Wildflowers Beyond the Ordinary:
New England Wildflowers
By Mary A. Johnson
Every wildflower has a tale to tell. Think of the curious construction of the
Jack-in-the-pulpit, which carpets moist woodlands in early spring, or a hillside
ablaze in summer with the vibrant orange of the devil’s paintbrush. These are
just two of the distinctive wildflowers we associate with living in New England.
Recently a relative in Maine introduced me to three native New England
wildflowers that, while just as common as the Jack-in-the-pulpit and devil’s
paintbrush, have extravagant looks and colorful histories that go beyond just
form and color.
Ground Nut (Apios americana)
One look at this plant in bloom and you’ll
think you’ve been transported to Hawaii.
With its luxuriant 10-foot long vine that
twines up, around and through the
shrubbery and clusters of fragrant,
exotic-looking maroon flowers that
bloom from July to September, it’s easy
to imagine the ground nut growing in
a tropical setting.
In reality, the ground nut is a member of the legume or bean family and
produces pods similar to those of its edible garden relative. However, the
plant’s real treasure lies just under the soil. Swellings on underground stems
produce chains of edible tubers (ground nuts), high in starch and protein.
Native Americans and early North American explorers and colonists relied on
these tubers as a major source of food. In fact, in the 17th century, the Pilgrims
of Plymouth, Massachusetts survived the winter on the ground nut after they
exhausted their corn supply.
Later, in the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau penned words of praise for the
ground nut. In his House-Warming chapter of Walden, he described the taste
of the tuber as “sweetish, much like that of a frostbitten potato,” adding that he
“found it better boiled than roasted.”
Today, wild food enthusiasts continue to harvest the tubers and invent their
own baked, boiled, roasted and sautéed ground nut recipes.
Gall-of-the-Earth (Prenanthes trifoliolata)
Fortunately, this plant doesn’t live up to its
unattractive name. Creamy white, bell-like
flowers sporting long stamens hang in
drooping clusters around a waxy reddish
stem. With deeply divided leaves that can
vary wildly in shape, the gall-of-the-earth
can reach six feet in height. It flowers from
September to October in woods, thickets,
and open slopes.
The origin of the plant’s name is a bit of a mystery. Some say its bestower
considered the plant, with its habit of blooming late and flowers that look away
from the sun, a metaphor for autumn’s descent into winter in that the waning
light, dying crops and frozen earth all lent a sadness or bitter gall to life.
Another less colorful explanation suggests the name simply refers to the
plant’s bitter-tasting tuberous roots. These roots, when made into an equally
bitter-tasting tonic, were used to treat dysentery and as a remedy for snake
bites. Hence, an alternate name for gall-of-the-earth is rattlesnake-root.
Wild Cucumber (Echinocystis lobata)
Although some consider this plant an
invasive weed, few can argue the
impressive sight of a wild cucumber
in full bloom draped like a pearly garland
over an evergreen or entwined along
a roadside fence. With deeply-lobed leaves
reminiscent of large maple leaves and
star-like, greenish-white flowers, the
wild cucumber uses its strong, corkscrew-shaped tendrils to help it scramble
along the low branches of trees and shrubs. On the ground, it forms dense mats
near stream banks and in moist thickets and woods.
The real stars of this plant are the large fleshy fruits, mostly air and water,
covered with prickly spines and a thick green skin that form by late August or
into early September. These pods act as containers for the brown or black
seeds. You probably won’t find the seeds once the pods dry and burst open
because, supposedly, hydrostatic pressure expels the seeds at speeds
exceeding 37 feet per second. Instead, in autumn look for a fibrous mass, which
is the leftover skeletonized pod.
The next time you’re out for a hike in the full bloom of a New England
summer, be on the lookout for these beyond-the-ordinary wildflowers.
But don’t forget to look up every now and then to enjoy the scenery.
About the writer: Mary Johnson is a writer in Beaverton, Oregon who spent a portion
of her childhood growing up in a rural house in Goffstown, New Hampshire where she
developed her love of wildflowers. Today, she returns to the state whenever she can to
hike the trails and, of course, hunt for wildflowers.
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