Wildflowers are one of my favorite subjects. The abundance of spring wildflowers in Maine brings me many hours of enjoyment. Here are a couple of wildflowers with similar petal structures, prefering the same sort of woodland habitats, although they are from unrelated families. Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica,) pictured above, is from the Portulaca family and grows from an edible, nutty flavored corm.
I find the fine purple veining of the petals very beautiful. These grow on our farm in many places, especially along the banks of Martin Stream, a small river. The seeds of Spring Beauty include elaiosomes much as Dutchman’s Breeches’ seeds. Ants eat this fleshy part of the seed cover and disburse the seeds by adding them to their underground waste piles.
Wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia,) also called Nightcaps, in the photo above, are from the buttercup family. These lovely little white to pinkish-white flowering plants form large colonies in our woodlands. The anemones spread by underground rhizomes, are quite sensitive to habitat change and die out easily. Their petals are actually sepals.
Finding a spread of anemone in the woods, a carpet of green and white against the brown winter leaves, is magical. A perfect place to seek for tiny elves and woodland fairies.
In mid-May we are treated to the annual display of the Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) wildflower. Aptly named for the shape of the flower, the plant is a relative of Bleeding Hearts and in the same family as opium poppies. All parts of the Dutchman’s Breeches plant are poisonous, containing toxic alkaloids with narcotic effects. Another name for this plant is Staggerweed. Cattle and horses ingesting the plant develop staggering, tremors and convulsions, although not usually life-threatening unless there is repeated exposure. Sheep appear to be unaffected by the plant’s toxicity.
If you don’t try to eat this plant, it is very easy to enjoy its beauty. The delicate little white pantaloons dangle from racemes about 8″ long. The feathery, fern-like leaves are very decorative. The plant is fragile and will die out if the habitat is disturbed.
On our farm, Dutchman’s Breeches grow along the banks of Martin Stream, a small river that meanders for about one-half mile through the property. Every year the stream floods, covering the area where the breeches grow with a foot or more of water. A thin layer of sand is deposited, creating a perfect habitat for the plant.
Dutchman’s Breeches like moist, fertile, shady places. The seeds are disbursed by ants who prefer to nest in sandy spots. The photo at right is of a beaver dam on Martin Stream. The river is about thirty feet across at the dam. Dutchman’s Breeches are visible in the lower right hand corner.
The plant produces an edible, fleshy growth on each seed called an elaisome. Ants love this food and carry the seeds to their nests where they consume the elaisomes and discard the seeds in their waste piles. The seeds have a perfect situation: underground burial on the fertilizer of ant waste. The plants emerge from small bulblets and are perennial. The flower nectar is deep inside each bloom. Insects with long proboscises such as bumble bees pollinate them.
Dutchman Breeches grow in spreading colonies and can carpet an area. Stumbling upon such a place on a spring walk is truly an uplifting experience.
The two major early wildflowers found in our woods are in full bloom. Trillium and trout lilies spread throughout the shady undergrowth, providing a perennial show. Trillium are named for their three maroon petals. Trout lilies have mottled leaves that resemble the side of a fish. The lilies are also called dog toothed violets, why, I’m not sure.
The lilies grow in huge communities, carpeting the forest. Clumps of trillium occur with three or more stems in a bunch, one flower per stem. Some trillium bunches become large, expanding around the parent. Others grow in solitary clumps.
Trillium are known as Stinking Benjamin due to the scent of the flowers. They smell like carrion and must pollinate via the flies that breed on the dead. As children we would dare each other to smell the flowers. Now-a-days I know better, they are foul in odor. But, very pretty to look at and one of the constants of spring.