Bloodroot

In spite of the weather whiplash we’ve experienced since late February, spring wildflowers are slowly, cautiously beginning to emerge and bloom.  One of the first spring blossoms I saw this season was Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

The sight of this stunning white blossom holding its face up to the sun was especially welcome after a snowy, chilly March.

With each sunny day more flower shoots make their way through their winter blanket of fallen leaves.  As Bloodroot emerges, it leads with a flower stem, each one wrapped by a single leaf.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) emerging from its winter blanket of leaves

The flowers open as the temperatures warm, advertising their presence to early flying pollinators.  The veins in the pure white petals, contrasted with the yellow stamens surrounding the pistil in the center of the flower make a perfect target for foraging pollinators.  The stamens are the male reproductive parts, the pistils are the female reproductive parts.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

The most likely flower visitors are early flying bees or flies that can tolerate low temperatures.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) with Bee

Each plant species evolves to utilize its energy to maximize the chances of survival and reproduction.  Like Hepatica and some other early spring flowers, Bloodroot’s strategy is to produce an enticing floral display whose only reward is pollen;  the flowers don’t produce nectar.  This works, because pollen is an important food source for many of the insects active at this time of year.  Bees consume pollen, and female bees also collect it to feed their larvae.  Flies and beetles visit flowers for their nutritious pollen.  Not many of the insects that prefer nectar, like butterflies, are active at the time Bloodroot is blooming, so there would be little added benefit in offering it.

As unpredictable as spring weather is, even the hardiest insects may not always be available in the short window of time a Bloodroot flower is open for business.  Each flower remains open for about three days, closing at night and on rainy days to protect its pollen when insects are unlikely to be active.

When a Bloodroot flower opens, its stigma, located at the tip of the pistil, is receptive.  Pollen must be deposited on the stigma in order for pollination to occur. At this time, the stamens are curved away from the stigma to clear the way for an insect’s access to the receptive stigma, hopefully bringing pollen.

Newly open Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) flower, in the female phase

After a few hours, some of the anthers, located at the tips of the stamens, begin to dehisce, or open, making pollen available.  The remaining anthers open gradually over the three-day period that Bloodroot flowers are typically open. The continuing separation of the anthers from the stigma helps minimize the likelihood of self-pollination.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) flower with some of the anthers open to make pollen available

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) flower. Notice the pollen around the edges of the anthers where they have opened to make pollen available.

If after three days the flower has not been pollinated with the assistance of an insect, the stamens will begin to curve inward toward the center of the flower. The anthers touch the stigma, depositing the pollen.  In Bloodroot’s world, it’s better to self-pollinate to ensure reproduction than not to reproduce at all.  The flower drops its petals within hours of pollination.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) flower with some of the anthers beginning to curve back towards the stigma to enable self-pollination

After pollination, the thick, almost succulent leaves that protected the flower stem gradually open, expand, and capture energy from the sun for several more weeks.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) leaf in late spring. the leaf will continue to photosynthesize for much of the summer.

Pollinated flowers produce a fruit capsule that develops under the protection of the expanding leaves.  The capsule splits open when it’s ripe, making the seeds inside available for dispersal.  Like many early spring blooming wildflowers, Bloodroot has evolved to partner with animals, in this case ants, to disperse its seeds.  Each seed has  a packet of food called an elaiosome attached.  The elaiosome’s chemical make-up mimics the nutrition of insects, a preferred food for ants.  The ants take the seeds to their homes, where they eat the elaiosome and discard the seed, effectively planting it.

Both the common name, Bloodroot, and the genus, Sanguinaria, refer to the color of the sap found in the plants’ foliage and rhizomes (the plants’ underground parts).  This sap contains chemicals with a narcotic effect that Bloodroot produces to protect itself from herbivores. This is a common and highly effective strategy of the Poppy (Paperaceae) family, of which Bloodroot is a member.  As a result, Bloodroot does well even where there is serious deer pressure.

Native Americans have used Bloodroot for many medicinal purposes.  One of the chemical constituents of Bloodroot, sanguinarine, has also been used commercially in toothpaste and mouthwash to help prevent gingivitis. The red sap is also used as a dye.

Bloodroot can be found in rich, deciduous woods throughout much of the eastern two-thirds of the United States and Canada.  Look for it and other spring wildflowers along a wooded trail near you!

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Related Posts

Hepatica’s Survival Strategy

A Carpet of Spring Beauty, Woven by… Ants!

