Joe pye weed September 2020 Wildflower of the Month

By Helen Hamilton
John Clayton Chapter

Joe-pye weed
Eutrochium dubium

These tall, majestic plants are real butterfly magnets.  Blooming in late summer until frost, they range from 3 to 10 feet tall with dense heads of fluffy pinkish flowers that are usually covered with butterflies, bees, beetles and wasps, all feeding and pollinating.  When in flower, Joe-pye-weeds can be the star of the garden, but a little rough for a formal garden.  Long blooming (from July-October) and deer resistant, these plants can grow very large and are great in a wild garden or placed to the rear or where a strong accent is needed.

Joe-pye-weeds are meadow plants; most require full sun, acid, rich soil and moist drainage, although some can tolerate shade, less moisture, coastal conditions and clay soil. Clump-forming, they will not form extensive drifts.   Before blooming, these plants are easy to recognize by their leaves which are generally in whorls of 3-6 leaflets that are lance-shaped to oval and with teeth on the edges.  At the top of each stem, clusters of tiny flowers appear in rounded groups, terminating in a large dome of blossoms, as much as 18 inches across.  Members of the Aster Family, Joe-pye-weeds have no rays (petals), only disk flowers, and they are tiny, allowing small insects easy access to nectar.  Also visiting these tightly packed flowers and many butterflies, including tiger swallowtails, monarchs and viceroys.

Three species of Joe-pye-weed are native to the Coastal Plain, the shortest is Coastal Joe-pye-weed, growing 5 feet tall. The leaves of this plant have 3 conspicuous veins extending from the petiole, whereas the leaves of other species have only one main vein.  A popular cultivar ‘Little Joe’ is only 3 feet tall and compact and is an excellent choice for a small butterfly garden.  The flowers are mauve purple in a rounded terminal group.  Also a good choice for a rain garden, Coastal Joe-pye-weed grows naturally in bogs, swamps and wet clearings, usually in acidic, poor soils. 

Purple Joe-pye-weed (E. purpureum) grows to 7 feet tall and Hollow-stem Joe-pye-weed (E. fistulosum) can be over 11 feet tall.  The flowers of both species are pale pink to purplish, in rounded domes, or loose clusters at the tops of stems.

“Joe-pye Weed” comes from a tale about a North American Indian called Joe Pye, who walked the streets of Boston, selling a cure for typhus, using an elixir of this plant to induce profuse sweating, thus breaking the fever (although this story is in some doubt among authors). This plant is also called Gravel root because it has the ability to remove and to a certain degree dissolve kidney stones or gravel.

photo: by Helen Hamilton
edited C Flanagan

Mistflower August 2020 Wildflower of the Month

MISTFLOWER and Monarch Butterflies
Conoclinium coelestinum
(formerly Eupatorium coelestinum)

Photo by Helen Hamilton

This is one of the native perennials highly regarded as nectar food for monarch butterflies. The typical life cycle of monarchs includes four flights each year, the third in July-August, and the last September-October that produces a different butterfly, capable of the long migration south. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed, the leaves furnishing food for the growing caterpillars.

The adult butterflies get their energy and maintenance food from the flowers of milkweed as well as many other late summer flowers, such as Cardinal Flower, Blue Vervain, Wild Bergamot, New York Ironweed, goldenrods, bonesets. Plants with massive heads of tiny flowers are favorites of butterflies since they can easily collect nectar from the closely packed blossoms, not using energy to fly to other nearby plants.

Mistflower is an ideal candidate, blooming from July through October to feed insects from late summer into fall. 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.

This plant 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.

A cultivar ‘Wayside’ is somewhat shorter, but there is little information about butterfly visits to this plant. “Gregg’s Mistflower” is native to Texas, Arizona and New Mexico and south and is a good pollinator plant in that region. Our native Mistflower can sprawl and become weedy in appearance by late fall, but it is a butterfly magnet, and is the only mistflower that should be planted here. Deer do not typically browse on the bitter-tasting leaves.

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 Boneset is another name; the eupatoriums were thought to cure broken bones since the stems of some species grow through the leaves.

Mistflower grows wild in woods edges, stream banks, ditches, meadows, and fields, in nearly every county in Virginia. The leaves grow opposite on the stems with soft toothed edges, 3” x 2”.

