Winterberry Dec 2019 Wildflower of the Month

                                                            Winterberry  (Ilex verticillata)                                                        
                                                                                                                                  by Helen Hamilton
                                                                                                 John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society

Truly a spectacular sight in winter – long whips of red berries against a white background, or any place where a spot of bright red is welcome. This holly loses its leaves in late fall and until eaten by songbirds, the glossy red berries are a standout in the winter landscape. The display of berries remains from September to mid-winter, since birds do not eat them until they have softened.

Winterberry is a small to large multi-stemmed shrub which can grow to 15 feet tall, but in cultivation it grows slowly, usually maturing at 8’ tall x 8’ wide. Tiny white flowers appear April through May, hidden among dark green leaves with coarse teeth. In nearly every county of Virginia, Winterberry grows in swamps, bogs, and moist forests. Its range extends from Nova Scotia, south to Florida and west to Missouri.

Copying its preferred location in nature, this shrub prefers moist, well-drained habitat, full sun to part shade, and acidic soils. In wet sites, Winterberry will spread to form a thicket; in drier soil it grows in clumps. One male plant should be planted in close proximity to 3 to 5 female plants to ensure good pollination and subsequent fruit set.

In the wild this plant spreads by seeds or suckers but in cultivation it grows slowly, acquiring an upright oval or spreading rounded appearance. Winterberry works well planted in masses, along water or as a shrub border, particularly where the fruit display in fall and winter can be appreciated. The berry-laden stems can be cut for long-lasting indoor arrangements in winter.

“Ilex” is the Latin name for an evergreen oak, noting the fact that most hollies are broadleaf evergreen. The species name “verticillata” refers to the flowers and fruits which are arranged in a whorl around the stems.

Many cultivars are available in nurseries, the most common being ‘Red Sprite’, also known as ‘Nana’ or ‘Compacta’. The berries of all cultivars are enhanced, in color and profusion.

New York Ironweed September 2019 Wildflower of the Month

New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)
by Helen Hamilton John Clayton Chapter VNPS

Photo by Helen Hamilton

These are handsome, robust plants with stunning floral color. The sturdy stems grow three to ten feet tall and maintain an upright posture throughout the fall. Leaves are lance-shaped and finely toothed. The intense deep purple flowers bloom from late summer to early fall and are powerful butterfly magnets, especially attracting the tiger swallowtail. Skippers, moths and native bees are also seen collecting nectar from the flowers.

Ironweed is a member of the aster family that includes sunflowers, daisies and black-eyed susans. These flowers have no rays, only flowers in the central disk area.

Ironweeds are usually found in moist or wet areas of fields and streambanks. They are easy to grow in average to wet soils in full sun to part shade. To reduce the height of the plant, the stems can be cut back in mid-summer, or cut nearly to the ground in late spring. In the home garden, ironweed can grow in a rain garden, in a meadow or wildflower garden, or in the back of border plants. Hardy from Maine to north Florida, ironweed is common in all regions of Virginia. Ironweeds are usually not browsed by deer and rabbits.

Some explanations of the common name: one refers to the difficulty of pulling the plant up by the roots – battling a plant with a will of iron; another refers to the plant doing well in areas of old fires, especially with rusted metal nearby; the “iron” could describe the tall and sturdy stems or could refer to the rusty-tinged color of fading flowers and the rusty colored seeds.

Upland Ironweed (V. glauca) is a similar plant, with shorter stems and wider leaves, and grows in drier soils. The species name “glauca” refers to the whitish leaf undersides. As the flowers fade, they are replaced with bristly white hairs that are brownish in New York Ironweed.

The genus was named for William Vernon, an English botanist who collected in Maryland in the late 1600s. The species name “noveboracensis” refers to New York where the first collections may have been made of this plant. Native Americans made tea from the leaves and roots of ironweeds for relief of female problems and as a blood tonic.

