Wildflower Spot: Blue Mistflower

Photo taken by Helen Hamilton in the Williamsburg Botanical Garden July 2006

Photo taken by Helen Hamilton in the Williamsburg Botanical Garden July 2006

This native perennial is topped with masses of soft, fluffy violet-blue flowers. It’s a member of the Aster family, but there are no rays on the flowers. Each flowerhead has as many as 50 little florets, each with 5 tiny lobes and a long style that gives the flowers a fuzzy appearance. Other asters like black-eyed susans, dandelions, and sunflowers have both ray and disk flowers.

Mistflower grows 3-4 feet tall, and spreads by creeping roots. It can take over an entire border, but the roots are shallow and easy to pull out. The plant grows best in full sun to light shade, in moist conditions – it does not handle drought well but requires little attention. With a long blooming season – July through October, this perennial feeds insects well into fall. The leaves and stems die back during winter, but emerge again in early summer.

Blue Mistflower grows wild in woods edges, stream banks, ditches, meadows, and fields, in nearly every county in Virginia. It is also known as Wild Ageratum because the flowers resemble those of the shorter (6-12”) annual Dwarf Ageratum (Ageratum houstonianum,) sold in garden centers as bedding plants.

Blue Mistflower is usually covered with butterflies and skippers sipping nectar and bees collecting pollen. The leaves grow opposite on the stems with soft toothed edges, 3” x 2”. Deer usually don’t bother this plant because the leaves have a bitter taste.

Other species with similar characteristics – flat-topped clusters of disk flowerheads – are closely related and include joe-pye-weeds, flat-topped goldenrods and bonesets. All are butterfly magnets.

For more information about native plants visit www.vnps.org.

By Helen Hamilton John Clayton Chapter, VNPS

Photo: Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) taken by Helen Hamilton in the Williamsburg Botanical Garden, July 2006.

July 2018 Wildflower of the Month: Elderberry

By Helen Hamilton
John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society


Sambucus canadensis

This is a large, sprawling shrub growing 5-12 feet tall, one of the first to leaf out in the spring. Elderberry can be a showy ornamental for the garden, producing attractive flowers and berries all season long. It will tolerate a wide range of soils, but prefers moist, organic soils in full sun to part shade. The yellow compound leaves turn golden in the fall, if planted in full sun.

This native shrub can spread aggressively by root suckers, forming thickets, so it is best massed in naturalized areas or in shrub borders, roadside plantings, or as a screen, particularly in wet or low areas. Heavy pruning periodically will help control its growth. Elderberry is found in all counties of Virginia and is native throughout eastern U.S. and south to Mexico.
Large, flat-topped clusters of fragrant, star-shaped white flowers appear in June through July and are followed by clusters of reddish-purple to black, berry-like fruits (drupes) in late summer to fall. The flowers furnish nectar and pollen to insects in the spring and in the fall over 43 species of birds enjoy the fruits. This is a highly desirable plant for wildlife, and it is moderately resistant to damage by deer.
In West Virginia, concentrated fruit syrup is made as a wintertime remedy for colds and flu; studies have shown its effectiveness for treatment of colds and flu. While the bark, root, leaves and unripe berries are toxic, the fruits are edible when cooked, and may be used to make preserves, jellies, pies and wine. The flowers, not toxic, can be eaten in pancakes and fritters, and elderberry juice is a nice cold drink.
For more information about native plants visit www.vnps.org.

By Helen Hamilton, John Clayton Chapter, VNPS

Photo: Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) taken by Helen Hamilton

Crossvine – June 2018 Wildflower of the Month

Crossvine Bignonia capreolata Wildflower of the Month June 2018

Bignonia capreolata
Photo by Helen Hamilton


By Helen Hamilton, John Clayton Chapter, VNPS

 Blooming profusely in coastal Virginia from late April through June, with red and yellow bell-shaped flowers, crossvine is a stunning addition to the home garden.  The funnel-shaped flowers varying from orange to red outside and trimmed with yellow, and glossy green leaves mark crossvine as a plant of unusual beauty.    Its native habitat is moist woods and the flowers can be seen from local roadways at the edge of woodlands.  Walking the Jamestown Loop Road in May and June, the blossoms appear at your feet with no apparent source nearby.  That’s because the vine has climbed to the top of the tallest trees to catch sunlight.