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Mountain mint July 2020 Wildflower of the Month

Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium)



Pycnanthemum tenuifolium/muticum
By Helen Hamilton

John Clayton Chapter, VNPS

What’s not to like about a native perennial that is attractive to bees and butterflies, does not spread aggressively, and is deer-resistant?  Mountain-mints bloom from June through August, with small white flowers rich in nectar that is food for many kinds of insects – butterflies, skippers, bees, beetles, flies and especially wasps.  Flowers are tightly clustered on the ends of stems and their structure allows wasps and other short-tongued insects to feed easily.

Two species are common in our area.  With very narrow leaves, Slender Mountain-mint (P. tenuifolium)has a delicate, somewhat airy appearance.  This native perennial plant grows 1-3 feet tall, branching frequently to create a bushy effect.  The leaves are up to 3 inches long and ¼ inch across.  Each leaf is hairless, with a prominent central vein and smooth margins. Small white to lavender 2-lipped flowers are in dense clusters in the leaf axils or at the ends of slender, hairless stems. 

The dark green leaves of Clustered Mountain-mint (P. muticum) are not thin, up to 2 inches wide, and have a strong spearmint aroma when crushed.   The flowers are similar – the 2-lipped tubular flowers, each up to ½ inch wide, are in dense flat-topped clusters at the ends of the stems.  Each cluster has a pair of showy silvery leaf-like bracts at the base.  The entire plant looks like it has been dusted with powdery snow.  Massed in groups, the effect is stunning – a clustered plant with tiny pinkish flowers buzzing with insects, surrounded by dark green leaves and snowy bracts.

Both Mountain-mints are easy to grow in the home garden, in full sun or part shade.  Slender Mountain-mint prefers soils that are somewhat drier than the bogs and wet meadows where Clustered Mountain-mint occurs.

The flowers have no scent, but the leaves have a minty odor and taste. Deer usually don’t browse on Mountain-mints because of the minty taste; the foliage may contain anti-bacterial substances that disrupt their digestive process.  The tiny seeds are disseminated by wind – they are too small to be of much interest to birds.

The common name “Mountain-mint” does not refer to a preference for the mountainous regions.  Both Mountain-mints are found in most counties of Virginia, and range over the eastern and central regions of the U.S. and Canada.  The genus name derives from the Greek pycnos for “dense” and anthemon, meaning “flower” and aptly describes the crowded flower clusters.   The species name tenuifolium is derived from the Latin tenuis, meaning “thin,” a reference to the narrow leaves. 

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Spiderwort June 2020 Wildflower of the Month


Tradescantia virginiana, by Jan Newton

By Helen Hamilton

A long-blooming native perennial like Spiderwort can fit into a lot of spaces in the home garden. Three-petaled flowers form a triangle – they are violet-blue with vivid yellow stamens growing in a 3’ tall clump. Each flower is open for only a day, in the morning, but they bloom in succession from buds at the ends of stems, from April through July. The flower stems are surrounded by arching green leaves up to one foot long and one inch wide that are erect early in the season but are somewhat drooping in summer.

Spiderwort is not fussy about growing conditions – part shade, medium water, low maintenance – and tolerates clay soil, dry and wet soil. It would fit in a woodland or native garden, naturalized or as a border, along with other perennials that hide the sprawling leaves late in the season. The plant can self-seed and spread but dead-heading will prevent seed set. Spiderwort’s blue-violet flowers are attractive with yellow flowers like Green and Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) and Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). Bumblebees are the principal pollinators.

Two other species of Tradescantia grow in Virginia, differing in the appearance of the leaves and flowers. T. ohiensis grows in Virginia Beach and the western mountainous counties; T. subaspera has been located in the southwestern counties. T. virginiana grows west of Richmond and some southeastern counties.

The plant’s genus name honors John Tradescant, gardener to Charles the First of England and a subscriber to the Virginia Company. John’s son traveled to Virginia in the 1630s and sent spiderwort back to England where it became part of the English cottage gardens. It is called Spiderwort because the stems when cut secrete a sticky secretion that becomes threadlike and silky as it hardens, like a spider’s web. “Wort” is an old English word for plant.

Hybrids are available in the nursery trade with red-purple, pink or white flowers.

Red Columbine May 2020 Wildflower of the Month

Aquilegia canadensis by Helen Hamilton

By Helen Hamilton

This is one of our loveliest early spring flowers, with hanging red flowers that have long spurs and yellow centers. The nectar at the base of the spurs attracts long-tongued insects and hummingbirds. The flowers are mature when migrating hummingbirds appear in our area, and are important food for these little birds, and for early butterflies and bees as well. Insects seeking the nectar will brush against the extended anthers, collecting pollen to transfer to a neighboring flower with receptive female parts.

