Bucks County Herald

Elizabeth Ludlow Bowman: Tips for the Compleat Gardener

A land in bloom

Colt’s foot grows typically in gravel areas along roadsides.

We were enroute to a spring cleanup in Hunterdon County, N.J., and we took Alexauken Creek Road instead of Route 202, a parallel choice, and drove into swaths of colors emanating from flowers everywhere.

We were surprised by a large stand of colt’s foot (Tussilago farfara) in the exact conditions the books claim they prefer, basically gravel along the roadside, areas that have been roughly cleared for power lines.

At first glance one may assume it is a dandelion, the head being similar, but colt’s foot blooms atop a scaly stalk, no leaves in evidence, when the leaves do emerge they are shaped somewhat like a pony’s hoof, hence the common name.

This is a closeup picture taken by Mare McClellan that shows the rays around the edge of the flower head and the small opening flower in the middle.

This is a native plant and the designation of tussillago comes from the Latin for cough, tussis, and tea can be brewed from dried leaves or concoctions from the flower can be made into cough drops.

It is said that using the dried leaves as tobacco and smoking it really helps asthma and respiratory distress though it sounds counterintuitive to me. The leaves emerge after the flower has disappeared and remain through the summer. It can be invasive with a strong root network underground. You may not want it in your garden but it’s great where driveway meets road.

Driving a little farther we came upon masses of bloodroot looking like big daisies on little legs poking through autumn’s leaves as the wooded area opens to meadows along the creek herself, carpeted with the yellow of lesser celandine, a brutish alien that muscles natives out. It is impossible to eradicate without serious collateral damage so we encourage natives to wage the battle in return. It is amazingly yellow.

The bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, has a single bluish leaf that wraps around the flower stalk and is common in woodlands and along streams but the glory is fleeting, lasting only days, less if the weather is hot, the flower opening with sunrise and closing for dark. The red sap that spills from a broken stem has been used as dye by Native Americans.

We also saw many spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) sometimes known as Quaker ladies in their clusters of white and pink flowers which rise from small, edible tubers that have a nutty taste. Some of the pollen of this plant is pink and if you look carefully you may be lucky enough to see a bee with pink pollen sacs leaving the feast.

The plant consists of two thin leaves and the flowers, which close at night, last about three days and have visible lines of pink to lead the pollinator to the nectar reward. Chief pollinators are solitary bees, bee flies, bumblebees and butterflies.

When the fruit is ripe the plant flings the tiny tubers all around. The tubers are an important food source for chipmunks and field mice.

I expected to see a stand or two of early saxifrage (Saxifraga virginiensis), which I often encounter along the rural roadways. Its name indicates it is a native that breaks rocks. The stem is very firm looking and the leaves are beefy though basilar – but breaks rocks? The wildflower books suggest transplanting this to your rock garden but I have not had success with that.

Most natives seem to choose appropriate habitat to grow in. I suggest that you take advantage of the expanded nursery at Bowman Hill Wildflower Preserve to get natives without experience on their own to try at your place.

Enjoy spring unfolding.




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