fiddlehead definition

fid·dle·head [ fídd'l hèd ] (plural fid·dle·heads) noun
Definition: edible fern shoot: the coiled frond of a young fern, often cooked and eaten as a delicacy

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Trout Lily

Hiking through the woods this week, I came upon a field of trout lilies. Not only was the spectacle beautiful, but it signals the imminence of spring. The bright yellow trout lily is among the first flowers to bloom in spring.

Trout lilies thrive in damp, open woodlands with moist, rich, and loamy soil and bloom just long enough to usher in spring. The flowers open up in the morning and fold their petals in at night. The perennials disappear by early June and lay dormant until late winter when they return.
Photo from NY State Dept of Environmental Conservation

The name "trout lily" comes from the resemblance the mottled-with-purple leaves have with the speckling of brook trout. Some call them dog's tooth violets because of the shape of the tubers--like, well, a dog's canine. The emerge at around the same time as violets. My photo on top shows a wood violet flowering at the same time.

Trout lilies live in colonies spread vegetatively underground. The colonies can be large and very old and often form dense groupings of which only some flower in a given year. Trout lily flowers don't bloom until about the seventh year. Seed dispersal occurs by myrmecochory, which, in simpler terms means, by ants. Each seed has a small appendage called an elaiosome attached. This protuberance contains a food like substance that is super attractive to ants but has nothing to do with germination. The ants carry the seeds, eats the elaisome, discards the rest, and a flower grows. A symbiotic relationship with bumblebees also exists. This early start of the trout lily enables pollinators like bumblebees to begin establishing their underground nests and colonies. When I took the photo of the lily, a bumblebee was on the flower nearest to it.

Many wildflowers have edible underground parts, including the trout lily.The leaves can be eaten in a salad or as a pot herb. I am not a fan but would eat them in an emergency. The corms, or tubers, however can be eaten raw or any way you would treat a root vegetable. Slice them over a salad or parboil them for a mini potato-like experience. The only way I have tried them is fresh from the ground. They taste a bit like a water chestnut to me. Keep in mind harvest sustainability when foraging for things like these tubers. It wouldn't take many foragers to wipe out a colony.

Erythronium Americanum illustration from my journal

Trout lily lore holds many stories of medicinal uses. It has been documented as a fever reducer, a preventer of swelling, poultice, and even used for contraception in Cherokee and Iroquois histories. A tea of the leaves was made for fevers. Even Roman soldiers were said to have used parts of the spring beauty to treat corns and foot problems.

I am happy to just gaze at the nodding bright yellow flowers and dappled leaves and smile for the coming of spring.

 I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. ~John Muir

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