Pictures of Native Plants in New England: Identification Aids

  • 01 of 14

    Picture of Skunk Cabbage, Stinky Herald of Spring

    Spring Hideout for Leprechauns in New England. David Beaulieu

    A Walk on the Wild Side in America's Northeast

    One of the great joys in leading an outdoorsy life is identifying the native plants of your region and becoming acquainted with their grow habits, bloom times, distribution, etc. My wife and I live in New England, U.S., where we have been active hikers, bicyclists, and kayakers for decades. Our love of travel has brought us to every corner of New England, and our love of gardening and nature has assured that, wherever we go, we keep our eyes peeled for native plants.

    While not fanatics (we do grow non-indigenous plants in our gardens at home), our admiration for native plants is such that we have been known to plan our weekends around visiting a particular locale many miles away from our own town to behold this or that stand of wild plants during their peak bloom time. If it's an impressive enough stand, we'll even hike or bike a few miles to reach it. Examples of such stands can be found in the second and third images in the photo gallery above, both of which are located in the Berkshires of Massachusetts (namely, bloodroot and Dutchman's breeches).

    Note: Unlike my photo gallery displaying some of the more colorful types of wildflowers of New England (which includes some exotic flora introduced to the region), the present gallery restricts itself to native plants. It is, of course, but a small sample. With a couple of exceptions, I've left out well-known plants such as goldenrod in favor of plants of which the average person may have little or no knowledge.

    My image above shows you what the "cabbage" part of this plant looks like (i.e., the leaves), but what about the "skunk"...?

    Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is one New England wetland native plant that I'm always on the lookout for in early spring. As it starts to poke its head farther and farther out of the ground, I know that the warmer weather is on the way.

    The stench emitted by this native plant wafts out of the spathe. This hooded structure is hidden from view in the photo, because it's under the leaves at the base of the plant, but you can see what the spathe of another plant looks like in my image of Amorphophallus konjac. The latter is not native to New England (it's tropical), but another New England native plant that sports a spathe is jack-in-the-pulpit.

    It's the spathe that contains skunk cabbage's flowers. The flowers attract pollinators with their skunky smell. Yes, believe it or not, something actually likes this odor and is drawn to it! Skunk cabbage blooms early, and its pollinators are a different cast of characters from the pollinators more familiar to us who are drawn to sweet-smelling nectar.

    As a child, I remember skunk cabbage growing all around the swamp we had on our land. The impressive size of the leaves and the period of their emergence (not long after Saint Patrick's Day) suggested to my fertile imagination that, for all I knew, I might someday catch a leprechaun hiding behind them.

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  • 02 of 14

    Photo of Bloodroot Colony

    bloodroot blanketing slope
    Native Plant Used for Dye, Medicine A hillside covered in bloodroot is an impressive sight when the plants are in bloom. David Beaulieu

    Bloodroot plant, along with Mayapple (entry #4), is one of the more distinctive wildflowers in New England, making identification easy.

    In growing zone 5 it flowers in April.

    Once you become acquainted with the disproportionately large leaf of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), you'll never forget it. This native plant is also called "red root," because the root exudes a red juice that has been used as a dye. Bloodroot is toxic but -- like many poisonous plants -- has been utilized by herbalists as a medicine.

    My wife and I drive out to the Berkshires and bike to this hillside (near the town of Adams) every year to try to catch the floral display while it is at its peak (sometime in April).

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  • 03 of 14

    Dutchman's Breeches and Squirrel Corn: Similar Leaves, Different Flowers

    Dutchmans breeches foliage
    Airy, Fern-Like Foliage Aids in Identification When Plants Not in Bloom Dutchman's breeches has delicate leaves. David Beaulieu

    Like Mayapple (next photo) and bloodroot (prior photo), Dutchman's breeches is often found growing in colonies. We hike on the Appalachian Trail in the Berkshires of Massachusetts every April to glimpse a particular hillside that is covered with them. A look-alike native plant here is squirrel corn. When not in bloom, look for their delicately compounded leaves to identify them (the foliage of the two is very similar).

    Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is a spring ephemeral that closely resembles another bleeding heart relative, squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis). In fact, these two spring ephemerals are frequently seen growing together, since they prefer the same conditions. To distinguish between them, remember that squirrel corn's flower looks more like the bloom of Dicentra eximia than does that of Dutchman's breeches. I would describe squirrel corn's bloom, with its two rounded lobes at the top of the flower, as an elongated heart shape. Dutchman's breeches, by contrast, has two pointy protrusions (the "trouser legs") at the top of the flower.

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  • 04 of 14

    Mayapple Plant Image: the Unfurling Umbrellas (Leaves)

    mayapple leaves unfurling
    AKA American Mandrake Image: the foliage of a double-leaved Mayapple unfurling in April. This plant will bear a flower in May. David Beaulieu

    What does a Mayapple plant look like...?

    Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is a fun plant to watch, but never more so than at this stage in its growth, when it is newly arisen from the earth in spring. One of the delights of growing American mandrake (which is another of its nicknames) is beholding this unfurling of the new leaf or leaves, which occurs (at least here in New England) in April. One leaf indicates sterility, two fertility; so the specimen in this picture will bear a flower this year.

