Wild Ideas: A twisted tale of confusing lilies

The window for seeing spring ephemeral wildflowers this year is closing rapidly. Fortunately, I had a chance to observe and photograph quite a few blooming in mid-spring during my brother’s visit earlier this month.

Spring is my busiest season for observing and photographing nature, especially ephemeral wildflowers. When my brother, Dana, visited from Alaska the first week in May, we spent much of the time he was here going for walks in search of them. He’s also a passionate conservationist, serving on the boards of several conservation organizations over the years, so we both enjoyed the hunts and the discussions about what we found.

The discussions mostly focused on identifying each plant, which is an ongoing challenge for plant experts, let alone us amateurs. My house, which was tidy for once when Dana arrived, quickly became strewn with field guides, photo equipment and electronic devices that offered access to internet databases and to apps. The two apps I use for wildflowers, developed with the help of Virginia botanists, are “Flora of Virginia,” which is better for experts, and “Virginia Wildflowers,” which is more my speed but not as comprehensive.

The first hike we took, on May 3, was to the famous Trillium Trail at Thompson Wildlife Management Area, in western Fauquier County. I’d hiked the trail to see what are estimated to be millions of large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflora), Virginia’s most impressive trillium, a few years ago (see my April 23, 2015, column) but had not been back. We ran into lots of other wildflower seekers, including groups from local plant research and outreach groups.

While other wildflowers bloom at Thompson around the same time — including mayapple (which seems to be taking over the forest floor there but were not yet blooming), Dutchman’s breeches, trout lily, rue anemone and native violets — the trillium are the stars of the spring show. In the large lily (Liliaceae) family, the trillium were peaking, a bit behind their usual bloom time because of the cold weather early in the spring, and indeed the forest floor was covered with them. Unfortunately, we chose the hottest day of the year up to that point and got a late start, so many of the flowers looked a bit droopy, as we did by the end of the hike. The forest also looked unseasonably dry. Still, the trip was worth the 45-minute drive.

Dana and I later searched the mountain where I live in Old Hollow and Shenandoah National Park’s Jordan River Trail for what else was blooming. We kept seeing a few similar species that looked familiar but were hard to sort out without their blooms. These plants, which were just starting to bud or bloom, consist of a single stem up to about three feet long, with alternating leaves, that arches elegantly over the forest floor.

Judging by the few that were budding or blooming, I guessed they were from two plant genera also in the lily family that are common here: Solomon’s seal (genus Polygonatum), which has single or double, bell-like flowers hanging in a row from the stem, and false Solomon’s-seal (genus Maianthemum), which has a foamy cluster of pale-yellow flowers at the end of the stem. “Solomon’s seal” refers to the circular scars on the rhizome left by each year’s flower stalk. 

Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

False Solomon’s seal’s flower unfolds in mid-spring and is distinct from those of the other two lily genera featured in the column.

Dana said they looked like “twisted stalk,” which is common in Alaska. The name was new to me, so when we returned home, I did a bit of sleuthing online to see if such a plant grows here. I quickly found an article about twisted stalk (Streptopus amplexifolius), in yet another genus of the large lily family, on the U.S. Forest Service website.

By Rob Routledge via Wikimedia
Twisted stalk, a northern plant that is rare in Virginia, can be confused with other local native plants that are also the lily family.

Without blooms, all three of these lilies would be hard to sort out. Even when blooming, Solomon’s seal’s bell-like flowers can look quite like twisted stalk’s, although the latter plant’s can be either white or pink and Solomon’s seal’s are only white.

The Virginia Native Plant Atlas, which offers a comprehensive lists and details of Virginia’s plants, along with range maps showing the counties in which they have been reported, lists two native species of Solomon’s seal. The first, hairy Solomon’s-seal or downy Solomon’s-seal (Polygonatum pubescens) has rows of single flowers, which is what we encountered in our hikes. The other species, commonly called just Solomon’s seal (P. biflorum), has pairs of flowers the same shape and color, which we didn’t see on our hikes.

Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Solomon’s seal, shown above just starting to flower, is one of several common wild lilies that can be difficult to tell apart.

In checking further, I found that twisted stalk, although mostly a northern plant whose range extends to Alaska and northern Canada, is also found in a few cooler, high-elevation locations as far south as North Carolina. As “Virginia Native Plant Atlas” notes, it’s limited to scattered, disconnected populations in the higher Central and Southern Appalachians and is “one of Virginia’s rarest species,” growing in “crevices of rocky, high-gradient stream channels and outcrop crevices with periodic seepage, under high-elevation hemlock–northern hardwood forests” on both sides of Stony Man Mountain, in Shenandoah National Park.

Despite my years of trying to sort out plant species, I still suffer from plant-identification impairment. My takeaway from my journey into the lily family is that the three genera mentioned here must be sorted out carefully by the number, shape and location of their blooms and, when not blooming, more-subtle identification points that I am far from mastering.

Lilies were not the only flowers blooming in mid-spring that Dana and I enjoyed seeing. Others included common wild ginger, cranesbill (wild geranium), jack-in-the-pulpit, showy orchis, sweet cicely, nodding wakerobin (aka white trillium), large-flowered trillium, mayapple, rue anemone, star chickweed, common purple violet, yellow violet, Robin’s plantain fleabane, blackberry, black locust, black cherry, redbud, dogwood, basswood, sassafras, tuliptree and hawthorn. (See a slideshow below)

Mid-spring in Virginia’s Upland Forests 

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 309 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”