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Arb Notes: Ephemeral wildflowers

While many of us are away from Carleton for this Spring term, one highlight of any Spring in the arboretum is spotting Spring ephemerals while walking in the woods. True to their name, spring ephemeral wildflowers bloom for a short period of time in the Spring and then fade away. In early Spring, before deciduous trees have completely regrown their leaves, these ephemerals have the chance to capture light which might not otherwise make its way through the forest canopy.

One favorite ephemeral which can be found in the arboretum is Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). Each of these plants sport a single pleasant green and purple brown flower which is shaped much like a Calla lily. While their flowers may only be in bloom for a few weeks the plants themselves have been known to live for over twenty five years.

Jack in the pulpit has a particularly interesting ethnobotanical history. The plant contains calcium oxalate crystals throughout its tissues. Due to these crystals, eating this plant can cause severe irritation and swelling of the mouth. According to folklore, the Meskwaki people were rumored to have used the ground leaves to poison their enemies’ meat. Dried plant tissues were also used by native peoples to treat a wide variety of conditions ranging from rheumatism to snakebites.

All of the foliage and flowers of all of the ephemerals in the arb will fade away as the summer begins, only to return next Spring. There’s something refreshing about knowing that even during these trying times, the cycles of nature continue unabated.

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