a plant i’d order: jeffersonia diphylla

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.

sources for twinleaf and more

  1. Having gardened in several countries, I find Latin names come in handy in buying/identifying plants as common names can differ greatly. And the names sound so cool. Informational post, thanks.

  2. John says:

    Margaret, I’ve also planted Twinleaf and everything you say is true, especially about the emerging leaves. However, the flowers almost define ephemeral. They are very quick to vanish. If I had to choose between the two Jeffersonias then dubia would win hands down. It has many of the traits of the diphylla but it’s a more refined plant (think Anemonella) and has one of the prettiest purple flowers in the whole flower kingdom. You can see one of mine from last year at http://macgardens.org/?p=2307.

  3. Abbie Zabar says:

    Jeffersonia dubia is one of the most charming little ground covers in my urban rooftop garden, which grows in containers. My favorite sight – even more wonderful than after the flowers open – will always be the little bobs of purple/pink dots of flower buds floating on thin wiry stems above their leaves. I buy pots of this highly desirable woodland charmer at the Plant Sale of the Manhattan Chapter of North American Rock Garden Society, (via very generous donors). Their Annual McNARGS Plant Sale, featuring ‘Uncommon Plants for City Folk,’ will be Sunday, April 29, from 10AM – 1PM @ El Sol Brillante Community Garden, 522-528 12 St. (between Avenue A &B). If you’re there, soon as they unlock the gates, there might be some pots of this little treasure still available. Otherwise, check out the other goodies. This is definitely one of the best Plant Sales open to the public.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Abbie, and thanks for the first-hand endorsement of J. dubia — and the info on the plant sale. What a treasure chest it sounds like. I should drive south… :)

  4. Benjamin says:

    I also love twinleaf. I can vouch for its hardiness in my 4a/b (depending on how closely you look at the map) Vermont woods, where I have it under a common witch hazel and nuzzling up against tricyrtis hirta and european ginger.

    1. margaret says:

      Very helpful, Benjamin…so many sources say Zone 5-7, but New England Wildflower Society says 4-9 (!!!) and so on — and I have never tested it north of 5, myself. :)

  5. Al says:

    I love this plant and has begun colonizing for me.
    And who couldn’t love the foliage afterwards!! (sigh)
    J. Dubia- Broken Arrow Nursery carries it.

  6. Deborah Banks says:

    I have the J. diphylla in my zone 4 garden also, although it hasn’t been as cold here the past 4 or 5 years. My clump is only 3 or 4 years old, and still looking tentative for me (no colonizing yet). I got it the same time as my Cornus canadensis (bunchberry). I thought the C. canadensis was the most risky of the purchases, but it has actually settled in nicely and is spreading a bit. No blooms yet though.

  7. maryellen says:

    Love Jeffersonia! I too grow diphylla but am thrilled to hear about dubia (thanks, John). I’m in zone 7 of the Mid-Atlantic; after a lackluster start, it’s settled in nicely by the hellebores, and I’ll add a trillium or two this year. Good to know that it performs well in containers.

  8. Benjamin says:

    Actually, I had forgotten I have the slightly hardier-rated jeffersonia dubia, not diphylla. It took some surprising blue flowers to remind me!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Franky. In the left-hand navigation under EDIBLE PLANTS — click there and then click HERBS that will show up next…and browse through that archive.

  9. Lynda says:

    I had it in mind to run out and find this plant… and then I ran out to look at my trillium and found this plant! Somehow, the twinleaf got planted with the trillium. It must have gotten mixed in from the grower. What a wonderful surprise! ;)

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