While it will reach a height of 50 feet, in the home garden it will grow on a trellis, fence or porch, rewarding the homeowner with cascades of flowers at eye level. Without a structure to climb upon, crossvine will spread across the ground.  Because the leaves remain on the vine over the winter, this species is a nice alternative groundcover to nonnative periwinkle and ivy.  It has appendages on the ends of its tendrils that cling to surfaces, so that it can climb a brick wall or wood arbor without support wires.

Its stems are small, and this woody vine grows fast once it has become established, spreading throughout the area from root suckers. The orange-flowered trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) is in the same family and blooms after crossvine, in late summer through fall.

Flowering occurs as the daffodils fade; the bright reds and yellows complement the wild blue phlox and azaleas.  Brown seed pods appear in late fall; the paired leaves are semi-evergreen, turning bronze or copper in the fall and remaining on the vine through the winter.

Crossvine likes swampy forests, rock outcrops and limy river banks, growing in sun or part shade, in acid to alkaline soils.  Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds love the flowers.  The cut stem shows a cross pattern, which is the source for the common name.

It is deer resistant, and there are no serious disease or insect problems associated with crossvine.  This plant is a native alternative to invasive nonnative English ivy, Japanese honeysuckle, and the Asian wisterias.

For more information about native plants visit www.vnps.org.

By Helen Hamilton, John Clayton Chapter, VNPS

Photo: Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) taken by Helen Hamilton



Sassafras – May 2018 Wildflower of the Month

Sassafras edited

SASSAFRAS (Sassafras albidum)

By Helen Hamilton

This tree is unique for its three distinctive leaf shapes: entire, mitten-shaped, and three-lobed, all on the same tree. In mid-April little bunches of yellow-green flower clusters are scattered profusely over the tree, drooping as the leaves emerge.  The green twigs, bark and leaves carry aromatic oils – spicy-fragrant when crushed or rubbed.   Round fruits appear in mid-summer, turning dark blue on scarlet stalks; the leaves have outstanding color in the fall.

Sassafras is a moderately fast growing, small to medium-sized tree, valued for fragrant spring flowers, horizontal branching pattern, and striking fall color. It requires little care and can be a single specimen tree or planted in masses.

Found on virtually all soil types, Sassafras is native to every county in Virginia, its range extending from southern Maine to Michigan and Missouri, and south to Florida and east Texas.  It is a pioneer species on abandoned fields, along fence rows, and on dry ridges and upper slopes, especially following fire, often forming thickets from underground runners of parent trees, but grows best in open woods on moist, well-drained, sandy loam soils.

The bark, twigs, and leaves of sassafras are important foods for wildlife in some areas. Deer and rabbits browse the twigs in the winter and the leaves and succulent growth during spring and summer. Fruits are eaten by songbirds.

The durable coarse lumber was once used for barrels, buckets, posts, and fuel.  The greenish twigs and leafstalks have a pleasant, spicy, slightly gummy taste.   Aromatic oils in the roots and bark of sassafras have been used in many medicinal and cosmetic products.  Explorers and colonists thought the aromatic root bark was a panacea, or cure-all, for diseases and shipped quantities to Europe. Sassafras roots provided the original flavoring for root beer, and were used until 1960, when certain compounds in the roots were found to be carcinogenic.  Root beer is now flavored artificially.

Sassafras apparently is the American Indian name used by the Spanish and French settlers in Florida in the middle of the 16th century. This is the northernmost New World representative of the laurel family, an important source of tropical timbers.

Wild Ginger – May 2018 Wildflower of the Month


By Helen Hamilton, John Clayton Chapter, VNPS

The gingers growing in the woods in our area are not related to the ginger root sold in stores. Garden ginger (Zingiber officinale) is native to Southeast Asia, China, India and New Guinea and is grown worldwide for uses as food and medicine. Information is available online about how to grow your own ginger plant in the home garden, using the knobby roots from the grocery.

Two species of ginger are found in our local woodlands, one is deciduous, the other evergreen. The kidney-shaped leaves of Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) are deciduous.   They are soft to the touch, densely short-hairy, evenly green, and grow in pairs.  Since it spreads via long rhizomes, Wild Ginger sometimes grows in dense stands.   The heart-shaped leaves of Heartleaf Ginger (Hexastylis virginica), in contrast, are leathery, lustrous, and evergreen.  Each plant produces only one leaf each year, rather than a pair of leaves.  They are often mottled with silvery veining and can develop a purple tinge in winter.  They grow as single leaves, rather than in pairs.