Deerberry June 2019 Wildflower of the Month

June Wildflower of the Month

By Helen Hamilton


Deerberry Vaccinium stamineum

 Deerberry is a member of a large genus which includes blueberries, and cranberries. This species is a tall (to 10 feet) deciduous shrub with variable foliage, mostly egg-shaped. Leaves are thin and not toothed, typically whitish underneath.

Unlike the closed, tubular buds and flowers of blueberry, the flowers of deerberry are open, and dangling along the stem. The petals are flaring with the stamens and styles extending outside. Greenish-white, pink-tinged flowers appear May-June; in late summer and fall greenish-purple fruits, sometimes white-powdered, appear, furnishing food for birds and small mammals.

Found over eastern U.S. and Canada, Deerberry is native to all counties in Virginia, growing in dry woods. “Vaccinium” is the classic name for blueberries; “stamineum” refers to the prominent stamens. While edible, the berries are not as flavorful as those of other species.

For more information about native plants visit

By Helen Hamilton, John Clayton Chapter, VNPS

Photo: by Helen Hamilton

Rose-Mallow August 2019 Wildflower of the Month

Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) Photo Helen Hamilton

by Helen Hamilton, John Clayton Chapter 

The wide showy flowers of Rose-Mallow signal the start of summer, as they bloom profusely in moist areas until September.  Each flower is open for only a day, but they follow sequentially over time. The bloom is a larger version of okra, cotton or hollyhocks which are also members of the mallow family.  The flowers are usually white or pink, but may be a pale yellow.  All have a red or maroon center and a projecting column of stamens.  Many cultivars are available at nurseries, with color variations.

“Hibiscus” is the Greek name for mallow, and “moscheutos” means “scented like the musk rose”.  Many of the hibiscus are called “marshmallow” because of their family relationship to Althaea officinalis, a plant introduced from Europe from which marshmallows were made (now produced from corn syrup and gelatin).

In folk medicine, a poultice of the leaves and roots was used on breast tumors and for gastrointestinal, lung, and bladder problems, as it produces a locally soothing effect.

Rose-mallow grows in all regions of Virginia, and is found in the coastal plain.   The plant prefers full sun, and moist to average soil, but will tolerate clay soil.  Propagation by seed is easiest, as division requires a cleaver or machete and a person with a strong back.

Many species of butterflies and hummingbirds seek nectar from hibiscus.  Rose-mallow is deer resistant.

For more information on native plants visit the state website:




Ferns Mosses and Forest Plants


Wildflower Spot– June 2019
By Helen Hamilton

Vaccinium stamineum

Photo: Phillip Merritt

Deerberry is a member of a large genus which includes blueberries, and cranberries.  This species is a tall (to 10 feet) deciduous shrub with variable foliage, mostly egg-shaped.  Leaves are thin and not toothed, typically whitish underneath. 

Unlike the closed, tubular buds and flowers of blueberry, the flowers of deerberry are open, and dangling along the stem.  The petals are flaring with the stamens and styles extending outside.  Greenish-white, pink-tinged flowers appear May-June; in late summer and fall greenish-purple fruits, sometimes white-powdered, appear, furnishing food for birds and small mammals.

Found over eastern U.S. and Canada, Deerberry is native to all counties in Virginia, growing in dry woods.   “Vaccinium” is the classic name for blueberries; “stamineum” refers to the prominent stamens.  While edible, the berries are not as flavorful as those of other species. 

For more information about native plants visit

By Helen Hamilton, John Clayton Chapter,




Yellow Trout Lily May 2019 Wildflower of the Month

By Helen Hamilton

]Erythronium americanum


In early spring, look for a bright yellow flower, drooping towards the ground (“its eyes look downwards”).  Each stem is only 4-6 inches tall with a solitary flower on top.  A member of the lily family, the trout lily has flower parts in threes, i. e., 3 yellow “sepals” and 3 yellow “petals” and 6 stamens in two circles of three.  The fleshy green leaves with purple mottling are equally distinctive in the forest litter.  

