Wildflowers of the Westborough Reservoir

Early May

Wild Oats, Lily family (Liliaceae), Native

In the first weeks of May or even the last week of April, before the trees have leafed out, sunlight still finds its way to the woodland floor. There, the single slender bell-like flowers of wild oats (Uvularia sessilfolia) appear, scattered among the leaf litter, almost blending in. This unobtrusive, delicate pale flower is a member of the lily family.

Wild Oats

Windflower or Wood Anemone, Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), Native
Closeup Windflower
Clustered at the bases of hardwood trees, in patches of sunlight, grow small white windflowers (Anemone quinquefolia), also known as wood anemone. The white blossoms on their narrow stalks are sometimes tinged with red. They are pollinated by the wind.

Common Blue Violet, Violet family (Violaceae), Native

Blue Violet

Common blue violets (Viola papilionacea) grow at the Reservoir in May as well as in local gardens and lawns. Often taken for granted or even treated as weeds, they are nevertheless another welcome sign of spring. Several different kinds of violets grow in our area, but the common blue violet is probably one of the most familiar, along with the garden pansy, which is also in the violet family.

Violets have historically been regarded as symbols of innocence and modesty. Greeks, Romans, and medieval Christians all had legends involving violets. Violets have also had numerous medicinal uses, going back hundreds of years. The flowers contain sugar and pectin and have been used in candy and gelatins and as a food dye. The leaves have been used in salads. Research shows that leaves of the common blue violet are sources of both vitamin C and vitamin A.

Common blue violets are among the kinds of violet that have a mutually beneficial relationship with ants. These violets produce seeds with nutritious, pale-colored attachments on them, and ants are so attracted to these special food packets that they carry the seeds back to their underground nests. There the ants eat the food packets and discard the seeds in unused tunnels, effectively planting them in a protected, rich environment. The ants get food, and the next generation of violets gets a head start in life.

Besides certain violets, many other spring-blooming forest plants have their seeds dispersed by ants. They include bloodroot ( Sanguinaria canadensis), wild ginger (Asarum canadensis), sharp-leaved hepatica ( Hepatica acutiloba), wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia), Dutchman's-breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), trout lily (Erythronium americanum), celandine (Chelidonium majus), and large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). By some estimates, more than half of the spring wildflowers in certain environments are distributed by ants in this way.

Common blue violets look quite similar to marsh blue violets (Viola cucullata), except that marsh blue violet blossoms are usually darker at the center. Another notable difference is the height of the flower stems. The flowers of common blue violet have shorter stems and tend to be found among the leaves. Marsh blue violet has longer stems, so the blossoms stand well above the heart-shaped leaves.

Common Winter Cress, Mustard family (Cruciferae), Alien
Pearl Cresent on Winter Cress
Pearl Cresent on Winter Cress

Some of the earliest yellow of spring comes from common winter cress (Barbarea vulgaris). Usually regarded as a weed, it blooms along the edges of roads, open fields, and parking lots, where its yellow spikes make a welcome sight. The lowest flowers on the spikes open first and then form seed pods as new flowers bloom further up.

Like other members of the mustard family, common winter cress has served as a source of greens. Its young leaves appear in late winter or early spring, before much else is available, but they become bitter by the time the plant flowers. Native Americans used tea from the leaves as a cough medicine.

Celandine, Poppy family, Poppy Subfamily (Papaveroideae), Alien

In early May, celandine (Chelidonium majus) pushes up and puts out four-petaled yellow blossoms. These hardy plants grow in somewhat sunny, moist places, often at the edges of woods, both at the Reservoir and in local gardens, where they are often rooted out as weeds. A member of the poppy family, celandine blooms abundantly in the spring but continues throughout the growing season, providing spots of yellow even into the fall.

The stems and leaves are notable for their acrid yellow sap, which can stain and irritate the skin. In earlier days, people applied the sap to warts to remove them. This practice earned celandine the tongue-twisting name "wartwort," meaning "wart plant" (since "wort" is an Old English word for plant.) The sap also had numerous other medicinal uses, many involving the skin or eyes.

Celandine came to the east coast of this continent from Europe and east Asia and has been migrating westward across the country. In Chinese and Russian folk medicine, it was reputed to work against cancer. More recently, it has been found to contain at least four chemicals with anti-tumor activity.

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  Copyright © Anne A. Reid, 1999-2002.
  Photographs copyright © Garry K. Kessler, 1999-2002.