With the end of the Great Sleep, spring has asserted herself firmly in the Heart of the Ozarks. The rising intensity of the sun entices all living things to join in the brief but joyous celebration of new beginnings. Big or small, spring provides the perfect opportunity to search for new and interesting native plants.
On one of my daily walk-abouts, it’s hard to miss the bold reemergence of the delicate wild Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta). This dainty native has very distinct clover-like leaves that are striped in purple above and solidly purple below. The simple flowers are typically soft violet to nearly white and held aloft on impossibly thin, red stems. One can find wood sorrel in abundance in the dry, shady niches beneath oak trees where their blossoms light up the darkest shadows well into May.
The leaves of wood sorrel are not only pretty but also somewhat edible. If you nibble on a leaf, the first thing you will notice is a slightly acidic bite that might be best described as “lemony”. This natural astringent in the leaves is what led healers to use them in poultices for drying rashes, hives, 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, common cinquefoil is often mistaken for wild strawberry (which has white flowers, not yellow). 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) and its leaves can be made into a tea rich in natural calcium. However, keep in mind that the roots of cinquefoil are also 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 nectar for foraging bees and other pollinators.
Young American Dittany (Cunila origanoides) is easily recognizable during a walk through any hickory-oak forest in springtime as the young stems push up from beneath thick leaf duff. The stems and undersides of the leaves are a dinstinctly deep shade of magenta that fades as summer’s heat moves in. 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 grow in the shade of large oaks in poor, dry, rocky soil. Most people walk right past dittany in the wild, never giving it a second look. Yet, this unassuming herb has many wonderful properties worth exploring.
Dittany belongs to the mint family (Lamiaceae) and is distinguished by 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. I’ve said it many times, but 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 when planted in the deeper soil of a sunny garden bed, dittany grows into a rather large mounding subshrub.
Sometime between late summer and early fall, dittany blooms with delicate purple flowers that attract many kinds of butterflies. In the woodland setting, the plant only bears four or five stems, but in the garden setting, the plants explode with color. In late fall, often after the first few frosts, the lime-green leaves turn various shades of yellow or red, making dittany an attractive native garden specimen for year-round enjoyment.
In addition to its beauty, the leaves of dittany have long been used in traditional folk medicine to treat fevers and headaches and were at one time believed to aid in the healing of snake bites. Dittany’s close relationship with oregano ensures that the leaves of the mint-family plant are highly antibacterial, antifungal, antimicrobial, antiseptic, antispasmodic, and antiviral. Besides its powerful medicinal properties, the fresh or dried leaves can be used to season food, just like culinary oregano!
Soon enough, many of the fruiting trees such as Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), Wild Plum (Prunus americana) and cultivated Prunus species will be bristling with white or pink five-petalled flowers that appear to float like clouds above their leafless branches. All of these trees belong to the Rose family (Rosaceae) and belong to the genus Prunus, all of which bear fragrant edible flowers that attract a plethora of pollinating insects and edible fruit. Of these, the wild black cherry is unique in that its inner cambium layer is traditionally used in medicinal preparations to treat cough, sore throat, and chest congestion.
So, as you enjoy the season of new beginnings, remember to slow down and look for the smallest of things. For among the minutia of detail lies the real power of Creation. Indeed, we need not look only to the Heavens for miracles – they are already here, waiting for us to notice them.
© Jill Henderson Feel free to share the link!
Show Me Oz | Living and loving life in the Ozarks!
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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!
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a featured columnist for Acres USA and a contributing author toLlewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.
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