Category: Ranunculaceae

  • Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa)

    Also known as Fairy Candles for the way it lights up the deep shade of the woods, or as Black Snakeroot, or Bugbane, and more commonly placed in the genus Cimicifuga until recently. It can tolerate a very shady location, and often grows in thick woods. This plant was one of a small colony growing on a thickly wooded hillside in Mount Lebanon, where it was blooming in early July.

    Flowers. Tiny, white, in forked racemes 3 or more feet (a meter) tall, occasionally up to 9 feet (3 meters); the stamens are the most visible part.

    Leaves. Large, smooth, in whorls of 3, each doubly compound leaf made of three leaflets which themselves are subdivided in three or five leaflets (see the picture below); the leaflets irregularly and jaggedly toothed, the terminal leaflet usually 3-lobed.

    Stems. Smooth, with enlarged purplish joints where the leaves are joined; some whitish bloom on the lower part.

    Gray describes the genus Cimicifuga and the species, which he places in the Macrotrys subgenus:

    CIMICÍFUGA L. BUGBANE. Sepals 4 or 5, failing off soon after the flower expands. Petals, or rather transformed stamens, 1-8, small, on claws, 2-horned at the apex. Stamens as in Actaea. Pistils 1-8, forming dry dehiscent pods in fruit. — Perennials, with 2-3-ternately divided leaves, the leaflets cut-serrate, and white flowers in elongated wand-like racemes. (Name from cimex, a bug, and fugere, to drive away.)

    MACRÒTRYS (Raf.) T. & G. (as Macrotys). Pistil solitary or sometimes 2-3, sessile; seeds smooth, flattened and packed horizontally in the pod in two rows, as in Actaea; stigma broad and flat.

    C. racemòsa (L.) Nutt. (BLACK SNAKEROOT, BLACK COHOSH.) Stem 1-2.0 rn. high, from a thick knotted rootstock; leaves 2-3-ternately and then often quinately compound; leaflets subcuneate to subcordate at the base; racemes in fruit becoming 3-9 dm. long; pods ovoid. — Rich woods, s. N. E. to Wise, and southw.; cultivated and escaped eastw. July.

    [Because modern botanists have moved this species over to the genus Actaea, we give Gray’s description of that genus as well:

    ACTAÈA L. BANEBERRY, COHOSH. Sepals 4 or 6, falling off when the flower expands. Petals 4-10, small, flat, spatulate, on slender claws. Stamens numerous, with slender white filaments. Pistil single; stigma sessile, depressed, 2-lobed. Seeds smooth, flattened, and packed horizontally in 2 rows. — Perennials, with ample 2-3-ternately compound leaves, the ovate leaflets sharply cleft and toothed, and a short and thick terminal raceme of white flowers. (From aktea, actaea, ancient names of the Elder, transferred by Linnaeus.)]

  • Early Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dioicum)

    These airy little flowers look as though they ought to make a jingling sound in a gentle breeze. The dangling stamens identify this as a male plant. As the species name implies, this species has dioecious flowers (from Greek meaning “two houses”): that is, it bears male and female flowers on separate plants. The female flowers are little upright greenish clusters, but the male flowers are more common and more charming. In spite of the common name, Early Meadow Rue seems to prefer woods to meadows; this one was growing on a rocky hillside in the Squaw Run valley in Fox Chapel.

    Gray describes the genus and the species:

    THALÍCTRUM [Tourn.] L. MEADOW RUE. Sepals 4-5, petal-like or greenish, usually caducous. Petals none. Achenes 4-15, grooved or ribbed, or else inflated. Stigma unilateral. Seed suspended. — Perennials, with alternate 2-3-ternately compound leaves, the divisions and the leaflets stalked; petioles dilated at base. Flowers in corymbs or panicles, often polygamous or dioecious. (A Greek name of an unknown plant, mentioned by Dioscorides.)

    Flowers dioecious or polygamous.

    Achenes sessile or subsessile, thin-walled, the ribs often connected by transverse reticulations; leaves 3-4-ternate.

    Filaments capillary, soon drooping; petioles of the stem-leaves well developed; vernal.

    T. dioicum L. (EARLY M.) Smooth and pale or glaucous, 3-6 dm. high; leaves (2-3) all with general petioles; leaflets thin, light green, drooping, suborbicular, 3-7-lobed; flowers dioecious; sepals purplish or greenish white. — Rocky woods, etc., centr. Me., westw. and southw., common. Apr., May.

