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March 7, 2019

Gardening: The harbingers of spring start popping

Photo/Anne Clayton
The spring-blooming crocus have started later start this year because of the consistently cool winter. They provide an important source of pollen for bees and other pollinators.
Skunk Cabbage starts to poke its head up in mid-February. Photo/Mary Ann Krehbiel
By Mary Ann Krehbiel
Master Gardener

The weather remains cool, but a walk in the woods is in order as signs of spring begin to burst. It’s time my grandkids and I strap on the hiking boots and head for the Blue Ridge Mountains. We have some specific plants to seek.

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) has a delicate sweet smell emulating from clusters of white or pink flowers; each five-petaled flower is striped with darker pink veins. A single pair of grass-like leaves rise upward about midway up the plant stem. The plants can form a beautiful ground cover over large portions of the woodland floor. By summer, all signs of this small plant are gone as the leaves and flowers dry and disappear. Another species, Claytonia caroliniana, is found in the Shenandoah Valley and on the Blue Ridge. It has much broader leaves but similar flowers.

Who isn’t fascinated with Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphylla)? Found in moist woods, these plants range in height from 1 to 3 feet. Two large leaves sprout from stalks and are divided into three to five segments. But it is the club-shaped spadix (the “Jack”) covered by the spathe (the “pulpit”) with its curving flap that earns Jack-in-the-pulpit its name. The spathe can be green to maroon in color, often streaked with purple. The flowers are actually below the club hidden down inside the pulpit. The pulpit shrivels away in summer, exposing a cluster of red berries. Jack-in-the-pulpits contain calcium oxalate crystals, a poison that burns. Do not eat them! Calcium oxalate crystals are needle shaped and cause severe toxic reactions, numbing of the throat followed by painful edema and dysphagia, or swallowing problems.

A plant very familiar to many of us that also forms a colony over the woodland floor is the May-apple (Podophyllum peltatum). The leaves are double and deeply lobed, forming a sort of parasol. Peek under the parasol and glimpse the single white waxy flower, which is replaced in summer with a yellow lemon-like fruit. Although the ripened fruit is edible, all other parts (including the seeds) of this plant are poisonous, containing podophyllotoxin. May-apples like moist woods and begin blooming in April. Another name for the May-apple is Mandrake.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria Canadensis) is a much smaller plant only about 8 inches tall. It has one solitary white flower consisting of eight to 10 petals with a bright yellow center. Folded around the flower stalk is one blue-green leaf, round with various lobes. If you break the stem or dig up the root you will see the caustic orange juice, the poison. Bloodroot blooms beginning in March, but you have to look for it as it is small and not usually found in large groups.

But my personal favorite has got to be the Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). Now come on, admit it, this is a fun plant. Early in February, the purple-brown spathe erupts from the ground and actually melts the snow around it. The knob-like spadix inside is what emits the foul smell, although some have admitted to liking the smell. Not I. The two foot large leaves emerge later and form what looks like a large cabbage. The leaves will also emit a foul odor when crushed. Look for these plants in very moist woods, meadows or swamps.

As you’ve probably noticed, many of these plants are poisonous – a self-protective mechanism. However, they are worth searching for because they are so unique and beautiful.

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