A tale of two plants

Published 7:42 am Thursday, May 17, 2018

Walk through just about any wooded area in Prince Edward or surrounding counties and you’re likely to find a short perennial plant with thick, dark green, dull leaves with toothed edges and a white stripe down the middle and a reddish brown central stem. Yes, it’s spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata), a sturdy little plant that’s quite common in our area.

It’s even taken up residence in my heavily shaded azalea beds. It’s like an old friend that pops up wherever you are – in the winter when you can’t find much else in the woods and then again in early summer when it’s dressed in all its finery. Spotted wintergreen has waxy white, bell-shaped blooms that are fragrant and held high above the plant. If you’re lucky enough to find some growing in lush green moss, it’s beautiful, a miniature wonderland for wood sprites.

Spotted wintergreen has a relative, pipsissiwa (Chimaphila umbellata) that’s also found in our area; it’s just not as common. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble across this plant on a cold early spring day when you’re desperate to see something, anything, green. At first glance pipsissiwa looks a bit like pachysandra. It’s a small evergreen perennial with shiny toothed leaves. It usually grows 3 to 5 inches tall and in early summer has white to pinkish flowers arranged in a small umbel of four to eight blooms.

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Pipsissiwa is an interesting plant; its leaves can remain on the plant for as long as four years. It’s also a partial mycoheterotroph, meaning it gets part of its nutrients from fungi in the soil. Pipsissiwa is found throughout the state, except in the far southwest. It grows in dry, acidic forests and is infrequent throughout the state. Spotted wintergreen and pipsissiwa prefer the same growing conditions. They’re found in dry, acidic forests. Both plants can be found at our nearby state parks. Now’s a good time to find them, make notes, and then plan on returning in a few weeks to see them in bloom. You’ll be glad you did. They’re small treasures.

CYNTHIA WOOD is a master gardener who writes two columns for The Herald. Her email address is cynthia. crewe23930@gmail.com.