Ephemerals they are called. These are flowers that emerge and sparkle brightly but briefly, and are gone practically in the blink of an eye. Even their leaves melt away, leaving no trace of their existence by the time the heat of summer arrives. One such ephemeral, native to every state east of the Rocky Mountains, is Cardamine concatenata, aka cut-leaf toothwort.
|Cut-leaf toothwort, Cardamine concatenata|
It turn out that the word 'wort' comes from the old English ‘wyrt,’ meaning herb or plant. When wort appears at the end of a plant’s name, it means that the plant was probably once used as some kind of healing remedy.
In times past, folks relied on what a plant looked like to determine what part of the body it might heal. This practice is known as the Doctrine of Signatures. In the case of cut-leaf toothwort, the fleshy underground tuber from which the plant grows is covered with lumpy projections that resemble teeth. Thus, it was thought to be a cure for toothache. Whether it was effective or not, we do not know, but there is no medical evidence to support its efficacy.
The tubers were also used for food; slightly peppery in taste, they can be consumed raw or steamed; said to be good in salads. That is, if you grow them in your own garden, because it is illegal to harvest from public places. It must have taken a heck of an effort to get enough for eating, they are tiny plants, only about 6 inches high.
One thing there is no doubt about is that the toothwort is very useful to a high number of insects who emerge early and are looking for food. Toothwort flowers stay semi-folded until sunlight stimulates them to open more fully, and even hold themselves more erect, which advertises their availability during a warmer time, when insects are most likely to be actively seeking nectar. Long and short-tongued bees visit toothwort, and the short-tongues also collect its pollen. Toothwort is a larval host for several of the Pieris butterflies. Once upon a time it was a minor food source for the now-extinct Passenger pigeon.
Toothwort bears a number of other amusing common names, including crinkleroot; crow’s foot; crow toes; cut-leaf; lady’s smocks; milkmaids; pepper root; pepperwort; purple-leaved crinkleroot; toothache root; and wild radish. Another native plant that you might pass by without noticing, yet beautiful to behold, an important player in its habitat, and worthy of our observation and our conservation.
"What's in a name?" asked Juliet. Quite a bit it would seem!