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.  


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.

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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.


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.


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.

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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.

Meet the Mayapple

One of the fascinating spring Eliza Howell Park wildflowers is the Mayapple. The fruit – the so-called apple – is not ripe until later in the year, but the flower blooms in May. Mayapple is, however, known at least as much for its foliage as it is for its blossoms or fruit.

According to the Prince William Wildflower Society, a Virginia native plant society, a Cherokee name for Mayapple can be translated as “it wears a hat,” and an Osage name as “it pains the bowels.”

Mayapple is a colony plant; a single root has many umbrella-like stems, connected by underground rhyzomes. Dozens of these stems make up a typical Mayapple stand. Mayapple stands or patches are largely avoided by mammal herbivores, like deer, because the foliage, the rhysomes, and the (green) fruit are all poisonous.


The above photo is from April 26, 2017.

Mayapple grows in rich moist soil in deciduous forests and can be seen in a few locations in the wooded areas of Eliza Howell.  The stand that I regularly observe was late in developing this year, as were other wildflowers. Most of the stems did not emerge until mid-April. (the next picture is from April 25, 2018.)


A few days later, the stand was taking shape and the plants were about ½ of their adult size (which is a foot to a foot and a half).


Some plants have only one leaf and will not have flower/fruit, but most have two leaves. These produce a single flower at the fork of the two leaves.


Though the single white flowers are very attractive, they can be missed when they bloom because they face downward under and are shaded by the umbrella leaves. (The next picture is from May 7, 2017.)


The fruit is green, turning yellow when it ripens. Ripe fruit is edible (when the seeds have been removed), the only edible part of the entire plant.

The Cherokee and Osage names for what we call Mayapple are, I think, both very good. I don’t have my own descriptive name…..yet.


Earliest Spring Wildflowers: Eliza Howell Park

2018 has been cold in March and early April, but the weather will get warmer and wildflowers will soon start to bloom.

Those who have the opportunity to walk in the park looking for blooming flowers this spring may see the following in late April or the beginning of May.

This 11-flower list is not all-inclusive, but it might provide some guidance to spring flower seekers.

All photos are from Eliza Howell Park.

  1. Spring Beauty
  • Woods
  • 3 – 6 inches
  • Usually 5 petals marked with pink or purple vein


2. Cutleaf Toothwort

  • Woods
  • 8 – 12 inches
  • 4 petals


3. Yellow Trout Lily

  • Woods
  • 6 – 10 inches
  • 6 backward curving petals


4. White Trout Lily (Dogtooth Violet)

  • Woods
  • 6 – 10 inches
  • 6 backward curving petals

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5. Common Blue Violet

  • Woods and meadows
  • 3 – 8 inches
  • 5 petals


6. Canada (white) Violet

  • Woods
  • 6 -15 inches
  • 5 petals, lower 3 marked with fine brown-purple veins


7. Garlic Mustard

  • Woods
  • 1 – 4 feet
  • 4 petals
  • Non-native plant


8. Wild Strawberry

  • Meadows, open areas
  • 3 – 6 inches
  • 5 rounds petals, numerous yellow stamens


9. Wild Geranium

  • Woods
  • 1 – 2 feet
  • 5 petals, usually with dark veins


10. (Common) Trillium

  • Woods
  • 12 – 18 inches
  • 3 large petals
  • Protected Michigan wildflower


11. Redbud

  • Edges of woods
  • Small tree, native of North America
  • Flowers are pea-shaped and appear on twigs and branches


Varieties of Violets

This is an unusually cold early spring, but new plant growth is slowly emerging. On a recent walk in Eliza Howell, I noticed that a few violets are now up. 


The flowers will follow before long.

While some roses are red, violets are not truly blue. They come in a variety of other colors, reflecting the variety of violet species that exist. Probably the most common violet found in Eliza Howell Park is the color that I have always associated with this flower.


It grows in the woods and in the open areas. In the next picture, it can be seen with wild strawberry blossoms.


In 2017, I photographed three other colors of violets in the park. 




Not all Spring flowers that are sometimes called “violets” are really violets. One of the flowers found in EHP in Spring is one (next picture) that is frequently called “Dog Tooth Violet.” It is not a violet (the leaves and the flower are both very different) and is, I think, better identified as White Trout Lily.


The violets are coming and different varieties will be blooming before April is over. I wonder… perhaps I will find an additional variety this year.


INVITATION: April 21 Nature Walk

For many of us, February is a time to plan for spring. It is a time to order favorite garden seeds – and a time to get spring nature walks on the calendar.

I invite anyone interested to join me on Saturday, April 21, 2018, for a spring walk in Eliza Howell Park (starting at 9:00 a.m.).

April is the beginning of the spring season for wildflowers and EHP always has a variety of beauties. Two common ones are trout lily…



and spring beauty.



By the third week of April, woodpeckers, including the Red-bellied Woodpecker, are drilling nesting holes.



The land snails of Eliza Howell (I am not sure of the precise species) show up in April.



Redbuds and a variety of other flowering trees/shrubs are abloom.



The first butterflies appear at this time of the year, one being the Eastern Comma.



In recent years, some of us have observed a fascinating phenomenon in one spring pond in the park. American Toads have selected it as their breeding pond, congregating here for a couple days in April. Over the following days and weeks hundreds of tadpoles develop in the shallow pond.


These are some aspects of the spring life that we will be observing (and maybe taking some pictures of) on April 21. Everyone is welcome. We will meet about half way around the road loop from the Fenkell entrance.

If you have any questions or comments, please contact me:


Note: All the above pictures are from Eliza Howell Park and were taken in April 2017 by the author, with the exception of the woodpecker. That photo, also from EHP in April 2017, was taken by Margaret Weber.