A Tale of Two Spring Beauties

Dutchman’s Breeches and Squirrel Corn

Resources

Eastman, John.  The Book of Forest and Thicket.  1992.

Gracie, Carol.  Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast. 2012.

Hoffmann, David.  Medical Herbalism.  2003.

Illinois Wildflowers

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Native American Ethnobotany Database

 

 

 

Bewitching Witch-hazel

It’s well into December, and American Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is still in bloom, brightening our winter shade garden and the woodland understory.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in bloom, with open fruit capsules

The flowers are arranged in clusters, usually in threes.  Each flower has four long, spidery, streamer-like petals.  In the center of the flowers, you can see other flower parts that also come in fours.  Four stamens (male reproductive parts) are tucked in between the petals, protected from below by the four sepals that protected the flower until it was ready to open.  The pistils (female reproductive parts) can be seen in the very center of the flowers.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) flower beginning to bloom. The anthers have not yet open to release pollen.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) flower beginning to bloom. The anthers have opened to release pollen.

Even though Witch-hazel blooms when the weather is cooler, it relies primarily on insects for pollination.  Various fly species are the most frequent flower visitors. This is not too surprising, since many flies are active at fairly low temperatures. Several species of bees, small wasps, moths and even beetles have also been documented as potential Witch-hazel pollinators.  They are attracted by the color of the petals, a mild (to me, at least) fragrance, and the fact that there is not much else in bloom.  If the weather doesn’t cooperate and not enough insects are active, witch-hazel is capable of self-pollination, although cross-pollination with the assistance of an insect is preferred, since this produces a stronger genetic result.  Fertilization is delayed until spring, after which fruits begin to develop.

Even during and after our first snowstorm of the season with about 5 inches of wet snow, these tough little flowers hung on, looking as fresh as ever.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), still blooming in spite of the snow.

Such tenacity can pay off.  While looking at the flower photos that I took during the storm, I found a moth taking refuge on a branch near the flowers, waiting for the temperatures to warm up enough to become active and search for nectar.  That little moth could make a nice snack for a Chickadee and Titmouse searching the seemingly baren winter branches.

A moth sheltering on Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) during a December snow storm.

The flowers are accompanied by fruit capsules that look like small flowers carved from wood. These fruit capsules are the product of the previous year’s successfully pollinated flowers.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in bloom, with open fruit capsules

In early October, as the leaves began to turn from green to yellow, the fruit capsules and flower buds were still tightly closed.  As this season’s flowers began to bloom, the fruit capsules opened explosively, ejecting the seeds several feet away.  The seeds will wait through two winters before they germinate.  Ruffed Grouse, Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, as well as some rabbits and squirrels eat the fruit.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in early fall, with fruit capsules and flower buds still tightly closed

Witch-hazel is well-known for its use as an astringent and anti-inflammatory agent.  You may have a bottle in your medicine cabinet now.  Witch-hazel is used to treat wounds and hemorrhoids, and it’s an ingredient in some cosmetics.  It acts as a styptic to stop bleeding, and reduces bruising and inflammation.  It also helps reduce the chances of infection.

It’s not by accident that Witch-hazel has these properties.  The tannins found in the leaves and inner bark of Witch-hazel provide these benefits.  Witch-hazel produces these compounds as protection from herbivores, and to inhibit the growth of fungi and bacteria that might be harmful to the plant.  Fortunately for us, humans can also benefit.

The tannins are not 100% successful in deterring herbivores.  There are some insects that specialize on Witch-hazel as their source of food, including the caterpillars of several moth species.  There are also two aphid species that produce eye-catching galls. (A gall is a growth that is the plant’s reaction to being used as a source of food and shelter by an organism such as an insect, fungus or bacteria. Galls seldom cause any harm to the plant, and they may stimulate the plant to produce more protective chemicals.)

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in bloom, with spiny Witch-hazel bud galls

The spiny witch-hazel bud gall aphid (Hamamelistes spinosus) is named for the appearance of the gall the plant produces from bud tissue in response to being used as a home by the developing aphids.  At this time of year, the gall looks woody.  At a quick glance it might be mistaken for a fruit capsule, until you notice the spines.

Earlier in the season, the spiny witch-hazel bud gall is green and fleshy.

Spiny Witch-hazel bud gall, with ants. What’s the attraction?

It’s interesting that there are so many ants swarming this gall.  If the gall were open and the aphids were available, the ants would likely be milking them for delicious ‘honeydew’ (excrement).  But the aphids have not reached maturity, they are still safely encased inside the gall.