Because trout lilies are difficult to grow from seed, many bulb suppliers and nurseries sell the bulbs, which can be planted in the fall.  Remember to buy from nurseries that guarantee nursery-propagated seeds or plants as our native plants and habitats are at risk from being depleted. 

If left undisturbed, plants will slowly spread by underground shoots.  Despite its ability to spread, the trout lily is not considered an aggressive spreader but rather a delight to have in one’s garden.  Trout lily grows best in moist, acidic woodland soils, but can adapt to growing in many types of gardens. 

The flowers have a short life, but the leaves remain as ground cover throughout the growing season.  It is important to choose an appropriate site, with sun in the spring — to warm the earth and provide enough light for the lilies to make and store food — and shade or partial shade in the summer.  Trout lilies are lovely intermingled with other spring ephemerals such as bloodroot or spring beauties.  They do not transplant well.
The common name refers to the appearance of the flowers during trout fishing season, and to the brown and purple spotted leaves.  “Dogtooth violet” refers to the appearance of the bulbs, although this plant is not related to violets.  Trout lily is found throughout the state of Virginia, and ranges south to Florida and Alabama.
While not recommended today because of some toxicity, Iroquois women ate the leaves to prevent conception and the plant has anti-bacterial properties. 
For more information about native plants visit and  the chapter website at
Photo: Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) taken by Helen Hamilton

Virginia bluebells April 2019 Wildflower of the month

Virginia Bluebell, Virginia cowslip (Mertensia virginica)

by Helen Hamilton,  John Clayton Chapter

Virginia Bluebell is a beautiful spring wildflower that produces funnel-form pendant flowers beginning as pink but then turn blue as the flowers open. They are pollinated by bees that are large enough to push their way up the tube, and more commonly by butterflies and moths.

This native perennial is a spring ephemeral – the leaves first appear in March as deep purple, quickly turning green. They are large, 2-8 inches long and somewhat fragile as the stems are nearly hollow. Clumps grow up to 2 feet tall and go dormant by early summer after the flowers fade and seeds are formed. With no remnants of the plant remaining, it’s easy to assume it is gone, making the mistake of digging and planting in the same location. Installation of other shade-loving perennials should be done while the plant is still visible. A stunning combination for the spring is with yellow daffodils and pink tulips. Native ferns, Solomon’s Seal, trillium, and Foam Flower would work well also.

It’s difficult to move these beautiful plants. Small seedlings can be transplanted, but they will take several years to bloom. Mature plants have a long taproot and once established, they don’t like to be moved. If necessary larger plants can be moved when dormant, into areas with abundant moisture. Bluebells have few pests and deer don’t bother them.

The natural range of Virginia Bluebell is New York to Michigan, and south to Alabama and Missouri.  It is a plant of Virginia’s mountain and piedmont areas, rather than coastal regions, so it must be given a moist, shady environment.

Early on this lovely flower made the trip to Europe, where it quickly became a regular in English gardens.  William Robinson, writing in “The English Flower”:  “…handsomest of all is the Virginia cowslip.  It is a charming old garden plant, and one which unfortunately has never become common.”

The genus is named in honor of F.K. Mertens, a professor of botany at Bremen, and the species honors Virginia. 

Photo: Helen Hamilton

Behind the Scenes….


The John Clayton Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society is a nonprofit committed to educating the public about the value of native plants. Our big event of the year, the plant sale, is an ongoing effort. Beginning the year before the sale, we dig, purchase, propagate, and nurture a large number and variety of exclusively Virginia native plants suitable for our region. Through this effort, thousands of native plants are distributed to home and school gardens in our area. With the proceeds we provide Nature Camp scholarships, free lectures by experts in scientific fields of research, and free plant identification walks and workshops.

Pears and Cherries March 2019 Wildflowers of the Month

Soon spring will come with flowering fruit trees—serviceberry, pears, apples, cherries—all members of the Rose family, so the flowers look quite similar, with 5 white or pink petals and many stamens in the center.

