty or thirty plants before me, my gaze is brought into a spiraling movement when it tries to rest upon any single specimen. The deep color is warm, the sculpted form alive” Craig Holdrege

The French naturalist Jean Lamarck was the first to report that aroid inflorescences produce heat and lately this metabolic process was called thermogenesis. It was (and still is) quite a fascinating phenomenon and lots of research has been done to explain what’s happening.

Symplocarpus foetidus

Symplocarpus foetidus

Today we know that it is the salicylic acid from the plant which functions as a hormone, initiating the heating process and also the production of odours and unfolding of the spathe. In eastern skunk cabbage, the warmth from the spadix also dissipates foul smelling substances to attract flies, beetles and other pollinating insects, which are rejoicing in the warm environment created inside the spathe.

Spadix temperature is regulated depending on the ambient up to two weeks. Regardless of the near-freezing air temperature, the heat produced by the spadix can raise the temperature of its tissues 15 to 35°C above the surroundings!

Symplocarpus foetidus spadix

Symplocarpus foetidus spadix

There would be lots to be said also about the medicinal and magic uses of skunk cabbage. The one I like most is the ritual performed by the Menominee tribe of North America: they tattooed people recovering from an illness with a decoction of the skunk cabbage roots in the region where the illness had caused pain. This way the illness would not return…

Cultivation: Moist to wet soils in partial shade, great around ponds and streams. Seeds sown in moist compost and plants transplanted young or directly outside. It forms a stout, vertical rhizome and division is difficult. Even in nature, populations increase through germinated seeds, not vegetatively.

Shining – Gaultheria procumbens

Filled out with the enthusiasm brought by a sunny, warm day (first after a long and dreary winter), we had our first hike in the forest. In the shaded areas the snow cover was still knee deep but on the warmed up slopes, underneath bare oak trees, a carpet of glossy, purple leaves was shining in the sun – the wintergreen.

Gaultheria procumbens - fruits in early springGaultheria procumbens (wintergreen, teaberry, mountain tea) – is an adorable low growing evergreen shrub native to northeastern North America usually found in pine and hardwood forests and as a part of the oak-heath forest, favouring acidic soil. It reaches about 10-15 cm high with glossy, leathery and fragrant leaves (when crushed) that will turn purple in the fall, especially in sunny areas. It has white, bell-shaped flowers (typical of fam. Ericaceae) and berry-like red fruits, which persist through the winter.

For the gardens it is an excellent groundcover beneath other acidic-lovers, in part-shade to full shade locations and it has received an AGM from Royal Horticultural Society.

But I don’t know if any of this would matter until you see it shining brightly one early day of spring

Gaultheria procumbens -early spring

Gaultheria procumbens – in early spring after the snowmelt

Besides its ornamental qualities as an evergreen groundcover, it has been used traditionally for making a fine herbal tea and also for the extraction of wintergreen oil (used for flavouring of chewing gum, candies, medicinal). Various tribes of Native Americans used Gaultheria for medicinal purposes too, most commonly for relieving aches and pains and rheumatism. The colonists who first started to use the wintergreen leaves as a substitute for the imported tea during the Revolutionary War, also adopted its medicinal uses.

Gaultheria procumbens flowering (Killarney, Ontario)

Gaultheria procumbens flowering in Killarney, Ontario

Most wintergreen oil is produced synthetically today, but in traditional herbal medicine oil extracted from fresh leaves is preferred. The active ingredient of this oil is methyl salicylate, an aspirin- like compound, which like aspirin has proven anti-inflammatory, antirheumatic and analgesic properties.

Gaultheria procumbens also has wildlife value – the leaves and fruits will be consumed in the winter by various animals such as wild turkey, red fox, northern bobwhite, pheasant, eastern chipmunk….not to mention that the pollinators are indulging in its flowers in the spring.

Bumble bee on Gaultheria procumbens

Propagation: by seeds, cuttings, divisions.

Note: Gaultheria honors Jean-Francois Gaulthier – physician and botanist in the French colony of Quebec in mid-17th.



Sarracenia purpurea flower with the specific umbrella shaped style

Vegetal carnivores

Taking a good revenge on the carnivorous world, a few groups of plants decided to adapt to eating ‘meat’. At Singing Sands in Bruce Peninsula National Park you can easily spot a few of them: Sarracenia purpurea ssp. purpurea – Pitcher plant, Drosera linearis and Utricularia cornuta.

