Mother Nature’s Garden: Talking about some ‘unloved’ wildflowers

Published 6:31 pm Friday, July 7, 2023

Every year people get super excited when the first Virginia bluebells appear. And when the pink lady’s slippers bloom, well, there is almost mass hysteria. Few individuals will share the location of their favorite patches of wildflowers.

Although not naturally occurring, wildflower meadows produce similar levels of enthusiasm, and half the local population vows to create one. Never mind that meadows are labor intensive and require at least two to three years of work before they are attractive. 

What do these plants and the meadows all have in common? They’re pretty and, while they aren’t rare, they’re not found on every street corner. Humans are attracted to flowers with color, texture, interesting shapes, and fragrances, essentially the same characteristics that flowers use to attract pollinators. Pink lady’s slippers, for example, provide nearly all of these characteristics. Scent is strongly linked to the retrieval of memories. Just a whiff of Japanese honeysuckle will transport many adults back to their childhood. 

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So…if you try to share your enthusiasm for a plant that you’ve spent ages trying to find and that plant isn’t colorful, fragrant, or conventionally pretty, it can be difficult. For several years, yellow screwstem (Bartonia virginica), a member of the Gentian Family, was on my list of plants that I wanted to find. It’s not rare, but not common either. It’s also small and easily hidden in surrounding vegetation. 

Not long ago, I found several specimens of yellow screwstem in a nearby swampy area, but failed miserably at photographing them. When I returned the next day and the day after and the day after that, I couldn’t find a single plant. Finally on the fifth day of mucking about in the swamp, I resorted to walking in a grid pattern and found one yellow screwstem by nearly stepping on it.

It was only a small specimen, about 5 inches tall with tiny leaves reduced to scales and small, insignificant looking, creamy yellow wildflowers. Close examination with a hand lens, however, revealed that the blooms had the form and structure typical of members of the Gentian Family.  Not a plant that shouted, “Look at me!” but one that needed careful, up-close inspection in order to be appreciated. Contemplation. 

I was hot, muddy, and tired when I emerged from the swamp, but with a strong sense of satisfaction and happiness. Were my photos any better than those I had taken when I first found the plant. No really. Am I going back to try again? No. Was I able to share my excitement about these wildflowers with anyone else? It was difficult. Yellow screwstem is all about subtleties. 

Sometimes the satisfaction is very personal. All about searching, finding, and observing.

Dr. Cynthia Wood is a master gardener who writes two columns for The Herald. Her email address is