The rootstocks and sometimes the leaves (depending on rainfall) of both species have a ginger-like aroma and a hot spicy taste.  The flowers of both are “little brown jugs”, growing beneath the leaves and hugging the ground (often hidden beneath leaf litter).  They are pollinated by gnats, beetles, and the flies of March and April.

Wild Ginger is widely distributed in the eastern and central U.S., but Heartleaf Ginger is restricted to the southeastern states, ranging from Virginia and North Carolina westward to eastern parts of Kentucky and Tennessee.  Both gingers are widely distributed throughout Virginia, but they grow in markedly different soil types.  Wild Ginger thrives in nutrient-rich soils, such as those found in calcareous ravines in the Coastal Plain; Heartleaf Ginger typically grows in acidic soils of moist to dry upland woods.

You can test the identity of a wild ginger by probing just below the ground with a finger and scratching the rhizome. A ginger-like smell on your finger will be proof. Native Americans and early settlers used the rhizome to flavor foods much as real ginger is used. There are numerous accounts of Native Americans using wild ginger to protect those who ate spoiled meat or food that might be poisoned.  The plant has been shown to have certain antimicrobial properties, supporting early reports of its medicinal properties in the treatment of digestive disorders, to produce abortion, to reduce fever and for coughs and sore throats.

The genus “Hexastylis” is named from the Greek “hex” for six and “stylus” for style, referring to six distinct styles in a flower (in contrast to a single style with six lobes in Asarum.)  For many years taxonomists have differed on whether the various species of evergreen gingers should be recognized as a separate genus (Hexastylis) or treated as species of the genus Asarum. That dispute continues today.  Some recent data lends support to their separation into two genera, and both names appear in the Flora of Virginia 

To grow gingers in the home garden, provide a good, humus-rich soil in full or dappled shade.  Propagation is by division in the spring, root-cuttings, and seed.  Gingers are great ground covers under shrubbery or along woodland pathways, and they can withstand dry conditions.


Photos: Heartleaf Ginger (Hexastylis virginica) taken by Helen Hamilton

Smooth Alder – March 2018 Wildflower of the Month

Smooth AlderSmooth Alder (Alnus serrulata) is a multi-stemmed small tree or large shrub with shiny gray-brown bark that reaches 15 feet tall.  Both male and female flowering structures persist through the winter.  In winter, smooth alder can be recognized instantly by two reproductive structures.  The small cone-like female catkins are from the female flower of the previous year while the yet-unopened catkins are of the coming year.  The future “cones” that will be pollinated by the catkins are themselves still tiny in winter.

In the spring the male flowers are yellow-brown drooping catkins. Alders are wind-pollinated, and release pollen before the leaves emerge. Dark green leaves have wedge-shaped bases and leaf edges are usually finely toothed.  The glossy summer foliage becomes yellow and tinged with red in the fall.  The reddish buds grow from the twig on short stalks, another identifying feature in the winter, since the buds are not stalked in most trees and shrubs.

Alders are most important as pioneer species that stabilize and fertilize barren areas such as strip mines, clearcuts, and riverbanks.  These small trees fix nitrogen from the air in a symbiotic relationship with bacteria in the root system, which nourishes the tree.  As alder leaves fall, the nitrogen-rich litter quickly fertilizes barren ground.   Many conifers have been shown to grow better in areas where alders have preceded them, so alders are often planted as the first step in reforestation.

The only alder native in southeastern United States, smooth alder grows in disturbed and wet areas, commonly found at the edge of water.  This shrub or small tree is common in eastern and central U.S. and in most counties across Virginia.

Inner bark can be ground into a crude flour in an emergency.  Deer will eat the twigs, but it is not a favorite food.

By Helen Hamilton, past-president of the John Clayton Chapter, VNPS
Photo:  Smooth alder (Alnus serrulata) taken by Helen Hamilton

Catbrier – February 2018 Wildflower of the Month

Saw Greenbrier Smilax bona-nox at York River State Park, VA Greenbrier, Catbrier, Sawbrier, Bullbrier, Carrion-flower – members of this genus have many common names, none of them conveying that of a friendly plant. Rather, the leaves of many species have strong prickles, and the stems have thorns to hook onto branches of other plants. New homeowners of old farms and less-than-new houses often find part of the property covered with dense impenetrable thickets of the vine, viewed by some as “razor wire.”

While clumps of these plants are daunting to gardeners, all this greenery is important food and shelter for wildlife. Black Bear eat the berries and shoots, deer graze on new growths, and birds enjoy the berries, passing the seeds along to another site. Native Americans found many uses, culinary and medicinal, for species found here in the Coastal Plain.

