A large number of the flowers I mention are shade plants, often woodland natives. You may (or not) notice that these are very small plants and they bloom early in the spring. They bloom early in order to complete their growing season before the leaves come out on the trees, while they can still get to the sun. Once the leaves come out, it creates a shade environment – no more sun reaching the floor and so the growing season ends.
On the other hand, native prairie plants tend to have a slower growing season, with many blooming at the height of summer in July and August.
So I’ve decided to continue my list of unusual plant names….
Heartsease –(Viola tricolor ) another name for pansy, usually associated with the smaller, old fashioned kind. They were once used in love charms. Shakespeare called them Love-in-Idleness and they were mentioned as an ingredient in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’ve also heard them called johnny jump-ups. They are edible and are sugared or candied as cake toppings or put in salads.
Spring Beauty –(Claytonia virginica) A tiny woodland flower, one of the earliest bloomers. The flower petals are white to attract the early insects, with bright pink “landing lines” to guide them in to the pollen and nectar, helping them come in for a landing.
Blue-eyed Mary -(Collinsia verna) These tiny flowers are prolific at the local nature center. They are apparently rare enough that wildflower worshippers come from all over the Great Lakes region to see them here in Michigan when they are in bloom. I mistook them, at first, for violets.
Squirrel corn – (Dicentra canadensis) Another native relative of Bleeding Heart and Dutchman’s Breeches. You can see the resemblance to the other two, especially the heart-shape of the Bleeding Heart. Since Dutchman’s Breeches and Squirrel Corn bloom within a week or two of each other, you need to look closely to see the difference and one is often confused with the other.
Cranesbill (geraniums) This is a true geranium, a hardy perennial garden flower. Usually, when someone calls a flower a geranium, it is the common name of an annual plant whose botanical name is (Pelargonium) (no relation at all to the true geraniums) which blooms in clumps, while the cranesbills bloom singly. The name cranesbill comes from the seeds of the flowers which, as you can guess, look like the curved bill of a crane.
Pinks – (dianthus) also known as carnations. A very old garden flower, they are called “pinks”, not because they are pink but because the edges of the flowers have serrations or fringes like they were “pinked” as being cut with pinking shears.
Pincushion flower – (Scabiosa) a summer perennial flower that blooms in pink, blue and lavender. The center petals are much more compact, giving a rounded shape like a pincushion. The butterflies love this plant. I can tell you from experience, the plants need well drained soil, not clay.
Star of Bethlehem -(Ornithogalum umbellatum) The flower appeared in my backyard one year and it just keeps spreading. The flowers are pretty so I let it bloom wherever it wants, in the garden or in the grass, mowing around it until it is done flowering, then I simply mow it down. It is a native of eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Foxglove – (digitalis purpurea) One of my favorite garden flowers. Even though it’s a biennial, mine have been blooming nicely for the last two years in a row. They also come in white, yellow and lavender colors and do reseed themselves. They have these lovely freckles on the inside of the tubular-shaped flower. This is a medicinal plant, digitalis – the heart medicine, but it is also extremely poisonous. Digitalis means “finger-like” and refers to the flowers that can fit over a human fingertip.
Bachelor’s Button- (Centaurea Cyranus) – also called Cornflower. These raggedy looking annuals are one of the few true blue flowers in nature. Called cornflowers because in their native southern europe they grow wild among the cornfields. I have heard one story that the flower’s name “bachelor’s button” came about because these were the flowers young men wore as boutonnieres, tucked in their buttonholes.
Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) – A native perennial plant that can get up to 5′ tall. It is a member of the Carrot family and resembles a yucca. In the past, the dried seedheads of Rattlesnake Master were used as rattles by natives. Pioneers thought the roots could be used as an effective antidote to rattlesnake bite.
Trout Lily -(Erythronium americanum) An early spring woodland native, it goes by several other unusual names, all relating to some characteristic of the plant. “Trout lily” comes from the resemblance of its mottled leaves to the colouring on a trout. “Adder’s tongue” refers to the similarity between a snake’s tongue and the sharply pointed, unopened purple leaves as they poke through the dense forest litter. “Dogtooth violet”, the name I know it by, is supposed to have a white, tooth-like shaped corm, though the plant itself does not look like a dog-tooth nor is it a violet.
Bears Breeches -(Acanthus Spinosus) a large, unusual garden plant originally from the Mediterranean area that can get as large as 3-4 feet high. I originally fell in love with these striking plants at the Chicago Botanical Gardens, growing in the full sun. Since their growing zone was a zone 6 and I live in zone 5. I worried about the plant survivng our winters. The same summer, I made another visit to a local nursery specializing in shade plants and saw the same plant, this time under a canopy of leaves from the trees. I was sold. My plants are in an area of the yard that gets an hour or two sunlight a day. They suffered in the drought last year but are sprouting again this spring and looking great.