Cutleaf Toothwort: A Spring Flower with an Unusual Name

Cutleaf Toothwort is one of my favorites among the early wildflowers in Eliza Howell Park, a delicate woodland flower with a not-so-delicate name. It is beginning to bloom this week and will be finished blooming already in a couple weeks.

Note: The first public Eliza Howell nature walk of 2019 will include a look at this and some other spring wildflowers: Saturday, April 27, at 10:00 a.m. Everyone is welcome. We will meet near the nature trail, about ½ of the way around the road loop from the Fenkell entrance.  

20190417_165226

Cutleaf Toothwort (or Cut-leaved Toothwort) is a perennial that grows in moist soil that is undisturbed and rich with organic matter, typically found in areas that have dappled sunlight before they become shaded when the trees overhead have leafed out.

It often grows in patches and is quite common in Eliza Howell along the path in the woods.

20190416_175828 (1)

It gets to be several inches tall, with anywhere from 3 to 15 flowers bunched at the top of the stem. Each ½ inch flower has 4 white petals, sometimes tinged with pink. The flowers often hang down and may be only partially open on cloudy days.

20190416_175347

The “cutleaf” part of the name is clearly understandable when one looks at the leaves. “Toothwort” is less evident. “Wort” is a word used for a number of plants, especially those considered to have some medicinal value; an example is “St. John’s Wort.” There are a couple possible explanations for the “tooth” part of the name. One is that it is based on the reported use of the roots by some Native Americans to treat toothache. The most widespread explanation for “tooth” in the name, and the explanation that I usually give, is that the underground tuber resembles a tooth.

I try not to disturb native wildflowers growing in the park, but we have a little patch of Cutleaf Toothwort in our yard and I dug up a plant there.

20190418_083021

Cutleaf Toothwort is a true ephemeral perennial (short above-ground life cycle); about two months after the first growth appears, it has produced its seed, dies back, and does not show itself again until the next spring. It’s a plant to enjoy while I can.

20190416_175648 (1)

Other early woodland wildflowers that appear in Eliza Howell near the end of April include Spring Beauty, Trout Lily (2 types), Violet (a variety), and Wild Geranium. After a long winter, they are all most welcome. Cutleaf Toothwort is just one, but somehow it gets my special attention.