    The common name, Mayapple is indicative of when the plant blooms in my area, although, in warmer regions, it may bloom earlier. But I consider the foliage to be much more noteworthy than the flowers or the subsequent fruit. If you look closely at my image, you can see two distinct leaves unfurling, each looking like a little umbrella just starting to open.

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  • 05 of 14

    Houstonia caerulea: Picture of Bluets, AKA Quaker Ladies

    bluets in spring
    The Ubiquitous Flower That No One Can Name Bluets are a flower everyone knows by sight, but not by name. David Beaulieu

    Here's a flower that almost anyone in New England would recognize (if not as a solitary plant, then at least when seen growing -- as it usually does -- en masse). Few, however, would be able to attach a name to it.

    Bearing the common name "bluets" or "Quaker ladies," Houstonia caerulea is a prolific, ubiquitous roadside flower. Anyone who logs many miles on the highway in May most likely has spotted it growing in masses, looking ever so much like sugar that some passing giant has spilled. Although it looks pure white from a distance, a close-up look often reveals a hint of blue (thus one of its common names), in addition to a yellow center. It's one of those plants that everyone "knows" without really knowing. Even long-time gardeners are frequently stumped when asked to name this flower.

    The Connecticut Botanical Society identifies bluets as a New England native plant, lists its height as 2-8 inches (it is most often on the low end of that range), and gives the diameter of the flower as 1/2 inch. This is a tiny customer, indeed! Do not confuse it with mountain bluets, which is a larger and totally different plant.

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  • 06 of 14

    Marsh Marigold: North American Native for Swampy Areas

    marsh marigold blooms
    Identification Challenge: Distinguish It From Lesser Celandine Marsh marigold is true to half its name: it does like wet areas. David Beaulieu

    Marsh marigold is a native plant in New England, as well as many other regions of North America.

    Not a true marigold, marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) is found growing in swamps and damp meadows in the wild. If you wish to grow it in the landscape, take advantage of this preference for moisture and grow it in a boggy or swampy area where many plants cannot thrive. Bloom time is mid-spring to late spring.

    If you wish to grow marsh marigold, first distinguish it from an invasive plant that happens to be similar in appearance: namely, lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria). Both are in the buttercup family. But whereas marsh marigold will have 5-9 petals, lesser celandine may have up to 12. The latter is also a smaller plant, reaching a foot tall at most (frequently shorter than that), whereas marsh marigold can reach 2 feet in height. A third distinguishing feature to help you with identification is that Caltha palustris has a clump-forming growth habit, while lesser celandine is mat-forming (a hint as to why it is such a successful invader).

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  • 07 of 14

    Image: Mass of Purple Violets in Lawn

    purple violets massed
    Lawn Weed or Lovely Wild Flower? It's Your Call Wild violets: weed in the lawn or magnificent addition?. David Beaulieu

    Some people remove wild violets from their lawns, considering them weeds....

    Others leave them alone, feeling lucky to have such lovely wildflowers gracing their otherwise uninteresting lawns. Viola sororia is a native plant in New England. Many people esteem the ones with purple flowers as being the most showy.

    What side do you come down on in the common lawn weed versus wildflower debate surrounding purple violets? Either way, I think you'll appreciate my article on wild violets.

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  • 08 of 14

    Sweet Fern Is Not a True Fern (Image)

    sweetfern closeup picture
    But It's Very Fragrant Sweet fern: truly fragrant, but not a true fern. David Beaulieu

    There are many misnomers in the plant world....

    "Sweet fern" (Comptonia peregrina) is one of them. It is not a true fern, although it has fern-like leaves. Rather, this New England native plant is a shrub that reaches 2 to 4 feet in height. It is commonly found in sunny, dry areas; for example, abandoned sites with sandy soil. Crush the leaves of sweet fern (also sometimes spelled as one word or with a hyphen) sometime and you'll be rewarded by its strong, pleasing fragrance. Along with its toughness, fragrance is its main selling point, since it isn't much to look at.

    Examples of true ferns are Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides) --a type famous for staying green all winter (thus the common name) in frigid New England -- and interrupted ferns (Osmunda claytoniana).

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  • 09 of 14

    Sheep Laurel or Lambkill: Image

    sheep laurel blooms
    The Narrow-Leaved Laurel Sheep laurel is also called "lambkill" -- a nod to its toxicity. David Beaulieu

    Sheep laurel is frequently found growing in bogs.

    This native shrub, known botanically as Kalmia angustifolia, is also called "lambkill." Early New England farmers no doubt discovered the hard way that it was poisonous to their livestock. I came across this one while biking in the Schoodic Peninsula in Maine in June.

    Sheep laurel is related to mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). What's the difference, for identification purposes? How do you tell the one shrub apart from the other? Well, sheep laurel is a smaller plant (1-3 feet tall versus 5-8 feet for mountain laurel), but another indicator is contained in the specific epithets of their respective botanical names: angustifolia as compared to latifolia. The latter means "wide-leaved," the former "narrow-leaved."