Common Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) was described by Linnaeus, from plants collected by colonial botanists and sent to Europe. Also known as Sawtooth Greenbriar, Horsebrier, and Round Leaf Greenbrier, this is not a plant loved by gardeners. This vine grows all over natural wooded areas, draping stems from shrub to shrub – it’s easy to get caught in a group of bending and sprawling shoots, the thorns catching on smooth clothing and impossible to remove from woolen sweaters.

Smilax rotundifolia berriesEasy to recognize, Common Greenbrier has rounded leaves that are bright green on both sides, and strong parallel veins. While these leaves often persist over the winter, most species are deciduous. Tiny yellowish-green flowers (male and female on different vines) bloom for two weeks in April or May, followed by clusters of blue-black berries from September through November. Among the many birds that feed on the berries are Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Bluebird and White-throated Sparrow.

Catbrier (Smilax bona-nox) is distinctive for the leathery, triangular leaves with a broad lobe on each side, presenting an “eared” appearance. This is a woody vine that climbs and winds with tendrils up trees, over shrubbery and along the ground, creating thick brambles. The smooth, green stems grow to 20 feet long, and are covered with stout, sharp prickles that make passage very difficult. Leaves are green beneath, often mottled with white. The leaf edges are often bristly and when smooth, a raised, wire-like vein runs along the margin.

In late spring, small, inconspicuous flowers appear in clusters in the axils of the leaves, male and female on different plants.  Following the flowering period, clusters of blue fruits are very attractive to wild turkeys, squirrels and many species of songbirds during the winter.  White-tailed deer will browse the foliage, not bothered by the thorns on the lower parts of the plant.  The seeds are dispersed by animals and can be carried long distances by birds.

Native Americans and colonists cooked the shoots of greenbriers and added young leaves and tendrils to salads, well into summer. The roots form a large tuber similar to a sweet potato that served many needs. Dried, pounded to a powder, and mixed with water, the final paste was used to thicken soups, to make jelly, and to treat minor aches and pains. Francis Peyer Porcher, an American botanist, wrote that the American Indians as well as soldiers during the Civil War fermented the Greenbriar tuber into a “home brew” adding sassafras for flavor to enlighten their spirits. The leaves of the Greenbriar can be used as a dressing for cuts and burns.

By Helen Hamilton, past-president of the John Clayton Chapter, VNPS
Photos:  Catbrier (Smilax bona-nox) taken by Helen Hamilton
Common Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) taken by Seig Kopinitz

Persimmon – November 2017 Wildflower of the Month

Persimmon PMPersimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is a beautiful native tree that produces luscious fruit and yellow, red or purple leaves in the fall. With its dark-colored bark, cut into little blocks, Persimmon is easy to recognize while walking woodland trails. Flowering Dogwood also has blocky bark, but the branches form twigs that are opposite each other – Persimmon has alternate branching. And no one would mistake the leaves and fruits of Dogwood for that of Persimmon.

Persimmon leaves are shiny, dark green in spring, turning vivid yellow, red, and purple in the fall, usually with black spots. The leaves can be mistaken for those of other nearby trees, but the edges are smooth, without teeth, and they arranged alternately on the stems. A medium-sized tree with a somewhat irregular shape, it thrives in full sun or part shade, and tolerates any kind of soil from low, swampy sites to upland dry woods.

Tiny white urn-shaped flowers appear from May through June, hidden among the leaves. Male and female flowers are on separate trees, and while female trees are necessary for fruit production, immature trees or those in poor growing conditions will have low fruit set. Unripe fruit is highly astringent due to tannins which have a drying effect on tissues. After a frost the fruit becomes soft, fleshy and delicious, with a custard-like flavor of mangoes and banana.

Cultivars of American Persimmon in the nursery trade modify the fruit qualities, fall leaf color and growth rate.  Seeds of an oriental persimmon reached this country in 1856, sent from Japan by Commodore Perry. Cultivars were collected in China and are now are widely distributed throughout the southern states.

The wood is hard, smooth and even-textured, resembling ebony that comes from relatives in the tropics, eg, Diospyros ebenum. The wood has been used commercially for golf club heads and textile shuttles. Fruits feed many birds and mammals, from songbirds to turkeys, dogs and deer, which help disperse the seeds.