Ants are often very beneficial to plants.  They disperse the seeds of many spring blooming wildflowers, for one thing.  Ants also provide protection from herbivores like caterpillars who might eat a plant’s leaves, flowers or buds, because other insects are an important part of an ant’s diet.  Plants often emit a chemical call to arms to alert ants and other predators to the availability of insect food. The plant may offer an additional reward and reason to stick around in the form of nectar not associated with flowers (extra-floral nectaries) or resins, specifically aimed at payment to their protectors.

It’s a mystery to me what caused the ants in this photo to visit.  Maybe this Witch-hazel detected the presence of a new generation of insect eggs (not visible to me), and sent out a distress signal to the ants.  Any other ideas?

Pristine leaves unfold in spring, but they are often quickly put to use as food and shelter by another aphid (Hormaphis hamamelidis), the Witch-hazel leaf or cone gall aphid.  This gall resembles a cone, or a witch’s hat.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) leaves in spring

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) leaf with Witch-hazel cone gall, caused by an aphid (Hormaphis hamamelidis)

Both of these aphids spend part of their life cycle on birch trees.

Witch-hazel branches have been used as divining rods to find underground water sources, a practice sometimes referred to as ‘water witching’.  In theory at least, the branch would point or bend towards the ground when it detected water.  The ‘Witch’ in ‘Witch-hazel’ is based on an Anglo-Saxon word, ‘wych’, that means ‘bending’.

Witch-hazel is a multi-stemmed shrub that can grow to a height of about 16 feet (5 meters), and can tolerate shade.  It is native in the Eastern half of the United States, and Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in Canada.

Enjoy these bright blossoms while they last!

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in bloom

 

Related Posts

A Carpet of Spring Beauty, Woven by Ants!

Will Work for Food – Extra-floral Nectaries

Resources

Capon, Brian.  Botany for Gardeners.  2005

Eastman, John.  The Book of Forest and Thicket.  1992.

Eiseman, Charley; Charney, Noah.  Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates.  2010.

Foster, Steven; Duke, James A.  A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America.  2000.

Hoffmann, David.  Medical Herbalism.  2003.

Martin, Alexander C.;  Zim, Herbert S.; Nelson, Arnold L.  American Wildlife & Plants A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits.  1951.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A.  The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Williams, Ernest H. Jr.  The Nature Handbook – A Guide to Observing the Great Outdoors.  2005.

Clemson Co-operative Extension – River Birch Aphid

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA NRCS Plant Database

USDA FEIS

 

 

White Snakeroot, and a Bit of a Paradox

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) provides food for late summer and fall visitors, primarily small critters.  Its button-like clusters of tiny tubular flowers offer nectar to a variety of potential pollinators, and flower buds and leaves provide food for other insect diners.

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

In my shade garden in central New Jersey, Bumble Bees and Small Carpenter Bees (Ceratina species) drink happily from the flowers.

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) with Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina species)

On a late September Sunday at Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Massachusetts, I watched while Bumble Bees and Honey Bees took advantage of White Snakeroot’s abundant nectar.

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) with Bumble Bee (Bombus species)

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) with Honey Bee (Apis mellifera)

In a sunny woods-edge location at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve near New Hope, Pennsylvania, several butterfly species found needed nourishment in the nectar  White Snakeroot flowers offered.

Painted Ladies and Sachem helped themselves to White Snakeroot’s sustaining beverage. These butterflies have been around much of the summer and fall, drinking from the flowers in bloom, moving from one species to the next as the season changed.

Painted Lady butterfly drinking nectar from White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

Sachem drinking nectar from White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

I was excited to see a Fiery Skipper, a butterfly that is rare in Pennsylvania, but a common resident in the southern United States. Fiery Skippers are among the butterfly species that regularly attempt to push the envelope of their range by emigrating to the north. White Snakeroot’s refreshing nectar rewarded this individual for its exploration efforts.

Fiery Skipper drinking nectar from White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

Meanwhile, a Monarch fueled up for a flight in the opposite direction, heading south towards its winter territory in Mexico.

Monarch drinking nectar from White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

If these potential pollinators do the job for which White Snakeroot has enticed them to visit its flowers, pollination occurs, and a type of fruit, called an achene, develops. The achene looks like a seed with a tiny hair-like parasol attached, designed to be dispersed by the wind to a favorable place for another White Snakeroot plant to germinate and grow.