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  • 10 of 14

    Azalea Native to New England: Picture

    rhodora azalea blooms
    Rhodora Azalea Shrubs Rhodora azalea can grow in boggy soil. David Beaulieu

    Like the prior entry (sheep laurel), I photographed this plant during an outing in the Schoodic Peninsula segment of Acadia National Park, Maine.

    New Englanders who love azaleas and rhododendrons will appreciate the fact that, yes, there are azaleas native to New England. Rhodora azalea (Rhododendron canadense) is one of them. It tolerates boggy conditions -- a fact to keep in mind if you're looking for a shrub to grow in a wet spot in your yard where nothing that you plant seems to survive.

    Azaleas and rhododendrons are in the heath family (Ericaceae), as is the namesake winter heath

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  • 11 of 14

    Spotted Wintergreen Plant Image

    spotted wintergreen leaf
    Misnomer: Leaf Is More "Striped" Than "Spotted" "Striped" or "spotted" wintergreen? I say "striped." How about you?. David Beaulieu

    I had trouble remembering my identification of this native plant for the longest of times, because I found the common name used in my guide book very misleading. That's not surprising, because common plant names often cause confusion.

    Said guide book referred to Chimaphila maculata as "spotted wintergreen." In the author's defense, the specific epithet, maculata, does, indeed, translate from the Latin as "spotted." But I've noticed that some other guide books, as well as some websites devoted to native plant identification, call the plant by a common name that is more befitting of its appearance: namely, "striped wintergreen." Look at my photo above and tell me, honestly, which of those two common names you would pick for this wild plant (if you were forced to choose between the two). It is clear to this observer that, if anything, the leaf is noteworthy for its stripes, not spots.

    By the way, the "wintergreen" part of its name makes a little more sense. The growth habit and size of spotted wintergreen is reminiscent of Gaultheria procumbens, commonly called "wintergreen." The two also often share the same habitat.

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  • 12 of 14

    Image of Milkweed Seed Pod

    milkweed seedpod
    The "Cucumber" That So Fascinates Children When non-butterfly lovers think of milkweed, they probably think first of the seed pod and the fluff that escapes from it when it opens. David Beaulieu

    What comes to mind when you hear "milkweed?"

    Those who grow plants specifically to attract butterflies may think, first and foremost, of the flowers of common milkweed whenever that plant is mentioned. They may, in fact, go a step further and picture a monarch butterfly landing on the flowers. But others may think of a different plant part: the seed pod (or perhaps what eventually exits from the seed pod).

    Many children are fascinated by the seed pod of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). When I was a kid, children often referred to this pod as the "cucumber," due to its shape and the little bumps dotting its surface. The "cucumber" is shown on the left side of my photo, above.

    On the right side of said image, you see another part of common milkweed that strikes children as magical: the fluff that flies out when the pods open. Seeds hitch a ride on this cottony material, soaring far and wide on gusts of wind. Oh, and kids have been known to help the process along by huffing and puffing on them to see who can blow them the farthest.

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  • 13 of 14

    Pokeweed: Pretty but Poisonous

    Image of pokeweed berries.
    Comparison to Baneberry Apt Pokeweed's poisonous purple berries are ever so tempting to children. David Beaulieu

    Good size, purple berries, reddish-pink stems. What's not to like about pokeweed?

    For those who appreciate the beauty of wild plants, about the only thing not to like about Pokeweed (botanical name, Phytolacca americana) is that those luscious-looking berries are actually toxic if ingested. But they are quite pretty, and as tall as this perennial gets (up to 8 feet), a multitude of the berries are produced. The overall effect can be stunning.

    Notice the splendidly reddish-pink stems in my picture, which is another of the plant's selling points and identification features. White baneberry plant (which is native to the same region) also bears stems of this highly unusual (and striking) color on its berry clusters. Baneberry shares an additional trait with pokeweed: both produce toxic berries.

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  • 14 of 14

    Why Is Osmunda claytoniana Called "Interrupted Fern?"

    A Picture Explaining the "Interruption" When these brown leaflets fall off, the "interruption" occurs. David Beaulieu

    The common name, "interrupted fern" may strike you funny at first....

    But there's a very good explanation behind the common name for the plant that botanists know as Osmunda claytoniana. See the dark leaflets in the picture above? Those leaflets have spores on them (ferns reproduce using spores rather than seeds) and are thus referred to as the plant's fertile leaflets. The green leaflets, by contrast, are termed the sterile leaflets. 

    Once the spores drop off of the fertile leaflets, those leaflets have performed their function; they shrivel and fall, thereafter, leaving the sterile ones alone. The resultant gap that opens up along the frond is the "interruption" referenced in the common name.

    Interrupted ferns are indigenous to eastern North America. They are true ferns, as opposed to the fern wannabes presented earlier, namely, the sweet ferns.

    If you enjoyed viewing these images, you may also be interested in browsing:

    1. Native New England Perennials for Shade
    2. Native New England Perennials for Sun