Photo: Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) taken by Phillip Merritt
By Helen Hamilton, past-president of the John Clayton Chapter, VNPS

Sourwood – December 2017 Wildflower of the Month

SourwoodSourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is a rewarding tree in all seasons; in spring the tree is covered with lacy white fronds of flowers, suggesting its other name, “lily of the valley tree”.  Fall turns the leaves deep red and the fingers of white flowers become clusters of creamy fruits.

Many members of the heath family have small, white, bell-like flowers that are clustered mostly at ends of twigs.  Sourwood is the only full-size tree in the heath family with flowers and fruits of the heath type.  The sour-tasting leaves are narrow to egg-shaped with a line of hairs on the midvein on the underside.

Hardy to zones 5 to 9, sourwood prefers full to part sun in slightly acidic, moist, well-drained soils, but does well in dry soil. However, the root system is shallow, and it does not transplant well.  Sourwood tree trunks do not stand straight and tall, they always lean away from the vertical.  When the leaves are gone, these leaning trunks are good identification for sourwood.

This mid-sized tree (20-30 feet tall) ranges from New Jersey south to Florida and Louisiana, growing in rich woods.  It is found in all counties across Virginia except for those in northern Virginia.

With no major pests or diseases, this native tree is worth considering as a landscape element. The flowers attract bees and butterflies, and produce seeds for birds.  Sourwood honey can often be found in local food outlets.

Photo: Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) taken by Helen Hamilton
By Helen Hamilton, past-president of the John Clayton Chapter, VNPS

Black Walnut – January 2018 Wildflower of the Month

Black Walnut (1)Black walnut (Juglans nigra) is one of our most valuable and beautiful native trees.  Before extensive colonization Black Walnut was a dominant canopy species, reaching 150 feet or more in height. But clearing for agriculture, harvesting for export to Britain, and making railroad ties, log cabins and cabinets greatly reduced the species.

This tree is native to 32 states, more common in lower elevations and concentrated in eastern U.S.  In nature Black Walnut grows in hardwood forests on moist, well-drained soils. These trees are often found around old homesites where they were planted for their tall, stately growth and broad canopy for shade. The leaves are dark green, turning yellow in autumn, and when crushed, have a spicy scent. Small greenish catkins are the flowers that appear in April, as the leaves are beginning to unfurl.

The compound leaves have 9-21 long, pointed leaflets, with finely toothed margins. They look somewhat similar to the leaflets of the introduced Tree of Heaven Ailanthus altissima but those leaves are coarsely toothed with a small lip near the insertion. Black Walnut can be distinguished from hickories by its distinctive leaf scar that is notched with a U-shaped bundle scars in the middle, often described as a “monkey face.”

The wood is exceptionally beautiful with a darkly patterned grain, and is highly prized for furniture, veneers, interior finishing. Other parts of the tree have a variety of uses, especially the delicious nuts which are, unfortunately, covered with an extremely hard shell that is covered by another impossibly thick husk. The hulls will soften over time, and the nutmeats can be harvested by hand, with a chisel and hammer, or with commercial products. Black walnuts have higher concentrations of beneficial fatty acids and protein than the English walnut that is more commonly sold in stores.

All parts of Black Walnut produce the chemical juglone that inhibits metabolic activity in many plants. The chemical is produced in roots and dissolves out of the leaves during rains, washing down to the ground below. While some plants cannot tolerate exposure to juglone, many trees, shrubs and perennials can be grown nearby with no ill effects. According to Doug Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home, the most sensitive plants are alien ornamentals, with no evolutionary experience with juglone. For a list of juglone-resistant plants, see “Landscaping and Gardening Around Walnuts and Other Juglone Producing Plants,” PennState Extension website, www.psu.edu.

The bark and leaves have been used medicinally, and have been especially useful treating skin diseases. The bark has been chewed to help with the pain of a toothache, and a bark infusion was taken as a laxative, among other uses. The chemical is highly toxic to many insect herbivores and can be a natural pesticide. Native Americans used the green hulls of the nuts as a fish poison.

Black Walnut, along with hickories, are excellent wildlife trees – their leaves host over 100 species of caterpillars and moths, important food source for birds. The nuts feed mice, voles, and squirrels over the winter, and these animals are food for larger ones, passing energy up the food pyramid. And since squirrels don’t always remember where they buried their nuts, sprouts of Black Walnut will appear in new habitats.

By Helen Hamilton, Past-president of the John Clayton Chapter, VNPS
Photo: Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) taken by Helen Hamilton