Clusters of Four-Petalled Flowers

Cut-leaved ToothwortOh my, there are several plants with clusters of four-petalled flowers – usually white, or pinkish – that are blooming now.  A bunch of them are called Toothworts, also Pepperroot, or Crinkleroot.  I was curious where these names came from and turned up this bit from The Encyclopedia of Shade Perennials by Wolfram George Schmid:

Many Cardamine species were used to spice up food.  The peppery roots were grated and used like horseradish (hence pepperroot).  The commonest name, toothwort, comes from the plants’ use as a popular but ineffective salve for toothaches and also alludes to the rootstock’s crinkled shape, which resembles teeth (this gave rise to still another common name, crinkleroot).

I’m afraid the more I read about Toothwort, the more confused I become.  For one thing, it has been reclassified since my field guides were written.  Formerly called Dentaria, they are now called Cardamine.  And, depending which field guide or Internet source you use, the common names appear interchangable between the species with a few exceptions.

Cutleaf Toothwort seems to bloom first here in Western New York.  Listed as Cardamine concatenata at the USDA database and as Dentaria laciniata in both my Newcomb’s and Peterson’s field guides, it is pretty easy to distinguish from its intricately “cut” leaves.  (Picture above.)

I believe I have photographed at least two other species in “my” woods, but as I read about the variability of the leaves on individual plants, and that to differentiate between them, you have to look at rhizomes… I’ve become unwilling to commit to a definite ID!  Here are a couple of photos anyway:

Could it be Large Toothwort?  Is it Slender Toothwort?

(To confuse things all the more, there is a completely different plant in Europe that is referred to as “Toothwort” that lacks chlorophyll and is a parasite on certain trees.  Click here for a picture of Lathraea squamaria.)

I’ve run across a couple of other plants that also have clusters of 4 petals… They aren’t toothworts.  But they are Cardamines!

Using Newcomb’s Wildfower Guide, I came up with Mountain Watercress (Cardamine rotundifolia) for this plant.  After poking around in the USDA database and other places on the Internet, I’m no longer 100% sure.  (According to the range map, it’s not supposed to be in Chautauqua County, though it is in neighboring Cattaraugus County.) These Cardamines are difficult.

Mountain Watercress  Mountain Watercress Leaves

There’s a species similar to Mountain Watercress called Spring Cress (Cardamine bulbosa) whose upper leaves are more lance-shaped and whose range map includes Chautauqua County…  Hmm…

I’m a lot more certain of this last species, Cuckoo Flower (Cardamine pratensis):
Cuckoo Flowers
Towering above the grass, with spikey little leaves, this flower delights the children who come to the Audubon.  I point it out early in the walk and tell the kids that everytime they see it from now on, they have to point and say, “Cuckoo!”  (It drives their teachers crazy…)

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6 thoughts on “Clusters of Four-Petalled Flowers

  1. Gotta love those mustards! We only have two Cardamine here, C. oligosperma, which I haven’t seen, and, C. californica, commonly known as Milkmaids or, you guessed it, Toothwort! My exhaustive (and exhausting) guide to SF-area flowers lists 4 sub-species of C. californica, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend time trying to ID wildflowers down to the subspecies – they’re plenty difficult enough to get to a species!

    I’ve realized that common names are almost totally useless when discussing wildflowers, since one name can refer to so very many different species.

  2. Have you heard of James Rockets? They are four petalled in white and purple and quite tall. I thought they were a type of Phlox but someone told me no. I’ve looked in 3 flower books. It’s got to be a perennial. Maybe it’s a wildflower because they have been seen along the roadside and parks. I’m looking for some information on them, and of course a picture to help verify.
    Thanks.

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