This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Leaves elliptical-lanceolate, pale green, mottled, and commonly dotted with purplish and whitish; perianth light yellow, often spotted near the base; style club-shaped; stigmas united into one. Scape six to nine inches high; flowers one inch or more long. (Asa Gray, Manual of Botany of the Northern States. See also Chapman's Flora of the Southern States, and Wood's Class Book.)
HIS is one of our earliest flowers, being in full bloom in Pennsylvania the end of April and beginning of May, and earlier or later in Southern or Northern States. On this account it received the name of "Yellow Snowdrop" from the earlier settlers in Pennsylvania, who remembered the early-blooming snowdrops of the Old World. Many other common names have been given to it, but "Yellow Snakeleaf' prevailed generally with the last generation, and it commonly receives this name from modern writers on popular botany. The name, however, which seems most in use at the present time, and which, we think, will prevail, is "Yellow Dog-tooth Violet." It varies very much in the markings of the leaves in some localities. Sometimes there are scarcely any spots; then it often receives the name of "Lamb's Tongue."The name "Dog-tooth Violet" is derived from the roots of the single European species, Erythronium Dens Canis, which is literally Dogs-tooth Erythronium. So great is the resemblance to the canine teeth of the great friend of man, that the roots seem to have had this name among all the old nations of Europe long before it was adopted by science, and indeed long before plants had any botanical names at all.
The resemblance to the violet is rather imasrinarv; but as the European form, usually white, is often purple in Italy, and blooms about the same time with the violet, the popular name would at least seem to be explicable. The name of the genus is not so well traced. Dr. Gray says, "Erythronium is from Eryt/iros, Greek for 'red,' which is inappropriate as respects the American species." Prof. Wood seems of the same opinion, as he says that the name is derived from "the color of some of the species." But none of the European varieties have flowers of a color deep enough to suggest such a name. Dr. Darlington believes that the name was from "the purple stains on the leaves." Botanists do not always give the reasons for their names, and we are left to guess at them. The earlier ones delighted in adopting ancient appellations. Erythronium occurs in Pliny and Dioscorides, and some of the older botanists thought it had reference to this plant, and so retained it, though the plant referred to by these ancient writers was evidently used in dyeing, which the Dog-tooth Violet could not be. The family has, however, some use in human economy. The powdered root of the European species was once used, with milk, for intestinal worms in children. The root is rather acrid when fresh, but becomes mealy when dry. Rafmesque says fresh roots and leaves, stewed in milk, make a rapidly healing application to scrofulous sores. Dried bulbs, however, lose this virtue. Porcher, the most recent American author on the medical properties of plants, says the bulbs are emetic when powdered, and given in doses of twenty to forty grains.
The Yellow Dog-tooth Violet is found in clamp, shaded woods in, we believe, all the Atlantic States, and westward as far as the Mississippi, beyond which it gives place to other species. The order to which it belongs is very small, consisting of perhaps not over half a dozen individuals, even if we include the marked varieties. Its nearest ally in our country is Lilium; the pistil, however, is not three-cleft as in the lilies, but the lobes are united, forming a club-shaped pistil, as shown in our plate, and it also differs in other characteristics. A nearer relation exists between it and the common garden tulip, which has, however, a bell-shaped flower-cup, and a sessile, three-parted stigma. At night our flowers close, opening somewhat as the day advances, but on warm, sunshiny days they recurve as completely as the "Turk's-cap Lilies."
There are, no doubt, many interesting facts in the life-histories of the Yellow Dog-tooth Violet which yet remain to be recorded. In some localities, as already noted, the leaves are not spotted as in other cases. In these instances there seems to be a difference in the disposition to produce seeds, as if the two points went together. Then again in some localities there are immense numbers of small roots with only one leaf, and but a very few - the flowering ones - with two, and it is not known how long it is before a seedling-plant flowers. In the tulip the young roots do not flower for several years, and it may be the same with this.
It bears culture very well, provided it be grown in a partially shaded place; and no doubt, with attention, as many varieties might be raised as have been produced in the tulip.
Though so old a plant in history, the poets seem to have overlooked it, its companion, the violet, having evidently had superior charms for them. But as we have not the tulip with us, and the genus is allied to it botanically, what the poets have said of the one may without much violence be transferred to the other. Holland makes the tulip reflect on its own merits, in contrast with other floral favorites, as follows: "How vain are the struggles for conquest and power With golden bud and scented flower, Who claim, from their beauty or fragrance alone, Their right to ascend the garden throne ! A graceful form may please the sight, And fragrant odor the senses delight;
Yet if we are judged by our merit, I ween
The Tulip will soon be the Garden Queen;
No envy I fear, nor of beauty the frown,
While the worth of the Tulip can purchase the crown.
"How can the vain Rose ever hope to claim, By the verse of the poet, the bright meed of fame? Or the pale-featured Lily pretend to enhance Her right, as the flower most favor'd of France? No favors I boast, though in beauty I shine, And variety's garb, ever charming, is mine; But my triumph I rest upon merit alone, For worth is e'er valued when beauty is flown. Then why should I fear either anger or frown, While the worth of the Tulip will merit the crown?"
The only incongruity in the application of these lines to our plant is in the line, "And variety's garb, ever charming, is mine."
But, as already remarked, there is little doubt, if zealous improvers would take it in hand, this boasted charm would be our plant's as well. The original tulip of Europe (Tulipa sylvcstris) is a simple yellow flower, a little larger, but scarcely so showy as this lovely spring flower of our woods.
1. Whole plant with bulb deep in the ground.
2. Side view of flower, with relative length of pistil and stamens.
3. Recurved petals as often seen at mid-day.
4. Capsule soon after the petals have fallen.