look closer at spring wildflowers, with carol gracie

Dutchman's breeches photo by Carol GracieONE OF SPRING’S TREATS besides the shift in weather is the chance to see native wildflowers–on hikes in wild spaces, or simply cultivated stands of them in our gardens. The acclaimed naturalist Carol Gracie looks beyond the surface beauty of trilliums and trout lilies, baneberry and blue cohosh and such—into their life histories, their lore, and even their cultural uses.  Take an intimate tour with us, and maybe win her book, “Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: a Natural History.”

Carol, a former longtime educator at the New York Botanical Garden who also worked for the Nature Conservancy, says her own intense curiosity about plants such as Dutchman’s breeches (top photo) is what fuels her endless explorations.

Enter to win a copy of “Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast” from Princeton University Press (Amazon affiliate link) at the bottom of the page—and get the link to the podcast of the radio segment from my weekly show that this interview comes from, and how to subscribe.

my wildflower q&a with carol gracie

k9668Q. The subheadline of the book is “A Natural History,” and I’d like explain what that means–because as you have reminded me your first connection to the plants is not as a backyard gardener, or a nursery owner or the like.

A. The natural history part is what role these plants play in their environment. I think almost anybody can appreciate their beauty, but they’re not just there for us to look at, but to play an important role for their pollinators, or their [seed] dispersal agents. They have a very particular niche they fill, especially in our Northeast forests.

By Northeast, I don’t mean just New England, but the entire northeast quarter of our country—out to Ohio, and down to Virginia or so, and extending into Canada.

Q. Let’s start by setting the scene a bit: what kind of habitats do spring wildflowers occur in?  Where did you find yourself “botanizing,” to create the book? (I know you have a botanist husband, and refer to your trips that way.)

A. When we go on vacation that’s what we do—a busman’s holiday. I go to forests, because I’m looking for spring wildflowers. These are plants that evolved with a forested environment—almost all of the Eastern part of the country was forested before the colonists came.

These plants had to evolve with a dark canopy. In order to photosynthesize, they had to take advantage of the small period when there is enough warmth and sunlight so that their leaves can absorb the sunlight, and produce food for the plant, and in the case of our spring ephemerals, store it in their underground portions until next spring, when they do it all again.

Q. They only get one chance—I think of them as real opportunists, who really take advantage of that small window of light.

A. Especially with the ones that do disappear underground, the true ephemerals, it’s sort of a “live fast, die young” philosophy, but they don’t actually die. Their underground portions are there; they’re perennial plants.

Q. Each of the wildflowers, including the true ephemerals–or any flowering plant–has to have a way to get pollinated, or otherwise reproduce, and colonize to survive. Can you give us some examples?

A. One good example is the Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria); Hepatica is another.

To be a true ephemeral, a plant like Dutchman’s breeches has to go through its whole above-ground life history within about a month. You can find the leaves coming up in the first or second week of April in our Northeastern area. They have very delicate leaves, and don’t look as though they could survive the early spring cold nights, but they do.

Very quickly, within maybe a week after the leaves are up, the plant flowers—and as the name implies, they look like little clotheslines full of Dutchman’s pantaloons hung upside-down to dry. They’re very picturesque; creamy white with a bright yellow base.

Once the flowers have bloomed, and gotten pollinated, they form fruit, and the fruit splits open and spread the seeds, and then the leaves start to yellow and wither, and then they’re gone.

Q. Around then the forest canopy above is leafing out, so there wouldn’t be any sunlight to use anyway, meaning why stay “awake?” Interesting. Who pollinates them?

A. They have a very special relationship with bumblebees, and in particular the queen bumblebees, because at that time of year those are the only bumblebees flying about. You may see larger or smaller ones, but that just means there are different species. These native bumblebees are very important to spring wildflowers and also to summer ones, and even to our gentians, for instance, in the fall.

After hibernating alone all winter under leaves or bark, the already mated female is ready to lay eggs. She’s looking both for nectar for herself, and also for pollen to provision her nest. That’s what her larvae will feed on.

She’s almost always seen flying low looking for a nesting site, or for the low-growing little flowers of the forest floor.

Fig. 16_Sanguinaria_canadensis_bee_UChQ. How does she find the right plants?

A. She’s not attracted by aroma—but by the contrasting bright color of the flower. And she has a proboscis, or tongue, that’s perfectly suited to reach inside those Dutchman’s breeches flowers with those very long spurs to get at the nectar. In the process she gets dusted with pollen that she takes to the next flower, pollinating it and thereby providing service to the plant. [Above photo is a bee in bloodroot flower; bumblebee in Dutchman’s breeches is at top of the page.]

Q. Carol, even as many times as you have seen and thought about these intricate relationships, isn’t it still amazing?

A. Yes, every year I think that. I often wonder how long it took for that evolution to occur.

Fig. 98_Ant_Dicentra_cucullaria_seed_SSQ. You used the phrase “dispersal agents” earlier, and in the book I saw some photos of these wildflower and their relationships with ants.

A. That’s a very common means of seed dispersal with our spring ephemerals—of moving the seed. It’s always an advantage for the plant to get the seed away from the parent plant. They’ll both be protected if something happens to the original colony—if a tree falls on it, or if clearing happens in one spot.

It may even prove to find a better habitat for the plant to grow.

Plants such as bloodroot [photo above], trillium, and violets use something to attract the ants called an elaiosome, which is a lipid-rich or fat-rich body attached to the seed.  It has no other real important role. The ants do not chew off that elaiosome when they first find it, but carry it back to their nest first. Then after eating the fatty rich part, they will discard the seed someplace nearby, which is often a very rich area because of all that debris—so it’s a good place for that seed to grow.

caulophyllum blue cohoshQ. It reminds me of how some birds eat the fleshy parts around some seeds that are said to be poisonous, then disperse it elsewhere when they excrete it.