Native to eastern U.S., Red Columbine is found in most counties of Virginia, growing wild in roadsides and forest edges. This early, long-blooming (March-May) spring plant forms small clumps about 2 feet tall. Once established, Red Columbine is easy to grow in a woodland garden with moist soil.

This perennial has a light, airy appearance, but is very durable and tolerant of cold weather. The aboveground plant disappears in the fall, but returns each year from the fibrous roots. As the plant self-seeds in early autumn, sprouts will appear the next year in other favorable garden locations, and seeds are easily collected for distribution in other areas. Red Columbine looks wonderful when planted with Golden Ragwort, Confederate (white) Violets, and Wild Blue Phlox.

Attractive, lacy blue-green leaves are compound, divided into round-lobed threes. After the flowers fade, leafminers will leave traces in the leaves but they do not damage the roots of this perennial. When the leaves become unsightly, they can be removed, with no harm to the plant. Deer will avoid Red Columbine as the foliage is toxic.

Golden Ragwort April 2020 Wildflower of the Month

By Helen Hamilton

Packera aurea by Helen Hamilton

Golden Ragwort is a welcome sign of spring, covering swampy areas with bright yellow, from mid-March through early summer. The buds are purple, and open to display yellow disc and ray flowers, unusual for a member of the Aster Family — the rays are often white. This native perennial grows 1-3 feet tall, with only a few deeply cut leaves on the stems. The leaves at the base of the plant are heart-shaped, in a large rosette. After the flowers fade, these leaves spread to form a nice groundcover which will persist over most of the winter.

Growing naturally in bogs, wet woods, floodplains and meadows in eastern North America, Golden Ragwort occurs in every county in Virginia. The plant thrives in full shade with acid, rich soil, in zones 3 to 9. Because it spreads easily by seed and underground roots, it can form large colonies and will grow under trees where nothing else thrives. In a woodland garden or a perennial border in the shade the masses of golden yellow look wonderful with Bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana) and Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis).

Small bees and flies that emerge early from winter homes are frequent visitors, feeding on nectar and carrying pollen to fertilize neighboring flowers. Among the insects, the green metallic sweat bee is more easily seen than the dull brown or black cuckoo bees and hoverflies. Deer avoid Golden Ragwort since the leaves contain toxic chemicals.

Two other species of this genus are common in the Coastal Plain. Woolly Ragwort (P. tomentosa) is a plant of the dunes, sandy clearings and roadsides and Small’s Ragwort (P. anonyma) grows in dry fields, roadsides and disturbed habitats. There are differences in the stems and leaves of these 3 species, but where they grow is the best way to identify them.

Golden Ragwort is one of the herbs (ground and dissolved in alcohol) that are sold as Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, widely marketed as a cure for any “female complaint.” A tea made from the root and leaves was used by American Indians, settlers and herbalists to treat delayed and irregular menses, leucorrhea and childbirth complications, leading to its alternate common name “squaw-weed.”
“Ragwort” means a plant with ragged leaves, and “wort” is an Old “English word for “plant”.

The best place to buy these plants are local native plant sales, since it is not usually seen in commercial nurseries. Online sites such as North Creek Nurseries sell flats of seedlings.

Red Maple March 2020 Wildflower of the Month


Acer rubrum male flowers by Helen Hamilton

By Helen Hamilton 

One of the first signs of spring is the red haze over the bare limbs of our local maple trees. This would be the male and female flowers of Red Maple. Typical of many species, the male flowers appear first as a yellowish pink, closely followed by the darker pink blossoms of the female trees. When fertilized, the familiar maple “keys” form and drop from the twigs like miniature helicopters.

Red Maple is a medium-sized tree with smooth gray young trunk bark and broken darker older bark. The highly variable leaves have 3 to 5 lobes and are whitened underneath. It is well named, as its flowers, petioles, twigs and seeds are all red to varying degrees.  However, this tree is most well known for its brilliant deep scarlet foliage in autumn. Many cultivars are available with varying shades of red and leaf shapes.

One of the most common and widespread deciduous trees of eastern North America, Red Maple ranges from Minnesota, east to Newfoundland, south to Florida, and southwest to Texas. Usually occurring in low, wet sites, this tree is adaptable to a very wide range of site conditions. It can be found growing in swamps, on poor dry soils, and most anywhere in between. 

Acer rubrum female flowers by Helen Hamilton

Red Maple will tolerate some air pollution and is easy to transplant. With striking fall foliage and pleasing form, it is often used as a shade tree for landscapes. Maple syrup and lumber production occur on a small scale from red maple.

This is the State Tree of Rhode Island.

