“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” — Shakespeare.
Woodland and prairie wildflowers are praised in poetry and prose; celebrated in song, and immortalized in art. Those colors! That fragrance! Innocent. Fragile. Such beautiful blooms.
And yet. These lovely blooms have a darker side.
Take a walk through a spring woodland. In the Victorian language of flowers in which blooms symbolized certain sentiments from the giver, anemones were often associated with bad luck, illness and death.
Anemones are also known as “windflowers;” from the Greek wind God’s name, “Anemos.” You can see why.
Or look at this colony of trilliums below, edging the prairie. What name would you suggest? Something pretty, right?
Nope. They are known in the vernacular as “the bloody nose flower” or “the bloody butcher.” Memorable? Yes. But most of us would rather settle for “red” or “prairie” trillium.
Even this elegant woodland trillium…
…bears the common name, “drooping trillium.” Not quite as bad as a bloody nose flower, but not a peppy moniker for something so stunning, either.
On the prairie in early spring, the “common valerian” looks like a sweet little flower. But give it a sniff…
…and you’re reminded of the smell of dirty socks after a work-out at the gym. Not a repeater.
When wood betony blankets the early spring prairie, you immediately think of snapdragons, yellow fireworks, or even carnival rides that swirl and turn.
Its other common name is— “lousewort.” This, in the once-mistaken belief it repelled lice on livestock. Could have used some help from marketing, don’t you think?
“Lousewort” might not be the worst name on the prairie, however. When I began volunteering in the tallgrass, this flower was one of the first ones I learned.
Bastard toadflax. Not a lot to love in that name. But a favorite plant of any school group I take out on a walk in the tallgrass, and one they are sure to remember.
Not far from the bastard toadflax is the ethereal wild hyacinth. Its name is nice, but it is associated with an unfortunate Greek legend that goes somewhat like this: When two gods fought for the love of a Greek boy named “Hyakinthos,” one of the gods murdered the boy in a jealous rage. Where Hyakinthos’ blood was spilled, a flower grew. The “hyacinth.”
A crime scene? Not what you’d think of when you see something this exquisite, is it?
The delicate trout lily below–also exquisite–is valued for its medicinal qualities, including as a possible cancer-fighter. Too bad its unfortunate side effect is inducing vomiting. Lots of it.
Who would have thought something so sweet looking could be so nauseating?
And blue cohosh seeds, once used as a coffee substitute, were found to be toxic when not roasted correctly. That’s a bad cup of coffee. Stick to Starbucks.
These are only a few of the wicked wildflowers and their traits. So many beautiful blooms, both on the prairies and in the woodlands!
But don’t be fooled. They’re not just pretty faces.
Which makes them just that much more interesting, doesn’t it?
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was an English playwright, and widely believed to be one of the greatest writers in the English language. The opening quote in this blog comes from Act 4- Scene 1, of Shakespeare’s play “MacBeth.” The phrase has been widely used in a number of other literary works, including as the title of a murder mystery by Agatha Christy (1890-1976) and a book by Ray Bradbury (1920-2012).
The information above about wildflowers was sourced from a variety of books and online sites. A few of my favorite resources include “The Secrets of Wildflowers” by Jack Sanders; “Native American Ethnobotany” by Daniel E. Moerman; “Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie” by Sylvan Runkel and Dean Roosa; and “Wildflowers of Illinois Woodlands” by Sylvan Runkel. Great books! Go give them a look.
All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides or Anemonella thalictroides (older name) ), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; drooping trillium (Trillium flexipes), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common valerian (Valeriana ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) white trout lily, (Erythronium albidum) East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.