Beautiful Native Plants


Blog HOME ***Our team of bloggers writes about all aspects of ecosystem gardening, from native plants to pollinators and wildlife.***

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Toothwort - Is That for Dinner?

You may have noticed a certain kind of frenzy that descends on folks in the early spring, a frenzy for wildflowers. And plant people are not the only ones affected, either. People who otherwise never set foot outside of cemented Metro areas make plans to get out of town. The call of bluebells, merrybells, trilliums, and trout lilies is a clarion call that draws whole families to embark on a flower treasure-hunt out in the distant woods and valleys where nature still has the freedom to show her own exuberance for the season.

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
Sounds like something you’d see coming down a dark alley with a grimace and sword, doesn’t it? You would never know from the name that it’s a dainty little thing with bell-shaped blooms, and delicate, deeply serrated leaves.

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!

Cut-leaf toothwort, an ephemeral native wildflower, found in 
deciduous mesic woodlands, floodplain woodlands, 
wooded bluffs, and upland savannas. One of the natives 
particularly averse to Alliaria petiolata, garlic mustard, which
will cause severe population decline. Food for early pollinators,

Sue Dingwell