Archived Mountain Voices

Nomenclature has meaning when it comes to plants

What’s in a name? Well, sometimes a lot, especially when you’re considering the names we assign plants.

The striking little early wildflower of deciduous woodlands with its yellow reflexed petals, long red stamens, and lush brown dappled green leaves goes by many common names: trout lily, fawn lily, adder’s-tongue, dogtooth-violet, and Easter yellow lily.

The derivation of these designations is clear enough. It appears at the time of year when people’s thoughts are on Easter, catching trout, and seeing newborn deer. The dappled leaves further reinforce associations with both trout and fawns. And John Burroughs — the 19th century writer-naturalist who proposed the fawn lily name (he couldn’t stand dogtooth violet) — also thought that the leaves of the plant “stand up like fawn’s ears, and this feature, with its recurved petals, gives it an alert, wide-awake look.”

The “violet” association was a carry-over from Europe, where the common trout lily (the name I like best) was thought to resemble a violet in color. The “dogtooth” connection is more interesting. That came about because the white, underground tuber (or corm) from which the leaf and flowers arise resembles “a smooth, white fang.”

My second favorite name is adder’s-tongue. Once again, as is often the case with common names, the associations are intertwined: the pointed leaf-tips are curled as they emerge from the soil; and the six long reddish stamens bear jiggling anthers that reinforce the serpent iamge.

Like many other early woodland wildflowers — toothwort, hepatica, spring beauty, bellwort, bloodroot, Mayapple, trillium, etc. — trout lily has adapted to a situation that calls for a quick emergence in early spring before the leaf canopy closes overhead and energy-giving light levels drop. Some of these species compress their blooming season into spans lasting only a few weeks at given elevations; and, for this reason, this group of wildflowers appearing in waves across the still sunlit forest floor are frequently labeled “spring ephemerals.”

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Setting fruit in early spring when not that many pollinators are about is risky business, especially since mining bees and bumblebees are frequently restrained in their search for food by cold spells. For that reason, trout lily has devised a backup system.

The plant can reproduce asexually via a fleshy bud called a “dropper” that forms at the end of a fragile white stem (or stolon) attached to the base of the parent corm. This dropper stem can be from 3” to 10” in length. Digging up trout lilies with their droppers intact is a tricky affair since the stem is fragile and the dropper is sometimes deeper underground than the corm.  (But the white stems sometimes grow above-ground before penetrating the soil to set the dropper and can be located by removing leaf-litter.)

Most plants in trout lily colonies probably arise from droppers. Missouri Botanical Garden botanist Peter Bernhardt — author of the delightful book Wily Orchids & Underground Orchids: Revelations of a Botanist — calculates that as high as 90 percent of eastern trout lilies are reproduced asexually.

When you come upon a colony, notice that the plants in bloom all have two leaves. Botanists disagree as to whether the clones produced by droppers ever develop two leaves and flower, or whether only the seed-produced individuals flower.

Be that as it may, flowering individuals always have two leaves and they take a long time (up to eight years in some species) to reach reproductive maturity. The yellow petals (actually “tepals,” an undifferentiated form between a sepal and a petal) are at first partially closed. Gradually, these reflex or recurve fully exposing the interior parts of the flower.

Flowers fortunate enough to be pollinated set fruit which disperse seed at about the time the leaf canopy is closing overhead in late April and early May. Look for trout lily stalks that have collapsed, causing the fruit capsules to spill seeds in a rather neat pile on the ground. With a handlens, you can spot soft tips on them called “carbuncles.”

These “meaty” tidbits induce litter-dwelling insects like crickets and beetles to drag the seeds away and gnaw off the carbuncles. (Many violet species utilize the same technique.) The seed thus dispersed from the parent colony can perchance then form a new colony with renewed genetic vitality, especially if the flower producing the seed was cross-pollinated rather than self-pollinated.

The most common species of trout lily here in WNC appears to be “Erythronium umbilicatum,” which has petals (or tepals) lacking auricles (ear-shaped lobes) and fruit capsules (indented at the apex) appearing on the end of arching flower stalks that allow the capsule to touch the ground.

You might also encounter a second less common species, “E. americanum” (the one listed in popular field guides), in our immediate area. Its petals are eared at the base.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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