Virginia Wildflowers is a natural history photo gallery and casual field guide to wildflowers and mushrooms. I live in Southwest Virginia, so most of my photos were taken in this part of the state. The images are organized by species and date, and usually include close-ups of leaves, stems and flowers along with basic natural history information. My goal in making this site was to teach myself about native wildflowers in my home area. An added benefit would be to help someone else (–maybe you?) learn the same.
If you arrived here because you are looking for information about a specific plant, try using the search bar to the right of your screen. Common names and latin names can be searched. If you would just like to browse what is here, try scanning the archive in the left pane.
Most of these blog posts contain photo gallery/slideshows, so be sure to click on the gallery to open a larger viewer.
Welcome to Virginia Wildflowers! Enjoy your visit!
I can hardly contain my excitement! Spring is here, finally, and as if someone switched on a lightbulb after a long night’s sleep, the parade of spring ephemerals has quickly begun in our Appalachian woodlands. The first coltsfoot flowers were just peaking out last weekend, and today the bloodroot in my yard has already gone to seed. Run, don’t walk, to your favorite park or forest haunt and watch as the earth takes her first deep breaths and stretches out once more. It is good for your soul, and you know it. So, get out. Get out. Get Out!!!
Here’s what’s blooming in my backyard woodland today (April 9):
I started this wildflower blog almost two years ago as a way to finally “learn my plants”! Armed with a camera and field guide, identifying most of the wildflowers was not that difficult. But almost from the get-go, I was seeing a particular woodland plant locally that I just could not identify, and it was very frustrating! If you look at the photo above, at first glance, the plant looks a bit like Solomon’s Seal, but it is shinier and the leaflets are more rounded. The stem is different too: it zigzags back and forth at every leaflet and each stem is branched into two distinct parts. Normally, I’d focus on the flower’s characteristics to identify the plant, right? Well, not so easy! I could never catch the darn plant in bloom! All I could see, just now and then, was an odd-shaped seed pod dangling inconspicuously from underneath the stem. Again, this is not the fruit you’d expect if this were Solomon’s Seal!
So, for two years now, I’ve been calling this guy the “Mystery Plant”.
Recently, the cold winter weather we’ve been having allowed me to spend time combing through all my plant photos. I thought I might be able to identify the Mystery Plant if I could piece together enough photos of it. So while I was looking, I found some photos of a plant that I thought at the time was Sessile Bellwort, or Wild Oats. The photos were taken in the spring, in the woods, at the base of Brush Mountain in Blacksburg. At that time, the plant was sporting the characteristic, pendant yellow flowers of the bellworts. Then I found some photos taken later in the summer, in that very same place, and those photos showed the shiny green, branched version of “Solomon’s Seal”–what I had been calling my Mystery Plant! With a little help from my field guides, I can now connect these two sets of photos. The plants are, in fact, a bellwort–and the leaves, in fact, are sessile, but this is actually a new species for me. This is Mountain Bellwort!
In summertime, the eye-catching leaves of mountain bellwort are dark green, glossy and rounded at the base. The leaves lack a petiole and instead attach directly to the stem (sessile). They have fairly strong parallel venation and the central midvein forms a deep grove in the middle of the leaf. To further distinguish it from Sessile Bellwort, note that the stem of Mountain Bellwort is lightly hairy.
Mountain bellwort can be found growing in mountain woodlands. It blooms in April and May, even before the leaves fully develop. At that stage, the plant looks distinctly like Sessile Bellwort (or Wild Oats) and it produces a creamy yellow, drooping flower that appears to be made up of six elongated petals. (These petals are more-appropriately called tepals: three of them are petals and three are sepals.) Later in the summer, the flower will give way to an oddly-shaped fruit capsule– it looks like a small, three-sided green football! See the illustration to the right.
The photos do a much better job of explaining what this plant really looks like at various stages in its life history. I’m just so glad to finally have a name for it! So, add Mountain Bellwort to the list of different bellworts found in our part of Southwest Virginia: Sessile Bellwort, Perfoliate Bellwort, Largeflower Bellwort, and now Mountain Bellwort!
Yeehaw! Mystery solved! Click any photo to open a larger viewer.
