Friday, April 26, 2013

A Little Yellow Miracle


If I were not a nerd, master herbalist, and certified boggy swamp witch, I’d have missed it.

To the left you see something miraculous. Erythronium umbilicatum, also called dogtooth violet, though it is not a violet or pansy. Some might know it as adder's tongue because of the shape of the bloom, but it's actually a tiny lily-- only 5-7 inches high. The Cherokee refer to it as a trout lily, or dimpled trout lily, because of the spotting on the leaves, and because it blooms when the trout season is beginning in the rivers.  Trout lily is the most common name.

Why am I excited? Here is the growing map:


This little lily has begun to vanish all along the mountain ranges of the Blue Ridge and Smoky mountains, where they grow. They’ve ranged as far south as Florida, though they are vanishing there, and as far north as DC, where they have also become rare—possibly extinct. They have NEVER been seen further north than Mount Vernon. So finding this southern lily, so tiny, fragile, and fading numbers so far from home is quite remarkable. It may be fate or something more that placed it here, tucked tight against a stone wall as old as one of the nation’s oldest towns.

I pound the bounds of my property in both spring and fall, an ancient practice among my ancestors. Trout lilies have been known to go years without blooming, and I am quite convinced this has not shown the bright yellow blooms before. I would have discovered them. I’d been suspicious of the foliage—a rather remarkable dappled leaf—in the past, lost sight of it, and was teased by occasional, brief reappearances.

My best guess is that the lily is, like my father, a hardy transplant. This morning I took him out to show him the spot so we can care for our southern mystery plant, and he recognized the flower and leaves from his childhood. My grandmother was often kind to send home roots and seeds to us on the rare occasions my parents visited, and I’m certain this came north many, many years ago with a grouping of touch-me-nots. It has made a terrible week joyous for me… and I feel like Granny is smiling, too.

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