With the recent passing of the vernal equinox and the end of the Great Sleep, Spring has asserted herself firmly in the Heart of the Ozarks. The rising intensity of the sun has enticed all living things to join in a brief, but joyous celebration of new beginnings that humans often associate with love. And love is definitely what I feel when I stumble upon any newly emerged plant, from a tiny perfect flower in the grass or a forest filled with flowering redbud and dogwood. Big or small, spring provides the perfect opportunity to search for new and interesting native plants.
On my daily walk-about, I could hardly miss the bold reemergence of the pretty Wild Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta). These dainty natives have three clover-like leaves that are painted below with a rakish shade of purple and hold their simple violet flowers aloft on impossibly thin, red stems. One can find them in abundance in shady, dry locations beneath oak trees where their blossoms light up the darkest shadows well into May.
The leaves of wood sorrel are not only pretty, but somewhat edible. Chew one of the small leaves and the first thing you will notice is a slightly acidic bite that might be best described as “lemony”, followed by a very slight puckering sensation where the raw leaves touch the mouth. This is caused by a natural astringent found in the leaves and it is what led healers to use them in poultices to help dry rashes and weeping wounds.
Historically, wild sorrel was added to spring greens or made into a tea and taken as a spring tonic. That being said, wood sorrel should not be eaten on a regular basis because of a compound in the leaves which, if taken in large doses over a long period of time, has been shown to cause liver damage. As a trail nibble or occasional green, the harm is non-existent.
Another delicate flower found in dry areas around oak trees and rocky waste places are the lacy yellow-flowered Five-fingers (Potentilla simplex and Potentilla canadensis), also known as common cinquefoil. All native cinquefoils are herbaceous creeping perennials best identified by their highly serrated, palm-shaped leaves and bright yellow flowers. At first glance, cinquefoil is often mistaken for wild strawberry. On closer inspection, it is easy to differentiate cinquefoils’ deeply-toothed five-parted leaflets from those of wild strawberries, which have three relatively flat, smooth leaflets.
Cinquefoil is a member of the Rose family (Rosaceae) whose leaves can be made into a tea rich in natural calcium. The roots of cinquefoil are highly astringent and have been used in folk medicine to treat diarrhea and weeping rashes and wounds. All varieties of cinquefoil are excellent low-growing groundcovers that provide food for foraging bees.
The lime-green leaves of American Dittany (Cunila origanoides) are easy to spot now as they pop up from beneath dead woodland grasses and leaves. These semi-woody subshrubs are one of the few plants in the Ozarks that produce delicate and fanciful frost flowers. They are also quite hardy, preferring to live in poor, dry rocky soils. Most people walk past dittany in the wild and never give it a second look, but this unassuming herb has many properties worth examining. Dittany belongs to the mint family (Lamiaceae) and is distinguished by its decidedly four-sided (square) stems. This particular mint family plant belongs to the orgianum species, which includes well-known herbs like oregano and marjoram. One smell or taste of the leaves of dittany makes this fact pleasingly obvious.
Dittany is one of my favorite Ozark plants. In its natural environment, it rarely reaches more than 10” in height and tends to be very open and often scraggly in appearance. But planted in the deeper soil of a shady garden bed, dittany will grow into a very pretty low-mounding shrub.
Between late summer and early fall, dittany is loaded with delicate purple flowers that attract many kinds of butterflies. And the small lime-green leaves turn various shades of yellow or red in the fall, making dittany an attractive garden specimen for year round enjoyment. The leaves of dittany have long been used in traditional folk medicine to treat fevers and headaches, as well as a treatment for snake bites. It’s close relationship with oregano ensures that dittany is highly antibacterial, antifungal, antimicrobial, antiseptic, antispasmodic and antiviral. Oh, and it tastes good, too!
Other signs of spring include the emergence of flower buds on the native and non-native fruiting trees. The buds of the Wild Black Cherry trees (Prunus serotina) and cultivated peach tree are bristling with heavily swollen buds, while the Wild Plum (Prunus americana) is already alight with bright-white five-petalled flowers floating in clouds above leafless branches. All of these trees belong to the Rose family (Rosaceae) and to the genus Prunus. All prunus species bear fragrant edible flowers and fruit. The inner bark of wild black cherry has traditionally been used in preparations used to treat cough, sore throat and chest congestion.
The thing about nature that always amazes me is that it never clashes in shape, form or color. All things in the natural world blend harmoniously with their surroundings – something that humans have tried to replicate without the same level of success.
With that in mind, a cardinal suddenly begins singing from the branches of the blooming black cherry tree. He sings, “pur-tee, pur-tee; purtee-purtee-purtee-purtee”; a song that perfectly describes spring. So as you enjoy this lovely seasons, remember to slow down and look for the smallest of things. For among the minutia of detail lies the real power of Creation. We need not look to the heavens for miracles – they are already here, waiting for us to notice them.
A Journey of Seasons is a beautifully recounted story of life on a rural Missouri homestead. Based on the changing landscape of the seasons and filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of hillbilly humor, noted author, naturalist and organic gardener, Jill Henderson, spins a story of delight and enchantment. This is one journey you don’t want to miss!