Ever since last spring, I have been wondering what this plant is.
I never got to see it in bloom last year, but this year- wow! Mama Monica and I were in the woods with the children gathering wild leeks for dinner, and it happened to be in bloom.
The flowers only last about four days, so it truly is an enchanted moment in our woods, as these plants colonize by the hundreds for a brief span of time, and the small nodding blossoms are everywhere! They belong to the class of flowers called spring ephemerals, which grow, blossom, and fade away before the leaves of deciduous forests come in fully. This is how they get the light they love; cut-leaved toothwort won’t always fully open its blossoms unless it is a sunny spring day.
After a little searching, I was able to identify them as cut-leaved toothwort. They have also been known as pepperwort, because the roots are spicy. They were used as a subsitute for horseradish in earlier days when they were more plentiful. Wash the roots, then chop them up and grind them (I am thinking with mortar and pestle) with vinegar and add a bit of salt. Add to salads for a burst of flavor… perhaps nice on hardboiled eggs, too. The leaves and stems can also be added to salads or soups as a potherb. I love that word, potherb, and Wikipedia explains that it in the early 1900s grocers would tie up small bunches of herbs with green and red peppers for the soup pot. I will have to try that- especially because my children complain when green leaves are floating around in their soup! This article asserts:
“Cut-leaved Toothwort rootstocks were once believed to have medicinal properties. They were chewed for treating common colds, were used as poultices for treating headaches, and were made into tea for treating hoarseness. Jakob Bohme’s 17th Century Doctrine of Signatures, which states that any plants that resemble parts of human bodies can heal that body part, said that this plant cures toothaches. The mashed rootstocks were used as a poultice for treating toothaches. However, there is no medical evidence to support that belief… the leaves contain vitamin C and a glucoside. These leaves were also used medicinally as a tonic, a stomachic, an expectorant, and an antiscorbutic.”
They have tiny tubers, which reminded Mama Monica of “Fairy Spuds”, or the edible tiny potato-like tubers of the Spring Beauty plant.
Harvesting should be just a few, from different areas, where they have colonized heavily. The white-footed mouse also loves them, and there is evidence of them being enjoyed by some wee creatures. See the stalk heads eaten off in the picture below? Certain butterfly larvae also use the underside of the leaves, and they attract different bees and some butterflies to pollinate them.
While they are still incredibly plentiful in our woods, they are a shrinking species, because they prefer the rich woodland soil of an area that has never been plowed under, never used as farm land or heavily trafficked by humans or grazing animals. Our land has been select cut in the past, meaning many trees were harvested but they tried to leave some old growth. In truth, I think there are only about a handful of maples that are truly very, very old. I love them; they are majestic, and it would take at least two of me to wrap my hands all the way around them.
Cut-leaved toothwort is a member of the brassicacaea family, along with kale and broccoli and mustard. This designation used to be called cruciferae, or “cross-bearing”, because the flowers follow the same four-petaled, “cross” appearance throughout the family. Learning this fact has caused somewhat of a mystery, as I thought another very similar plant which grows amidst and alongside this one was another version of it with different pigmentation…
It is the darkest purple and its leaves look like folded up dragons’ wings. But they do look much like the leaves of the cut-leaved toothwort, a whorl of leaves with deeply toothed segments. And they are about the same height, seem to be nibbled by small creatures just as the toothworts are, and unless you look at the five or six petaled star-shaped flower you would think they were also toothworts. Now I am not so sure… Perhaps this one will have to remain a mystery! One great resource for identifying wildflower is www.wildflower.org, with over 7,000 native varieties and an easy to use search feature that allows you to search by differnent variables (such as bloom period, height of plant, state habitat, etc). So far, I haven’t had any luck learning about this purple star-flowered plant.
I love the way these plants and others live amongst and grow in the bits of natural mulch formed by decaying branches and logs.
They are sheltered and protected by the ghost leaves of autumns past.
Ghosts. That is what many of these plants seem to be; forgotten citizens of our native woodlands, their knowledge buried in the graves of our ancestors. Mama Monica and I wonder how we can bring this rich wisdom of the plant world back to our generation and our children. How did the first tribal mothers and healers decide which plants to eat and heal with? We think it must be dreams and intuition. And as humanity has moved from more wonder-filled, dreamy ways of relating to the natural world to more logic-filled, scientifically proven data bytes, it seems very difficult to make that leap to a place where the collective consciousness of humanity holds all this information, where we can tap into the mind of the Divine and access the blueprints for how to incorporate these magical bits of creation into our day-to-day existence. How can we be caretakers, mindfully harvesting and promoting their longevity and ours- letting them cleanse and heal and effect us with their gentle and subtle but very real essences?
Update: Yay for collective wisdom! PatchoulGirl91 left a comment letting me know the purple folded dragon wing is a very young blue cohosh plant. I owe a huge thanks to blue cohosh for an incredible labor and delivery of my second child. I can’t wait to make some homemade tinctures!