The glossy, green leaves of Mountain Bellwort in June
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.