Mystery Solved on Spring Creek
I don't know...call it good Karma, dumb luck, or just plain old being in the right place at the right time, but just when my super-inflated ego takes control and I get over-arrogant, thinking that I know it all, bored with everything in the woods, etc., etc., something wonderful happens.
This time it was a new discovery. Well new to me anyway. And so it seems new to about 99 percent of the people who I talk to. Once again, I am inspired to seek, my soul is renewed, and all is right with the world. At least until the next time boredom reaches out and grabs hold of me.
What is my discovery, you are asking about now.
I'll be the first to admit the generic name is pretty choppy and really doesn't roll off the tongue like, let's say, Tiarella, Viola, or some of the other duo syllabic genera of plants native to these mountains, but with all due respect to E.R. von Trautvetter (1809-1889), this plant is pretty cool.
I took my kids to the ol' swimmin' hole about five miles east of my farm on Spring Creek. This is a really idyllic spot where the "crick" makes a sharp bend and over the centuries has created a deep chasm etched out of the hard shale cliffs on the south bank. After depositing the youngins in the H2O, I waded across the creek to the cliffs in faint hope of seeing something unusual. I was slowly emerging from the ice cold water, reaching out to grab hold of the slippery rocks as I smelled a sweet
fragrance. It was a new scent to this large proboscus. Something slightly familiar but yet somewhat mysterious. Glancing up, I spotted the origin straight ahead.
At first glance, I thought I'd discovered a new species of Thalictrum. We have six species in West Virginia and I thought I knew them all. Immediately, my mind raced ahead to the future, Thalictrum glickii. Wow, what a nice ring it has. At last, my fifteen minutes of fame. But that was until I got beyond the icy white, fragrant, feathery flowers. Looking at the foliage I was still positive I was in the Ranunculaceae (buttercup) family, but the glossy dark green deeply lobed leaves sure as heck looked like a Trollius. Now in West Virginia, we have no Trollius species, so the mystery deepened. In fact, the only Trollius species I know of that is native to the U.S. is Trollius laxus, and I think that the closest station for that is in Pennsylvania. Anyway, that is a much shorter plant with soft, muted yellow flowers, and it blooms very early in the spring.
So, with thousands of seedlings growing in every moist crack of the cliff, I had no qualms about borrowing a few to bring them back to the nursery for identification, evaluation, and growing on in the garden. As soon as I got home, I ran to my library, grabbed the copy of Flora of West Virginia and began to confirm my knowledge of the genus Thalictrum. There, on the same page as Thalictrum, I discovered my new find.
I realized I wasn't that far off base in thinking it was a Thalictrum, as the common name for Thalictrum is "Meadow Rue" and Trautvetteria's common name is "Tasselrue." In the description, it cites 20 of our 55 counties as home.
With this initial phase of my investigtion coming to a close, it was time to start thinking about this new plant in the sense of garden worthiness. To be sure, there are many wild plants that are better left in the wild, and for what I initially suspected would be the same reason I would be unable to find a suitable spot in my own garden for Trautvetteria, no real wet area. It would have been the same lament as for not being able to successfully grow Veratrum viride, a sexy bog plant in the lily family, or
what you may know in the common realm as "False Green Hellebore." Why it has that common name, I don't know, but that's the problem with common names. We'll leave that topic untouched for a future post.
Moving on, I posted an e-mail to the Alpine Group listserv on the Internet. Don't let the name fool you, these folks cover the gamut of the plant world and I've never seen any question about any plant go unanswered. Sure enough, I got about a dozen replies to my inquiry regarding experience growing Trautvetteria in the garden, including overwhelming confirmation that it does not require a particularly wet area, just good garden soil, rich in organic matter, and a good mulch to conserve moisture in dry
periods. One person on Long Island said it "gently self sows" in her garden.
I also called Dr. Dick Lighty, director of the Mount Cuba Center in Greenville, Delaware. Dick said they've been growing Trautvetteria succsesfully for many years in the garden and wondered, as did I, at this point, why it was unavailable in the nursery trade. In fact, while looking in the most comprehensive plant availablity directory in the U.S., Andersons Source Guide, I noticed only one source was listed for the plant. In the Plantfinder, the source book for the UK, there was no entry.
Trautvetteria forms a 6-inch to 10-inch plant with a much taller flower stem. Some can reach as tall as 18 inches to 36 inches. It prefers light to medium shade but could probably take some direct sun. It flowers over a long period and seems to peak in late June to mid July.
I went back to its home this weekend and placed several muslin drawstring bags over the flower heads to collect seeds. After seeing all of the seedlings under the plants, I'm confident it's easily grown from seed. This plant deserves some publicity and a home in every native and wild garden.
Barry Glick, the acknowledged “King of Helleborus,” grew up in Philadelphia in the 1960s, a Mecca of horticulture. Barry cut high school classes and hitchhiked to Longwood Gardens before he was old enough to drive. In 1972, he realized there was just not enough room for him and his plants in the big-city environment, so he bought 60 acres of a mountaintop in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, where he gave birth to Sunshine Farm & Gardens, a mail-order plant nursery. Barry grows more than 10,000 different plants and specializes in native plants and hellebores. He can be reached at 304.497.2208 or firstname.lastname@example.org.