White Trout Lily copyright 2012 Pamela Breitberg
Nature can be complicated. Often its apparent complexity is due to a variety of human interventions. For hundreds of years scientists have created organized classification systems to simplify specie identification. But most of us are only familiar with a plant’s common name. The complication happens when one plant has multiple common names, each deriving from different “discoverers”. Some names are unique and too frequently some are labeled “false” so-and-so adding only uncertainty when trying to understand the nature we encounter. Sometimes it seems the originator of a plant name must have had disproportionate eccentric cerebral capacity in naming skills and perhaps should not have been permitted to name new found species.
This image shows a delicate flower head which is not growing near water but is called White Trout Lily. This fish-out-of-water is one of the first plants to push through the moist leaf litter of the Midwest forest each spring. The name is apparent to a fisherman conceivably when spotting the leaf; it has the oval shape and mottle patterned skin of trout. But it would never have occurred to me as a name choice had I been the first to witness it one cool spring day.
To each side of the White Trout Lilly blooms are emerging False Solomon’s Seal leaves, so named because Pioneers often confused it with what they call Solomon’s Seal. Why “false” as its first name? Would this discoverer ever name a child such a name if they child resembled another family member?
If you look closely in the image, there is a roundish leaf on the far left just above center, probably Garlic Mustard, an invasive alien that is threatening the future for these natives of this forest. This alien is from Eurasia brought to the United States by settlers who wanted some touches of home in their garden for both dining and medicinal purposes. Like many non-native plant species its introduction in a new ecosystem created an imbalance; which in this case has led to its success in being a destructive aggressor.
Trout Lily 2 copyright 2012 Pamela Breitberg
Before closing I introduce more complexity to the fragile spring flower, the White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum), whose name appears unconnected to its uses and folklore.
“European settlers considered it to have similar properties to Meadow Saffron (Colchicum autumnale), and White Fawnlily was often used as a substitute for it. The plant was listed in the Pharmacopoeia of the United States from 1820-1863 as a treatment for gout.
Some believe that wounds will be healed if the plant is soaked in cold water, then removed and wrapped it in cloth and applied to a wound or bruise. It is left there until the bundle is warm, and then removed and buried in a muddy place.
Little is known of the constituents, because little research has been done. It is known to contain alpha-methylenebutyrolactone. The plant is emetic, emollient, and antiscorbutic when fresh. It is nutritive when dry.
Certain groups of American Indians used it for its emetic and contraceptive properties. The Onondaga women used the leaves as a temporary birth control method in the spring, to avoid giving birth in the most frigid part of winter.
The leaves can be collected anytime, but the bulb enlarges throughout the summer and can be divided in the fall. At that time of year, the bulb is also edible. The fresh leaves are mostly used in the form of a stimulating poultice, applied to swellings, tumors and scrofulous ulcers.
When made into a tea with horsetail (Equisetum hyemale), it is claimed to be good for bleeding or ulcers of bowels, or for tumors and inflammation of the bowels. It has been used as a quick relief for nose bleeds and sore eyes. The fresh roots or leaves are simmered in milk; or the juice of the plant infused in apple cider; and these treatments are used for dropsy, hiccups, vomiting and bleeding of the bowels. Misuse may cause nausea or even vomiting.
Christian mythology says the lily sprang from the tears of Eve when she found motherhood was near.”