A. Yes. One very deceptive trick that a spring wildflower plays like that is the seed with a bright blue seed coat produced by the blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) [photo of plant emerging in spring, above]. The bird mistakes it for a berry but gets no real nutritive value from it, but does disperse it for the plant as it’s migrating further south in fall, when the fruits are also ready.

Q. I read in your book that some wildflowers have animal helpers at the other extreme of size—including turtles!

A. The box turtles, which are sadly also in decline, are the principle dispersal agents for Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) and also for Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).

Both of those fruits are very poisonous when unripe, but the box turtle waits until the fruit is perfectly ripe.

Remember: That fruit is developing a foot off the ground–so how does the turtle get to it? He can’t stand on his hind legs! It turns out that at that time of year the leaf stalk is getting very weak, and the fruit is heavy, so it topples the plant right over.

Now, you don’t think of a box turtle as moving very far or very fast, but it also has a very slow rate of digestion. So between the time it eats the seed and excretes the seed, it can be 100 yards or more from where that plant was.

prefer the podcast?

CAROL GRACIE and I talked wildflowers on the latest radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The March 24, 2014 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.

enter to win the wildflower book

1defba962c620ad8956ec0.L._V134563977_I’LL BUY AN EXTRA COPY of Carol Gracie’s “Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History” (Amazon affiliate link) for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments below [update: this giveaway is closed]:

Are any native American woodland wildflowers a part of your springtime garden?

I enjoy some trillium, Virginia bluebells, twinleaf, blue cohosh, baneberry and violets (or at least that’s what comes to mind right now, when all I can still see is snow outside).

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like, “Count me in,” and I will, but sharing an answer is even better.

I’ll pick a winner after entries close at midnight Monday, March 31, 2016. Good luck to all.

(Photos except blue cohosh courtesy of Carol Gracie.)

  1. Katy Emanuel says:

    We have slowly been reintroducing wild flowers into our ravine area and so far have added both white and purple trilliums, monkey flowers, mayapple, wild ginger as well as various ferns. We are hoping to expand this and add some cohosh, and goldenseal this year as they are plants that are in decline.

  2. Martha says:

    We have lots of white trillium, a few red trillium, hepatica, violets, may apple, Jack in the Pulpit, blue cohosh, solomon’s seal, trout lily and???? Love them all!

  3. Mary Girard says:

    I love my wildflowers and I’m gradually building a collection in the bush at the edge of our property…hepatica, violets, wild ginger, may apples, trout lily, trillium, columbine…I love them all!!

  4. Marjorie Demarest says:

    I enjoy the early arrivals. The bloodroot, trout lilies, Virginia bluebells, and trillium are so welcome after a long snowy winter.

  5. Barbara O'Brien says:

    Violets are in my garden … and I just love them! So dainty and such a beautiful color!

  6. Maryanne Cain says:

    Presently my garden is under several inches of ice. Still it is nice to imagine my wildflowers returning soon; like old friends. Even remembering and writing their names gives me pleasure. Here they are: Blood root, Virginia Bluebells, Virginia wet leaf, Mayflowers, Wild ginger, Solomen Seal, Bell wort, Wild leek, Violets yellow , white and blue, Trillium, Jack in the Pulpit, Dutch Man’s britches, Blue Cohosh, Ladies slippers, Hepatica, Colts foot, Skunk cabbage, Ostridge fern. Hurry up Spring!

  7. Connie Etter says:

    I am kind of a flower collector :) I love walking in my woods to see what new is coming up. Planted in my woods and gardens. Blood root, white trillium, virginia bluebells, Hepatica, Royal Catchfly, Indian Pink, violets, Dutchmanns Breches, Squirrel Corn and Celandina Poppy.

    I would love to win the beautiful book!

    (Ps. I didn’t know the part about the Queen- Thank you for the education)

  8. Laurie says:

    I’m trying to convert my yard with native plants to support our local wildlife. The more information I can find on native plants for the northeast, the better!

  9. Michelle Rines says:

    trillium comes up in my garden every year…and when I walk in nearby woods, I see lots of lady slippers ;)

  10. Sara says:

    Have always loved the wildflowers. In the Berkshires you can see so many more than I can in Connecticut. Have been luck to find a Nursery that sells the wildflowers grown by reputable nurseries.

  11. Mary says:

    My spring garden includes red trillium, Virginia bluebells, Mayapple and bloodroot….and this year, even a Jack in the Pulpit (he doesn’t show every year, not sure why)……….my thanks, Mary

  12. EVELYN GEROWE says:


  13. Velta Maija Zegel says:

    Among my spring native plants are: Baptisia, Columbine, Solomon’s Seal, Indian Physic, Tiarella, Amsonia, Swamp Azalea, ,Swamp Milkweed and Green and Gold- a rescue. I have always loved native plants. One of my favorite jobs was working in the NYBG Native Plant Garden. I now live in NC and frequent the Chapel Hill Native Plant Garden.

  14. Jill Menendez says:

    I grow native columbine, Solomon’s seal, Virginia bluebells, twin leaf, Jacob’s ladder and jack-in-the-pulpit. I also have asarum canadense, milkweed and anemone canadense.

  15. Dyann Hathaway says:

    I have discovered jack-in the-pulpit, columbine, wild geranium, solomon’s seal, false lily of the valley, and little pinkish-white anemone-like flowers. I’ve seen trillium leaves, but not the flowers. Occasional I spot lady’s slipper.

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