First to bloom is serviceberry, a somewhat crooked small tree or shrub with slender flower petals. When flowering begins, the leaves are still folded, only about half-grown, and covered with a fine, soft gray fuzz; later the leaves are smooth and dark green. The flowers produce many small, red, sweet and juicy fruits resembling tiny apples, often well-hidden by the leaves. These fruits would be popular with people were they not so quickly consumed by birds and other wildlife.Two species of Amelanchier grow in the Coastal Plain, distinguished by the sepals that are erect and spreading in A. canadensis or curved downward in A. arborea. Early colonists noticed the tree blooming when the shad were running, hence one of its common names, shadbush. It was also known as “serviceberry” since the local ministers could visit winter-bound homes as the roads became passable, performing weddings and funerals and other services. However, in our area, serviceberry has been largely replaced by the introduced Bradford or Callery pear, Pyrus calleryana. This tree has a distinctive pyramidal shape covered with dense clusters of white flowers. Appearing before the leaves, the five-petaled flowers cover the tree in abundance, although many people find the odor of the flowers unpleasant. Flowers pollinated primarily by flies, not bees and other insects, always have a fetid smell.

Much has been written about the invasive character of Bradford pear. Native to China and Vietnam, it was named for the Chinese scholar Joseph-Marie Callery, who sent specimens of the tree to Europe from China. The species first came to this country in 1909, and in 1916 the U.S.Department of Agriculture brought in the plant to try to combat fire blight, which was devastating the commercial pear industry. Initially used as rootstock for common pear, it quickly became interesting as an ornamental. Various cultivars from China were also introduced and grafted onto rootstocks, and the cultivar ‘Bradford’ is one of the results.

Blossoms of Serviceberry (left) and Bradford Pear (right) Originally bred to be sterile, Bradford pear is now cross-pollinating with other pears, subsequently producing fruits and seeds that are relished by birds, which spread the seeds in their defecations. They grow in dense populations, especially in disturbed areas and along roadways, and are displacing native trees. This tree grows quickly, to fifteen feet in ten years, but the crown is dense and the branches are long, making it susceptible to damage by wind and ice damage. The tree will split, fall apart, or uproot in strong winds or heavy ice. Because this tree does not have a long life, is damaged by storms, and outcompetes native species, it should not be planted in any residential or commercial landscapes. Unfortunately, nurseries offer the plant for sale, and many developments, seeking to enhance their entrance-ways will plant the tree in rows along the median.

Serviceberry and pears bloom in March through early April and can be separated by (1) somewhat straggly appearance of the trunks of serviceberry. and (2) the pyramidal shape of Bradford pear and the unpleasant odor of its flowers.  Apples and cherries bloom a little later, in late April or May. Southern crabapple, Malus angustifolia, is native in the Coastal Plain and the introduced Common Apple, Malus pumila, has been cultivated and is now widely naturalized across the state. Apples and cherries can be separated by their tree trunks—on cherry trees the bark is dark and shiny with horizontal lens-shaped spots (lenticels), whereas the bark of crabapples is light-colored and the branchlets are thorny.

These 4 genera—serviceberry, pears, apples, and cherries—can be separated also by flower structure. Apples, pears, and serviceberry all have inferior ovaries, closely surrounded by other tissues; the ovary becomes the core of the fruit and the part we eat is derived from the fleshy flower cup that adheres to the ovary as the fruit develops. The dried remnants of the flower—tips of sepals, stamens and pistils—can often be seen at the top of apples and pears, opposite the stem.  Among these 4 genera, only the cherries (Prunus sp) have superior ovaries, that is, when the flower is dissected, the ovary can be seen free at the bottom of the flower.
There is no scar at the top of cherries, nor central core, since the superior ovary alone becomes the fleshy fruit we eat.

Many cultivars of these blooming fruit trees are widely planted for their spring flowers and colorful foliage. In autumn the native serviceberry shows a variety of colorful hues, from yellow and gold to orange and deep red. This plant is striking when placed in a mixed shrubbery border where its brilliant white blooms and fall color stand out nicely against a background of evergreen shrubs.

Helen Hamilton