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), ready to disperse its fruit

At Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, an insect that looked a bit like a stink bug turned out to be the opposite – Harmostes fraterulus, one of the scentless plant bugs. Pennsylvania is thought to be the northern edge of Harmostes fraterulus’s range. Scentless plant bugs are a group of true bugs that lack glands to produce an unpleasant smell, quite unlike stink bugs who are named for their ability to do this. Harmostes fraterulus feeds on the flowers of several Aster (Asteraceae) family members, of which White Snakeroot is one.

Harmostes fraterulus on White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

It’s interesting that this small insect is able to eat parts of White Snakeroot, since this plant contains potent toxins evolved to prevent herbivores from consuming it. These toxins are so effective that they can be fatal to mammals.  As you might guess, deer do not eat this plant.  If cows graze on a sufficient amount of White Snakeroot, the milk they produce is toxic to humans.  In the nineteenth century, many people became sick or even died as a result of drinking this tainted milk, most famously, Abraham Lincoln’s mother.

While this plant’s chemical defenses are potent enough to sicken or even kill large mammals, some tiny insects have successfully adapted to use this plant as their food source (host plant). A type of small fly species, a midge named Schizomyia eupatoriflorae, specializes on White Snakeroot buds.  The larvae of this midge live inside the plant tissue, prompting the plant to produce a rounded gall that the developing midge uses for both food and shelter until it is ready to emerge as an adult.

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) with galls caused by the plant’s reaction to being used by a midge, Schizomyia eupatoriflorae

Flowers often have a lower concentration of a plant’s chemical defenses than do the other plant parts such as leaves and stems. But there are even insects who have evolved to specialize on White Snakeroot’s leaves.  The one of which I most often see evidence is a leaf miner, Liriomyza eupatoriella, a type of fly. The larvae of Liriomyza eupatoriella develop between the outer layers of the leaf, feeding on the tissues inside.

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) with leaf mines caused by a leaf mining fly, Liriomyza eupatoriella

Mammals have plenty of other food alternatives (at least for now) without having to evolve a tolerance for White Snakeroot’s toxins. But tiny insects may gain an advantage if they can specialize on food that few others can consume (and live to tell the tale!), especially a relatively common food source like White Snakeroot.

Despite its toxicity, several Native American tribes found medicinal uses for White Snakeroot, often using the root, but other plant parts as well. Some sources say that a poultice to treat snakebites was made from the root, resulting in the common name, White Snakeroot.

White Snakeroot is a plant of woods and woods edges. It prefers light shade but can tolerate partial sun, with moist to slightly dry soils.  In Canada it is native in Ontario and Quebec provinces and the Northwest Territories, and in the United States from Maine to eastern North Dakota, south to Texas and the Florida panhandle, although it is much less widespread in the southeastern U.S.

American Goldfinch, taking refuge on White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

 

Resources

Brock, Jim P.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America.  2003.

Cech, Rick; Tudor, Guy. Butterflies of the East Coast.  2005.

Coffey, Timothy. The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers.  1993.

Eaton, Eric R.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  2007.

Eiseman, Charley; Charney, Noah. Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates. 2010.

Foster, Steven; Duke, James A. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America.  2000.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA NRCS Plant Database

Harmostes fraterulus:

Maryland Biodiversity Project

Wheeler, A. G. Jr.; Miller, Gary L. Harmostes Fraterculus (HEMIPTERA: RHOPALIDAE): Field History, Laboratory Rearing, and Descriptions of Immature Stages. 1983.

Wheeler, A. G. Jr.  Harmostes reflexulus (Say) (Hemiptera: Rhopalidae): New Western U.S. Host Records, Analysis of Host-Plant Range, and Notes on Seasonality.  2013.

 

 

 

 

Northern Prickly-ash

I saw my first Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) on a walk through the woods in winter. The plentiful prickles along the branches and trunk

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) branch with prickles

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) branch with prickles

and the unusual fruit caught my eye.

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with ripe fruit

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with ripe fruit

Northern Prickly-ash is certainly prickly, but it isn’t an Ash at all. It does have compound leaves that resemble those of the Ashes (Fraxinus species), but that’s just a superficial resemblance.  Based on the structure of its flowers, Northern Prickly-ash has been classified as a member of the Rue (Rutaceae) family of plants, which is also called the Citrus family.

