IT PUSHES UP OUT of the ground all crazy-colored and not green, the way some of my favorite early-arising native woodlanders do presumably to disguise themselves from hungry awakening herbivores. And then Jeffersonia diphylla, or twinleaf, proceeds to distinguish itself in other ways, too. Put it right alongside the pathway so you can appreciate all its aspects up-close:
First, as mentioned, the purple-ish fresh growth (from the pigments called anthocyanins, remember?); then its dramatic darker stems, and the two-part leaves (hence the species name diphylla), with the subtle white flowers that often hide among them (and shatter in the slightest upsets of weather, lasting maybe a day or two), and later the curious-looking seedpods that form, promising to sow a colony in time.
Jeffersonia—named by our first botanist, John Bartram, to honor the third President—likes average to moist, humus-rich soil and part shade to shade, such as a deciduous woodland. I have it under Aralia spinosa, the woody devil’s walking stick (another nearby native, but I planted it here in the garden) and it’s finally beginning to really colonize and move. Hooray. Its bloom almost overlaps that of the red-flowered wake-robin or Trillium erectum, which I have alongside (but twinleaf gets started and finished faster).
Its native range, says the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, is New York and southern Ontario to Wisconsin, and northeast Iowa to Maryland, also appearing in the mountains from Georgia to Tennessee. Depending whom you ask, twinleaf is hardy in Zone 4 or 5 to 7 or 8.
The New England Wildflower Society’s Garden in the Woods, in Framingham, Massachusetts, was the first place I saw it in profusion, though it is apparently not technically a New England native proper.
An unexpected taxonomic twist that I always almost forget about twinleaf: Jeffersonia, like its cousin Epimedium, is in the Barberry family, or Berberidaceae. So is blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), Diphylleia cymosa, and Vancouveria—other woodland perennials that I enjoy in springtime here, and others that I don’t grow, such as mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum). You might expect Mahonia, the various shrubby, blue-fruited things commonly called Oregon-grape, to be related to Barberry…but these others? Fascinating. But then, I like all that botanical Latin and taxonomy stuff, you know. (Now was that so painful to learn?)
And another odd little detail: The only other Jeffersonia there is hails from Asian woodlands, not American. It’s Jeffersonia dubia, or you can see it here, too. Might have to get myself some to keep its cousin company.