    Ferdinand Schuyler Mathews gives us this description in his Field Book of American Wild Flowers:

    “A beautiful but not showy, slender meadow rue with the staminate and pistillate flowers on separate plants. The bluish olive green leaves lustreless, compound, and thinly spreading; the drooping staminate flowers with generally four small green sepals, and long stamens tipped with terracotta, and finally madder purple. The pistillate flowers inconspicuously pale green. An airy and graceful species, common in thin woodlands. 1-2 feet high. Me., south to Ala., and west to Mo., S. Dak., and Kan.

    Ellen Miller and Margaret Christine Whiting give us this fuller description in Wild Flowers of the North-Eastern States (1895):

    “Found in rocky woods and hillsides during April and May.

    “The branching leafy stalk grows from 1 to 2 feet high; smooth, round, and fine of fibre though strong; in color, green.

    “The leaf is 3 or 4 times divided, terminating in groups of 3 leaflets on short slender stems; the leaflets are small, rounding, slightly heart-shaped at the base, and their margins are notched in rounded scallops; the texture is exceptionally fine and thin, the surface smooth; the color, a fine cool green.

    “The flower is small and composed of 3 or 4 or 5 little, petal-like, pale green calyx-parts. Different plants bear the pistils and stamens; the flowers of the former are inconspicuous and sparse in comparison with those of the stamen-bearing plant: from these the many stamens, pale green faintly touched with tawny at the tips, droop on slender threads like little tassels. The flowers grow in loose clusters, on branching stems that spring from the leaf-joints.

    “The Early Meadow Rue is unobtrusive in color and form, but most graceful in gesture, and fine in the texture and finish of all its parts; the leafage has a fern-like delicacy, and the flower tassels of the stamen-bearing plant are airily poised.”

  • Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascena)

    This popular garden flower often escapes, and this one was blooming in early July from a crack in the sidewalk in Allegheny West. It’s known by a large number of common names, among them Persian Jewels and Rattlebox. The latter name refers to the seed pods, which grow to balls about an inch in diameter that rattle when the seeds ripen and dry.

    Gray describes the genus and the species:

    NIGÉLLA [Tourn.] L. FENNEL FLOWER. Sepals 6, regular, petaloid. Petals small, ungeniculate, the blade bifid. Pistils 6, partly united into a compound ovary, so as to form a several-celled capsule. — An Old World genus, with blackish aromatic seeds, noteworthy in the family in having a somewhat compound ovary. (Name a diminutive of niger, black, from the color of the seeds.)

    1. H. Damascèna L. (LOVE-IN-A-MIST.) Flower bluish, overtopped by a finely divided leafy involucre.—Sometimes cultivated, and occasionally spontaneous around gardens. (Introd. from Eurasia.)

  • Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)

    This beautiful flower takes advantage of the early days of spring, when the trees in the open woods are still mostly leafless, to get most of its growing and blooming done. By summer it’s gone. It looks a bit like a white (or sometimes pink) buttercup, and indeed it belongs to the same family. This plant was blooming in late April in the Squaw Run valley in Fox Chapel.

    Gray places this species in the genus Anemonella:

    Involucre compound, at the base of an umbel of flowers. Sepals 5-10, whiteand conspicuous. Petals none. Achenes 4-15, ovoid, terete, strongly 8-10-ribbed, sessile. Stigma terminal, broad and depressed. Low glabrous perennial; leaves all radical, compound. (Name a diminutive of Anemone, to which this plant has sometimes been referred.)
    A. thalictroides (L.) Spach. (RUE ANEMONE.) Stem and slender petiole of radical leaf (1-3 dm. high) rising from a cluster of thickened tuberous roots; leaves 2-3-ternately compound; leaflets roundish, somewhat 3-lobed at the end, cordate at the base, long-petiolulate, those of the 2-3-leaved 1-2-ternate involucre similar; flowers several in an umbel; sepals oval (1.2 cm. long, sometimes pinkish), not early deciduous. (Syndesmon Hoffmannsegg.; Thalictrum anemonoides Michx.) Woods, common, s. N. H. to Minn., Kan., Tenn., and n. w. Fla. Rarely the sepals, stamens or involucre are variously modified.
  • Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana)


    The individual four-petaled (often five-petaled) flowers are attractive, but the amazing density of flowers is what makes this vine one of our great spectacles. Though it’s a native, it’s more commonly seen in gardens than in the wild, and the occasional wild volunteers are often descended from nearby garden plants.