Like other members of the Rue family, Northern Prickly-ash’s foliage is covered with glands that are fragrant when crushed, emitting a somewhat lemon-like scent. Northern Prickly-ash blooms in spring before its leaves emerge, with male and female flowers usually on separate plants. The flowers are tiny, but they are fragrant, and attract a variety of bees and flies to visit.

By June, if the flowers were successfully pollinated by their visitors, a Northern Prickly-ash with female flowers will have fruit. Bobwhites, Red-eyed Vireos and Chipmunks are among the animals that eat the fruit.

Eastern Chipmunks may eat Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) fruit

Eastern Chipmunks may eat Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) fruit

While the fruit looks like a berry, but it is actually a follicle, a dry (not fleshy) fruit that splits open along a single seam. The fruit is green in early summer.

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with unripe fruit

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with unripe fruit

On its way to fully ripening it turns red.

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with fruit in autumn

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) with fruit in autumn

By late fall or winter, the follicle ripens, turning brown, then splits open to reveal the seeds, usually one seed, or at most two per follicle.

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) fruit in late winter

Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) fruit in late winter

Not many insects eat the foliage of Northern Prickly-ash. The leaves contain toxic chemicals (furanocoumarins) that are a deterrent to herbivores. But the caterpillars of Giant Swallowtail butterflies specialize on the leaves of the Rue family members.  They have evolved to be able to ingest the toxins and sequester them in their bodies without experiencing any harmful effects.  Throughout the Giant Swallowtail’s life, from caterpillar to pupa to butterfly, these toxins protect them from being eaten by predators.  This is the same type of relationship that Monarch butterflies have with Milkweeds (Asclepias species).  Monarchs have evolved to specialize on Milkweeds as the only food their caterpillars can eat in exchange for the protection the plants’ toxins give them.

Plants and people have more in common than you might think. Both have mutually beneficial relationships with some fungi and bacteria (think of the good bacteria in your digestive system, and edible and medicinal mushrooms), and adversarial relationships with others that may cause disease.  Many plants have evolved to produce chemical compounds to defend against the predatory fungi, bacteria or microbes that might invade their tissues.  Sometimes those chemicals can also be beneficial to humans in treating diseases with similar causes.

Studies show that Northern Prickly-ash contains compounds with anti-fungal properties, and compounds that have cancer-fighting potential. Native North American medical traditions have long recognized the potential of Northern Prickly-ash for treating disease, using it for many purposes, including as an antirheumatic and pain reliever, for treating coughs, colds and pulmonary problems, heart problems, kidney problems, and Tuberculosis.  One of the most well-known medical applications for Northern Prickly-ash is the use of the inner bark as a toothache remedy, giving this tree another common name, Toothache-tree.

Northern Prickly-ash is native as far north as Quebec and Ontario, and south as far as Oklahoma, Louisiana and Florida, although it is rarer in the southeastern United States. It prefers moist well-drained soils, and can tolerate full sun to part shade.  Northern Prickly-ash can be found on stream banks and in wet woods, sometimes creating a thicket by reproducing through underground runners.

Mature Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) trunk and branches, with prickles

Mature Northern Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) trunk and branches, with prickles

Winter is a good time to look for Northern Prickly-ash.  Take a walk and see if you can find its distinctive prickles and fruit.

Related Posts

Milkweed – It’s Not Just for Monarchs

What Winter Reveals: Hoptrees

Black Cherry – For Wildlife, and People, too!

Slippery Elm in Bloom

Resources

Cech, Rick; Tudor, Guy. Butterflies of the East Coast.  2005.

Foster, Steven; Duke, James A. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America.  2000.

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany.  1998.

Nelson, Gil; Earle, Christopher J.; Spellenberg, Richard. Trees of Eastern North America.  2014.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Missouri Botanical Garden

USDA Plant Database

Illinois Wildflowers

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15957372

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11507740

 

 

To Love Winter: Striped Wintergreen

It may be winter in the northern hemisphere (at least some days), but there is still plenty to see if you go for a walk in the woods. Some plants may be easier to spot in winter than they are during the growing season, because they have less competition for light, and for your attention.  Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) is one of those plants.  Striped Wintergreen can be seen in woodlands, skimming just above the fallen leaves.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in fruit

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in fruit

A clue that winter is the perfect time to look for this plant is found in the translation of its genus, ‘Chimaphila’, whose origins are the Greek words ‘cheima’, which means ‘winter’ and ‘phileo’, which translates as ‘to love’.   Plants of this genus are named for their love of winter.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata)

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata)

Why do they love winter? Striped Wintergreen is an evergreen perennial of the forest understory, growing to a height of about 4 – 12 inches (10 – 30 cm).  Somewhat woody at the base of the stem, botanists classify this species as a shrub or subshrub.  Its green and white striped leaves make it easy to spot in the winter months when leaves have fallen from the deciduous trees and shrubs that tower over this diminutive plant.  During the growing season, its taller neighbors often obscure Striped Wintergreen from view, as well as from the sun’s rays.  But throughout winter, Striped Wintergreen’s evergreen leaves have unfettered access to the sun’s energy.  They can photosynthesize, store the energy, and make it available to support Striped Wintergreen’s summertime reproductive efforts.