Mountain Bellwort in flower on May 8th
Mountain Bellwort in flower on May 8th
Soft green leaves filling out in May
New plant in May
Darker, glossy leaves in June
Seed capsule of Mountain Bellwort
Seed capsule forming in early June
June seed capsule
Plant Illustration: USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. Vol. 1: 519.
Pictured here is a little wildflower that has been sitting out in the cold all winter, holding fast to its tiny red berries. As the plant’s common name implies, the round to elliptical, shiny leaves of American winterberry stay green all winter. The cherry-red fruit persists as well.
Wintergreen is technically a low-growing shrub, although at 3 to 6 inches in height, that fact is easy to overlook. It spreads across the forest floor by rhizomes, and is common in hardwood and pine forests.
But let’s get down to the important part: can you eat these attractive little fruits? Sort of! It turns out that the fruit, leaves, and branches of wintergreen impart a nice, mint flavor (think Teaberry gum) when casually chewed. They can also be boiled to make tea. However, eating the leaves outright is not advised.
At one time, the aromatic “oil of wintergreen” was derived from this plant and used to make flavorings and medicines. Teas made from wintergreen were often used for general pain relief– that’s because a key component of the plant is actually an aspirin-like compound.
Flowering time for wintergreen is summer. The flowers are small, white, nodding, and resemble the flowers of other heaths, like blueberries. Click on any of the photos below for a closer view.
As summer wanes and fall sets in for certain, blooming flowers are harder to come by. But in drying fields and along fencerows and roadsides, the tall, spiny remnants of teasel delight the eye. Earlier in the summer, teasel produces inconspicuous white, pink or purple flowers on an oval cone of spines. The visually interesting flower heads, borne on prickly stems, will persist in their dry state through the upcoming winter.
Teasel is not native—it was originally introduced from Europe and is now considered an invasive weed in much of North America. On the plus side, seeds of teasel are a favorite food of American Goldfinches, and the plant is sometimes grown as an ornamental for use in flower arrangements. There are several species. Historically, the dried seedheads of one variety were once used to comb or “tease” the nap on wool fabrics.
You’ll recognize this prolific fall bloomer: New England Aster can be found growing locally in both home gardens and open meadows. Gobs of showy, purplish flowers cover the top of this tall native plant and provide an important source of nectar for insects–especially migrating butterflies– at this time of year.
Examine the photo of the leaves of New England Aster above. The leaves are alternate, entire (not toothed), sessile (lack a petiole), and lance-shaped. The base of the leaf is lobed and wraps around the hairy stem. The 1-inch flowers are composites of yellow disk flowers (center) surrounded by numerous violet ray flowers.
New England asters prefer moist soils and full sun. If you try growing them in your garden, they may need to be staked or otherwise supported when in full bloom. This beloved fall wildflower can grow 4 to 6 feet tall!
Click any photo below to open a larger viewer.
New England Aster
New England Aster
Leaves of New England Aster
New England Aster
New England Aster
New England Aster leaves are alternate, entire, sessile, and clasping at the stem
It is October, and along with yellow leaves and orange pumpkins, there are large, yellowish-orange mushrooms coming up in my yard in Blacksburg! I found four or five of these mushrooms, growing under a group of hemlock trees, and a whole bunch more on my neighbor’s property, coming up under pines. As it turns out, this is not that unusual. Fly agaric is mycorrhizal on both hardwoods and conifers.
There are a number of subspecies of Amanita muscaria, and they vary widely in color. Locally, in Southwest Virginia, A. muscaria var. formosa is a 2-8 inch tall mushroom distinguished by a yellow cap that is freckled with cottony warts. The gills are creamy white, as is the spore print. The bulbous stipe usually shows the remnants of an annulus (or partial veil) and appears shaggy at the bottom. In the earliest stage of development, the mushroom can appear egg-like.
Look for this common mushroom in summer or fall, growing in hardwood and mixed forests. As for edibility, it is poisonous and psychoactive! (Judging from the fact that legions of gray squirrels in my yard have left these mushrooms alone all week, the word is probably out!)
The name Fly Agaric is derived from the fact that it was once used as an insecticide. Powder made from the mushrooms was mixed with milk and left out for flies to consume. Apparently the flies died in relatively short order!