Category Archives: Wildflowers

Wetland Plants: Pickerelweed

Photo of Pickerelweed

One morning earlier this month, I spent a few hours kayaking in a shallow pond that was home to a vast colony of blooming Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata). I've known, or at least recognized, Pickerelweed, for over a decade now as a common aquatic plant with arrow-shaped leaves and a blue-purple flower spike, but I'd never looked at the plant's flowers up close -- they are so hairy.

According to John Eastman (The Book of Swamp and Bog, 1994, p. 143), dragonfly and damselfly nymphs commonly climb up Pickerelweed plants when they're ready to transform into winged adults and leave their empty exoskeletons behind as evidence.

Eastman also notes that various dabbling ducks, such as American Black Duck, Mallard, and Northern Pintail, eat the seeds of Pickerelweed, which ripen in late summer. Though I've not yet tried them, humans can also eat the seeds raw, roasted, or boiled. For more details on human uses, see Ancestral Plants (Vol. 1, 2010, p. 166) by Arthur Haines.

To view the following images in full-size, click here.

Foraging Wild Flowers: Common Dandelion

Photo of Common Dandelion flower

Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) offers many gifts to the modern forager. In April and May, the flower buds and brightly blooming flowers are a delicious snack, salad ingredient, or soup component. The flowers can also be infused to make a delicious tea.

Photo of Common Dandelion flower

I've written previously about foraging the leaves of Common Dandelion, but for those new to eating wild plants, it's the mild tasting yellow petals that I find make the best introduction. To avoid the bitterness that the green parts contain, simply loosen and remove the yellow petals by rolling each flower head between your thumb and pointer finger.

Photo of Common Dandelion flower

Note: You may notice an increased need to urinate soon after consuming Common Dandelion parts. Consult an herbalist or herbal reference for more on the medicinal actions of this abundant perennial.

Tiny Flowers: Shepherd’s-purse

Photo of Shepherd's-purse flowers

Now that the green season has taken hold and a handful of wildflowers are blooming, it's time again to break out Newcomb's Wildflower Guide. I noticed a plant with tiny (<1/4") white flowers last week in Wells and was pretty sure I knew who I'd found. Keying out the plant confirmed my hunch.

I began by determining the plant's 3-digit code:

Flower type: 4 Regular Parts (4--)
Plant type: Wildflowers with Alternate leaves (43-)
Leaf type: Leaves Toothed or Lobed (433)*

Then, on page 4, under group 433, the key asked if the flowers were yellow (no) or white, pink, or purple (yes), and if the leaves had an arrow-shaped base, which clasped the stem (yes, though this is not well depicted in my photos) or were not arrow-shaped (no). The key then pointed to page 136.

Of the six plants described on that page, only one description fit my mystery plant. Basal leaves deeply lobed; pods triangular (to me the pods are triangular/heart-shaped). A drawing of the plant on page 150 provided visual confirmation. The plant I'd located was Capsella bursa-pastoris, known as Shepherd's-purse, a member of the Mustard (Brassicaceae) family.

Shepherd's-purse is a widespread, weedy species who typically grows in disturbed soil in full sun. The flowers, immature seed pods, and tender leaves and shoots are edible, especially for those who enjoy a spicy mustard flavor (boiling can reduce the flavor, if desired). The mature pods can also be used as a spice. Arthur Haines documents many medicinal uses for this herbaceous annual in Ancestral Plants (Vol. 2, 2015, p. 126-27). You can find more photos of Shepherd's-purse at GoBotany.

To view the following images in full-size, click here.

*Note: Looking at the basal leaves (instead of the stem leaves), you might wonder whether they're considered divided or toothed/lobed. Newcomb's guide accounts for this confusion by directing you to Shepherd's-purse whether you choose the former or the latter.

Foraging Wild Flowers: Coltsfoot

Photo of Coltsfoot

Native to Eurasia, Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) now grows in a variety of disturbed habitats (e.g., roadsides, stream banks, railroad beds) across New England. Coltsfoot's bright yellow flower heads, which consist of narrow ray flowers and tiny 5-parted disk flowers (Common Dandelion has only ray flowers), are among the earliest wildflowers to bloom in spring. Flower stalks are hairy, with small, scale-like leaves; green leaves emerge later, and have densely hairy undersides.

Coltsfoot has both edible (the flowers, fleshy stems, and young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked) and medicinal (preparations of the leaves can help with treatment of coughs) uses, but since all of the local patches I know of are growing in spots that are unsafe to forage in, I've yet to experiment with the plant. For more details, read the account of Tussilago farfara in Ancestral Plants (Vol. 1, 2010, p. 190-91) by Arthur Haines and this Edible Flowers article by Green Deane.

To view the following images in full-size, click here.

Winter Plant ID: Sulphur Cinquefoil

Photo of Sulphur Cinquefoil winter stalk

About a century ago, observing Sulphur Cinquefoil (Potentilla recta) would have required a trip to Europe. But now this herbaceous perennial is established in fields and along roadsides throughout much of North America and as such can be studied year-round, if you know where to look.

While the plant's five-petaled, yellow flowers are of no assistance for white season identification, the numerous five-parted, hairy seed capsules, which are found at the tops of the many-branched, 2-3' tall stalks, are. These capsules account for another common name for this species: Rough-fruited Cinquefoil.

Photo of Sulphur Cinquefoil fruit capsule

The alternately arranged leaves are palmately divided (like those of Common Blackberry) into 5 or 7 leaflets (upper leaves may have only 3), and dried leaves often persist into the white season and can assist with identification efforts.

For help with keying out a mystery white season plant skeleton, I recommend A Guide to Wildflowers in Winter: Herbaceous plants of northeastern North America (1995) by Carol Levine (additional guides are listed on my Book Picks page under Winter Exploring). For more photos of Sulphur Cinquefoil, visit GoBotany.

Photo of Sulphur Cinquefoil dried leaf