Striped Wintergreen is known by many other aliases (common names), including Spotted Wintergreen, Pipsissewa, and Rheumatism Root. Some of these names refer to the medicinal uses of this plant. Striped Wintergreen contains chemical compounds with antiseptic, antibacterial, and astringent properties, among others.  One of the compounds, ursolic acid, is effective in treating arthritis and other causes of pain and inflammation.  Striped Wintergreen and a close relative that is also called Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) have been used to treat urinary tract infections and kidney stones.  The name Pipsissewa is derived from a Creek Native American word that means ‘to break into small pieces’, referring to stones in the urinary tract.

Is it just lucky happenstance that Striped Wintergreen contains compounds that have beneficial medicinal effects for humans? Not completely.  Striped Wintergreen faces some of the same pressures that humans do from bacteria, fungi and microbes, all of which are present in the thousands in the fallen leaves with which Striped Wintergreen lives, and that are working to break down the leaves until they become the next layer of nutrient-filled soil.  Striped Wintergreen has evolved to produce chemical compounds to protect itself from this efficient recycling team surrounding it.  What is lucky for us is that these chemical constituents also have a positive effect in human bodies.

Striped Wintergreen blooms in summer, usually sometime from June through August.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom. Fruit capsule from previous season is visible on the left.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom. Fruit capsule from previous season is visible on the left.

When fully open, the flowers with their recurved petals resemble crowns, a possible explanation for another common name for this plant, Striped Prince’s Pine.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) flower. Notice its resemblance to a tiny crown.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) flower. Notice its resemblance to a tiny crown.

Striped Wintergreen’s primary pollinators are Bumble Bees (Bombus species), but Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) may also be enticed by nectar to visit the flowers.  If the bees help Striped Wintergreen successfully achieve pollination, the resulting fruit is visible throughout the winter.  These dry fruit capsules look like tiny turbans, or miniature winter squash split open at the seams to release the seeds inside.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) fruit capsules.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) fruit capsules.

The chemical compounds present in Striped Wintergreen, along with leathery, waxy-coated leaves, are generally effective in deterring herbivores. Deer don’t typically browse this plant, even though it’s one of only a few that are green in the winter.  But the photo below shows that someone, probably a Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile species), has figured out a way to use parts of the leaves.  Leaf-cutter bees harvest regularly-shaped oval, circular or semi-circular pieces of leaves to construct cells in their nests.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) with semi-circles removed from the leaf edges, probably by a Leaf-cutter Bee.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) with semi-circles removed from the leaf edges, probably by a Leaf-cutter Bee.

Striped Wintergreen’s native range is the eastern third of the United States, north to a few locations in southern Ontario and Quebec provinces in Canada. It’s rare at the edges of its range, and is listed as endangered in Illinois, Maine, Ontario and Quebec, and exploitably vulnerable in New York state.

Experience some ‘Winter Love’ (another common name for Chimaphila maculata).  Look for Striped Wintergreen in winter, and you’ll know where to find it during the summer months when it’s in bloom.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom.

More Reasons to Love Winter

Reasons to Love Winter

An Orchid in Winter

Coralberry – A Winter Standout

What Winter Reveals:  Hoptrees

Late Winter Bird Food

A Winter Garden Can Be a Wildlife Habitat

Resources

Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Pipsissewa.  From Planting the Future, Saving Our Medicinal Herbs, edited by Gladstar, Rosemary and Hirsch, Pamela.  2000.

Eaton, Eric R.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  2007.

Eiseman, Charley; Charney, Noah. Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates. 2010.

Foster, Steven; Duke, James A. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America.  2000.

Martin, Laura C. Wildflower Folklore.  1984.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Evergreen Native Plant Database

Illinois Wildflowers

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Native American Ethnobotany Database

USDA NRCS Plants Database