Every blog, website, magazine, and guidebook dealing with the outdoors has a section warning you of the terrible toxic weeds poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. There are always pictures. And yet when I go out in the woods with people I find that many (if not most) people really don’t know what to look out for and end up being afraid of perfectly harmless plants.
Common mullein is just that. Common. You’ve seen this everywhere from old fields to vacant lots. It is an introduced plant, originally from Europe, and can sometimes spread heavily in disturbed, weedy areas.
Also known as Wild Sweet William, Wild Blue Phlox is a favorite spring wildflower gives bright splashes of color to the woodlands. Growing best in the dappled shade of the woodland borders and preferring well drained ground, you often see Blue Phlox decorating the edges of trails.
Of course the name of this plant always makes me smile. My name is Ginger, of course, so Wild Ginger just sounds so…wild and fun and rather appealing. This plant is not really a ginger like the root we use in cooking. That is Zingiber officinale and only grows in the tropics. Our native Wild Ginger is actually called Asarum canadense. But it gets its name from the spicy roots that have been used medicinally.
Down underneath the leaf litter of the forest floor the basal leaves of Pussy Toes begin to peek through. You start to notice these rosettes of silvery green leaves. Soon you see there are buds poking through and pushing up on a stalk. After a week or so you begin to see where Pussy Toes gets its name. The little flowers on the ends of the stalks are a bit fuzzy and resemble the little toes of kittens.
The spring-blooming violets capture the romantic imagination of poets and songwriters. Growing in well-drained yet fairly moist areas in the hills of the Ozarks, there are dozens of different species and variations. You will see violets that are blue, purple, lavender, white, and yellow. Some are bicolored. Some are striped. Many have little fuzzy beards in the throat of the flower.
In the moist forest floor along river valleys in the Ozarks, at the same time you begin to see the Virginia Bluebells blooming, you can also find Yellow Fumewort. A member of the same family as Dutchman’s Breeches, Corydalis flavula is a small spring ephemeral plant…
In the spring among the Spring Beauties and the Rue Anemones I started to notice single boat-shaped leaves that were a dusty green with brown mottling. None were blooming so I had to wait to see what they were. Sure enough, the next week I started seeing this striking flower above the foliage. Trout Lily is a rather unattractive name for such a pretty flower, I think. But it must refer to the mottled leaves.
In the very early spring you often see small white flowers with pink veins called Spring Beauties. They don’t last long peeking through last year’s leaves on the forest floor. Some flowers have more pink than others, with many being nearly pure white. The medium green leaves are thin blades like grass but are more fleshy and thick.
These are really a nice flower. They’re tough as nails and grow on the scruffy edges of roads and on glades where it’s dry. The foliage is subtle and lies below the large blue flat-faced flowers held on single stems coming from the center of the plant. The flowers are larger than you would expect from the foliage. The leaves, by the way, are where this plant gets its common name, Bird’s Foot Violet. Because the leaves are forked like a bird’s foot.
During our Spring Break trip to the St. Francois Mountains, we couldn’t resist going to see Taum Sauk Mountain and hiking the trail down to see Mina Sauk Falls. The trail goes down the face of an igneous glade in full sun. The footing was a bit treacherous and my knees were tired from hikes earlier in the week. I took a moment’s rest on a ledge about midway down and was quite pleased to see this plant.
Hiking quickly up a hill near a river, trying to avoid sliding into the mud, I looked down and saw this slightly bluish wildlower and assumed it was a Rue Anemone. I reached down to snap a picture and then moved on. When I got back home and looked that the pictures I was stunned to see this plant had interesting mottled tri-lobed leaves that looked like they’d already lived through a winter. What I had seen was actually Roundlobe Hepatica, or Hepatica americana.
There is the term “shy violet”, which would suggest that a violet is quiet and unobtrusive. Well this cousin of the violet, the Field Pansy, is even more quiet. Yet is seems to be everywhere. Take a walk in a field in late March or April and watch your feet. In between the dandelions and dead nettle are these little pale lavender flowers. They don’t grow in thick patches, rather you’ll just find them sprinkled here and there. And here and there. And seemingly everywhere. Once you spot them you wonder how you missed seeing there were so many of them!
Virginia Bluebells, also known as Mertensia virginica are a spring ephemeral. That means the plant grows in the spring but doesn’t last through the summer. The foliage will die back by midsummer and the plant will go dormant. This strategy is common in spring plants and serves to protect them from the harsh dry conditions of late summer on the forest floor.
On the forest floor in the spring we know to look for pretty, delicate little wildflowers like Rue Anemone or bright patches of color like Virginia Bluebell. But there is a quiet and subtle wildflower that charms me with its geometric symmetry and patterning. It’s the group of flowers known as Trillium. During my hike this week on the Sac River Trail the Trillium that’s blooming is the one known as Toadshade, or Trillium sessile. A rather awful sounding name, I think, but it does grow in the damp forest shade where you might expect to see a little toad hopping around.
We always think of cactus as growing in the desert of the American West. So it’s sometimes a shock for people to find these fairly large cacti growing happily in the Ozarks. We have lots of rain here, and we have hard winters!
The last few springs I’ve noticed these sweet little light yellow flowers but never could find out what they are. That’s because I thought they were an Allium, a member of the onion family. And I’m not the first person to make this mistake because the common name is False Garlic. In reality, Nothoscordum bivalve is a member of Lilaceae, the lily family.
I must admit that I’m partial to blue flowers and they always catch my eye. Even when they’re so tiny that nobody else ever sees them. And this is the case with the Least Bluet. They grow in full sun and I typically see them on the wet gloppy part of a glade, in between the stones. These Bluets are quite uniform in appearance, being all the same size and all the same color and all the same height in any given location. They’re tiny. About 3/8″ across standing on stems about 2″ in height.
This is the spring wildflower I always love to see because of the common name, Bloodroot. It just sounds so morbid. Indeed, if you break the tuberous root of this plant the sap is a bright blood red-orange color. The botanical name is Sanguinaria canadensis, which alludes to its blood-like qualities.The pure white flower has 8-12 petals around yellow anthers, often in a double row.
Everywhere you look in early spring you will see this little delicate flower. Rue Anemone is found in woodlands blooming about the same time as the redbud trees. Most of the time it’s white or very light pink, but sometimes you can find one that’s a more pronounced pink. The flowers are both single and often have a double row of petals.
What a pretty little yellow flower! It’s called Common Goldstar and the scientific name is Hypoxis hirsuta. “Hirsuta” means hairy and you can see little hairs on the buds of this specimen. According to Missouri Plants, the amount of hair on the plant can be quite variable. I didn’t see a lot of these, but reference suggest it is quite common and can even invade lawns. The flowers are about an inch across and the leaves are grass-like. I found this on a glade near Taum Sauk Mountain.
This little gem grows all over the forest floor in the very early spring when the redbud is just starting and the spicebush is coming out. It’s sort of small, about 8-10″ high and has white flowers that are tinged with pink at times. Note how each flower has only four petals. The leaves make the common name of Cutleaf Toothwort quite obvious. The botanical name for it, by the way, is Cardamine concantenata.