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Skunk Cabbage February 2020 Wildflower of the Month



by Helen Hamilton, John Clayton Chapter


Poking up through the snow is a purple-brown and green mottled hood, which is a modified leaf, 2–5 inches long. Inside is a nearly round flower head with many small, tightly packed individual flowers. They “bloom” when stamens emerge above the four tiny sepals. After the pollen has been released, the stamens wither, and a style grows out of the middle of each flower to be pollinated by insects with pollen from other flower heads. 

 The flowers of Skunk Cabbage have no colorful petals to attract pollinating insects. Instead, they emit an odor similar to decomposing flesh which attracts the first insects of the year, usually carrion and dung flies, but also beetles, bees and mosquitoes.





Biologists have found the flowers produce warmth over a period of 12-14 days, remaining an average of 36 degrees F about the outside air temperature, day or night.  Like a warm-blooded animal, they can regulate their warmth.  The heat and foul smell attract the first pollinating insects of the year, usually flies.

After the plant blooms, large oval leaves resembling cabbage unfold and can grow 3-4 feet long.   By mid-May a wetland can be covered with skunk cabbage leaf rosettes.  By June the leaves begin to decay; since the plant forms no woody fibers, a large part of the leaf and stem is water, and the leaves simply dissolve.   By mid-June the fruit heads are roundish balls, wine-red, about two inches in diameter.  In August the fruit head falls apart, leaving seeds on the ground to be eaten, to decompose, or to germinate. By the end of summer, no trace of the plant is left but a fully-grown skunk cabbage has a massive root system, with several years’ reproductive parts partially formed within.  


Skunk cabbage is widely distributed in the state of Virginia, its range extending to Georgia and West Virginia. The range extends from Quebec and Nova Scotia to North Carolina and west to Minnesota and Iowa. A nearly identical plant of northeast Asia is a close living relative. Three other members of the huge, mostly tropical Arum family are familiar in the Coastal Plain — Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Ariseama triphyllum), Arrow Arum or Tuckahoe (Peltandra virginica), and Golden Club (Orontium aquaticum).


Calcium oxalate crystals in the leaves are irritating if eaten and may be toxic. With these crystals and the disagreeable scent, most animals will avoid eating them, except when the leaves are young in the spring. The roots are considered toxic, but Native Americans used them for cramps, convulsions, toothaches and as a poultice for wounds. Early physicians used the leaves for coughs, asthma, and externally in lotions for itching and rheumatism.

Witch Hazel January 2020 Wildflower of the Month

By Helen Hamilton

John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society

This low-branching shrub or small tree can furnish year-round interest, with winter-blooming flowers. From late fall and into winter, fragrant yellow flowers, each with four, crinkly, ribbon-shaped petals, grow in clusters close to the stem. 

Flowers     Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

Throughout the summer the branches are covered by broad, slightly pointed dark green leaves that turn a brilliant gold in the fall.  In late summer the leaves often show small triangular growths – these are created by the witch hazel cone gall aphid.  Although their presence on leaves suggests some type of disturbance, galls usually do not harm their hosts.

In late winter the flowers are replaced by greenish dry fruits (capsules) that become woody with age, maturing to light brown.  These seed capsules mature in two years, splitting open the following fall to release black seeds over some distance.  Witch Hazel likes rich, acid soil and moist to dry drainage in full sun to part shade.   It is easy to grow in the home landscape as a hedge, foundation planting, and in a rain garden. 

There are only 5 species worldwide of Hamamelis, 3 that are native to North America, one in Japan, and one in China. H. virginiana is common in the mountains and Piedmont of Virginia, infrequent naturally in the Coastal Plain and throughout eastern U.S. and Canada.  The rootstock of this species is often used when grafting cultivars of Asian origin. The Chinese Witch Hazel (H. mollis) is widely sold noted for its larger yellow flowers and stronger fragrance.  Other cultivars are available in the nursery trade; many are hybrids between the two Asian species and/or Ozark Witch Hazel (H. vernalis).     

A widely used medicinal herb, the North American Indians used Witch Hazel bark to heal wounds, treat tumors and for eye problems.  The bark is astringent and hemostatic; a homeopathic remedy is made from fresh bark and used to treat nosebleeds, hemorrhoids and varicose veins.  The bottled Witch Hazel is a steam distillate, used as an external application to bruises, sore muscles, and inflammations. Seeds are eaten by ruffed grouse and squirrels.  Witch Hazel is pollinated by winter moths that fly when temperatures are above freezing.  Leaf litter protects the moths during cold nights.

Fruits       Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)


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.