 Sarracenia purpurea – Purple pitcher plant, grows in specific wetlands habitats of North America and employs the strategy of ‘pitfall trap’ for catching insects, beetles, slugs and even frogs in its pitchers, where they are then digested by plant enzymes. Both the pitchers-like leaves and the flowers are highly ornamental and the Sarracenias (various species and hybrids) are widely used in bog and damp woodland gardens and conservatories.

 The best time to see it in flower is end of June- beginning of July when the whole area around the fen boardwalk at Singing Sands is covered by Sarracenia and Rose pogonia – Pogonia ophioglossoides.


The genus name commemorates Michel Sarrazin (1659-1735), French naturalist and surgeon who made the first collection of Sarracenia purpurea from Quebec.


Sarracenia purpurea is a highly variable species and generally two subspecies are recognized: subsp. purpurea – grows in formerly glaciated areas of North America and subsp. venosa, which grows only in unglaciated areas.


Wild populations of Sarracenia purpurea are threaten by the decline of wetland habitats, and also by horticultural poaching, reasons why Sarracenia purpurea subsp. purpurea is listed now on Appendix II of CITES.


Sarracenia purpurea is the provincial flower emblem of Newfoundland and Labrador, where it grows widely in bogs and barrens.


Primula parryi detail

Rock treasures from Wasatch Mountains

The nice thing about Snowbird is that if you are short on time, the Aerial Tram from the Snowbird Centre it will take you up to the Hidden Peak situated at 11,000 ft. in no time. This will give you plenty of time to take pictures and botanize around. From there, one option is to explore on the trail towards the East Twin Peak. The whole ridge looks like a crevice garden planted with species adapted to the harsh environment, all of them real rock treasures.

Crevice 'garden'

Among these, Hymenoxys grandiflora – Old Man of the Mountain (Asteraceae), is an alpine that cannot be missed. Flower stems range from a few inches tall to 10 inches and the big yellow flower heads, are said to face east almost always. Stems and leaves are dense hairy green. Phlox hoodii – Carpet or Hood’s phlox (Polemoniaceae), is a miniature phlox growing on dry, rocky slopes from mid to high-elevations. It forms compact clumps, 6 – 8 inches high, with white to lilac flowers. The leaves are sharply pointed and woolly pubescent. It blooms from May to July depending on elevation.  

Another very bright alpine plant, Eriogonum umbellatumSulphur flowered buckwheat (Crucifereae) – grows about 12 to 14 inches tall and has flowers that are cream to bright, sulphur yellow at the top of sturdy stems.  Leaves are glabrate, green above and pubescent beneath. Although very well known, we are always happy to meet Silene acaulis. The Moss campion (Caryophyllaceae)is usually the special reward for those who climb to the mountain tops, both in North America and Europe. It is a low, densely matted, cushion-like perennial generally less than 2 inches tall. The stems are woody and densely covered with short needle-like leaves. They flower from July to August producing a multitude of small pink blossoms.

Hiking down from the Hidden Peak, in the Little Cloud Bowl, there was still a lot of snow, but we rummaged between rocks and snow knowing that we must find there an elusive Primula: Primula parryi. Parry’s primrose (Primulaceae) is a rather rare alpine beauty that likes to have wet roots, so it is often found in snow-melt areas, alpine streamsides above 10,000 ft. elevation. The thick leaves are disposed in rosettes and supposedly have an unpleasant aroma (that we didn’t noticed). The flowers are a bright magenta colour with yellow centers, produced on a sturdy stem up to 12 inches tall.

A few other interesting alpines presented in the gallery: Androsace septentrionalis, Anemone multifida and Antennaria microphylla. But these are really just a few plant portraits from an area extremely rich in wildflowers, well worth of an alpine ‘escapade’ at the end of July or in August, when there’ll be probably more chances to collect some seeds too.

More plant images are presented in the next posts – Highlights from the Wasatch Mountains.





Ranunculus adoneus

Highlights from Wasatch Mountains

 Just a few more  plant images from our trip to Snowbird in the Wasatch Mountains, Utah.