The Naming of a Wildflower

Another little plant which has interesting ways and is beautiful besides is the adder’s-tongue, or yellow erythronium, the earliest of the lilies, and one of the most pleasing. The April sunshine is fairly reflected in its revolute flowers. The lilies have bulbs that sit on or near the top of the ground. The onion is a fair type of the lily in this respect. But here is a lily with the bulb deep in the ground. How it gets there is well worth investigating. The botany says the bulb is deep in the ground, but offers no explanation. Now it is only the bulbs of the older or flowering plants that are deep in the ground. The bulbs of the young plants are near the top of the ground. The young plants have but one leaf, the older or flower ones have two. If you happen to be in the woods at the right time in early April, you may see these leaves compactly rolled together, piercing the matted coating of sere leaves that covers the ground like some sharp-pointed instrument. They do not burst their covering or lift it up, but pierce it like an awl.

But how does the old bulb get so deep in the ground? In digging some of them up one spring in an old meadow bottom, I had to cleave the tough fibrous sod to a depth of eight inches. The smaller ones were barely two inches below the surface. Of course they all started from the seed at the surface of the soil. The young botanist, or nature lover, will find here a field for original research. If, in late May or early June, after the leaves of the plant have disappeared, he finds the ground where they stood showing curious, looping, twisting growths or roots, of a greenish white color, let him examine them. They are as smooth and as large as an angle-worm, and very brittle. Both ends will be found in the ground, one attached to the old bulb, the other boring or drilling downward and enlarged till it suggests the new bulb. I do not know that this mother root in all cases comes to the surface. Why it should come at all is a mystery, unless it be in some way to get more power for the downward thrust. My own observations upon the subject are not complete, but I think in the foregoing I have given the clew as to how the bulb each year sinks deeper and deeper into the ground.

It is a pity that this graceful and abundant flower has no good and appropriate common name. It is the earliest of the true lilies, and it has all the grace and charm that belong to this order of flowers.

Erythronium, its botanical name, is not good, as it derived from a Greek word that means red, while one species of our flower is yellow and the other is white. How it came to be called “adder’s-tongue” I do not know; probably from the spotted character of the leaf, which might suggest a snake, though it in no wise resembles a snake’s tongue. A fawn is spotted, too, and “fawn-lily” would be better than “adder’s-tongue”. Still better is the name “trout-lily,” which has been recently proposed for this plant. It blooms along the trout streams, and its leaf is as mottled as a trout’s back. The name “dog’s-tooth” may have been suggested by the shape and color of the bud, but how the “violet” came to be added is a puzzle, as it has not one feature of the violet. It is only another illustration of the haphazard way in which our wild flowers, as well as our birds, have been named.

In my spring rambles I have sometimes come upon a solitary specimen of this yellow lily growing beside a mossy stone where the sunshine fell full upon it, and have thought it one of the most beautiful of our wild flowers. Its two leaves stand up like a fawn’s ears, and this feature, with its recurved petals, gives it an alert, wide-awake look. The white species I have never seen. I am told they are very abundant on the mountains in California.

– John Burroughs, The Writings of John Burroughs, Volume 9, 1894

Nice illustration of genus Erythronium from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, Volume 124 (1898)


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