This biennial in the Figwort Family (Scrophulariaceae) grows a rosette of basal leaves in its first year, then sprouts a flower stalk that grows 1.5 to 3 feet tall in year two. Its white or yellow flowers bloom from bottom to top.
Native to Eurasia and Africa, moth mullein was first noticed in Pennsylvania in 1818. It’s not invasive in Pennsylvania but is listed as a noxious weed in Colorado.
Look for moth mullein in waste places and pastures. It’s not named for what it does, but for what it looks like: A flower that resembles a moth.
In the spring I often see large pleated leaves in the same damp places where skunk cabbage grows. For years I didn’t know what they were and I was lazy. I couldn’t see any flowers and I wouldn’t wade into the swamp to key it out with my Newcomb’s Guide.
This week Dianne Machesney put me straight. This is false hellebore (Veratrum viride).
False hellebore is blooming this month and now I know why I never saw the flowers from a distance. They’re completely green! Six hairy green tepals (petal-sepals) and six stamens with yellow anthers.
The leaves spiral up the stem. The entire plant, up to six feet tall, resembles hellebore so it’s called false hellebore.
Like all plants in the Veratrum genus viride is highly poisonous. Deer leave it alone but cattle are sometimes fooled.
Amazingly, some Native American tribes used it as an initiation test. Like Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, candidates to be the next leader would ingest false hellebore. According to Wikipedia, the one to start vomiting last would become the new leader. (Ick!)
Look for false hellebore’s flowers from May to July. After it blooms, the leaves fade.
Here are two flowers that couldn’t be more different but they have the same common name: Goat’s Beard.
The Goat’s Beard flower above is Tragopogon dubius, introduced from Eurasia and named for its huge fluffy seed head. It loves full sun and thrives in poor, disturbed soil so I often see it in former waste places planted with wildflower seed mix. The flower above was at Lower Nine Mile Run on June 1.
The Goat’s Beard below, Aruncus dioicus, is a native of North America named for its fluffy male flowers. Four to six feet tall, it requires moist rich soil so I usually find it in the forest where a splash of sun breaks through. Dianne Machesney found this one last week.
The flower in her photo doesn’t look very fluffy. Here’s a possible explanation.
Aruncus dioicus is dioecius — some plants are male, others female. The male flowers are the showy ones. This showy flower from Wikimedia Commons may be male.
Be careful if you tell a butterfly enthusiast that you’ve found Goat’s Beard. The yellow-flowered Eurasian species is nothing to get excited about but Aruncus dioicus is the host plant for the rare Dusky Azure butterfly (Celastrina nigra).
Two “Goat’s Beards.” Perhaps even more.
yellow Goat’s Beard flower by Kate St. John
white Goat’s Beard flower by Dianne Machesney
fluffy white Goat’s Beard flower from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)
April showers bring May flowers. Here’s a taste of what’s blooming now in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Fire pink (Silene virginica) was blooming in Harrison Hills Park on May 12, above. When I went back to take its picture someone had picked most of it. 🙁
Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is blooming in Schenley Park. At first you’ll notice it’s large three-part leaves, then you’ll see the pulpit where Jack lives. Some of the pulpits have stripes inside, some do not. Lift the lid to see.
Squawroot (Conopholis americana) isn’t green because it has no chlorophyll. Instead it coexists with oak trees, taking nourishment from their roots. Though it’s parasitic it rarely hurts the trees. This month squawroot’s “bear corn” flowers are everywhere in Schenley Park.
Squawroot, Schenley Park, 18 May 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
This week the air in my neighborhood smells so sweet. The black locust trees are in bloom.
Black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia) are common in Pittsburgh because they’re one of the first trees to grow in poor, disturbed soil. Our area has a lot of habitat for them, generated by people and nature — bulldozers and landslides.
Black locusts are ugly in winter with gnarly bark and twisted branches but they are sweet in May. The trees are in the pea family and it is evident in their flowers. Here’s what they look like in bloom.
The flowers are attractive to bees and birds. I’ve seen rose-breasted grosbeaks use their large beaks to grab the base of the flowers, then twirl to make the petals fall off. They swallow the nectar end.
Black locusts usually reach their peak on May 12 but they’re late this year. Look for these beautifully scented trees before the flowers fade in about 10 days.
While Eurasian lilies-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) are blooming in my garden, these “false lilies of the valley” are blooming in the Laurel Highlands.
Maianthemum canadense are woodland plants that range from the Yukon to Newfoundland to northern Pennsylvania and in the Appalachian Mountains to Georgia. Their preference for cooler temperatures makes them abundant in Canada and they bloom in late May, hence their common name: Canada mayflower.
When you find a patch of Canada mayflowers you’ve found a single organism that spread through its rhizomes. The flowers do produce a few berries but the plant’s most successful propagation is underground.
Lilies-of-the-valley spread underground, too, and have taken over half my garden. The difference between the two is that lilies-of-the-valley are poisonous to wildlife while Canada mayflowers are not.
Watch for them blooming this month in southwestern Pennsylvania. It’s Mayflower time.