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.
Root-jointed; stem-leaves mostly three, whorled, ternately divided; leaflets lanceolate or linear, lobed and toothed; the lateral ones two-parted, those of the root similar or sometimes wanting; racemes few or sometimes many-flowered, often shorter than the leaves; flowers white or pale-purple. Stem from four to twelve inches high. (Chapman's Flora of the Southern United States. See also Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, and Wood's Class-Book of Botany.)
THIS is one of the earliest wild flowers of spring. Ac-cording to Chapman it commences to flower in March in the South, and in the North it is seldom later than May. These early flowers are always welcome. As a rule those of summer and autumn boast of gayer colors. But after the dreariness of winter has passed away, and " The sun is on the waters, and the air Breathes with a stirring energy; the plants Expand their leaves, and swell their buds, and blow, Wooing the eye, and stealing on the soul With perfume and with beauty,------" we are not particular then about the style of beauty, and are pleased with a very slight perfume. Our " Tooth-wort" is, however, not without real claims on the lovers of showy things. A correspondent of the "Garden," who has been recently cultivating it in England, says: "This is a very handsome dwarf cruciferous perennial, the large, rosy-purple flowers being rendered more conspicuous by the bright green leaves. It is a North American plant, and is infinitely more beautiful than the Dentaria bul-bifera, the common 'coral-root' of the woods and copses of some of our southern counties."
It may be well here to explain to the wild-flower collector that the "cruciferous order" to which our perennial belongs, though a very large one, is very easily recognized. Cruciferous, or cross-bearing, refers to the petals, which are in a cross-like series of four. Then the stamens are arranged so that there are four of equal length, with two shorter ones; and it was from this fact that the Linnaean class of Tetradynamia was so styled. There may be some plants in other orders with four petals, but they are not likely to have this peculiar arrangement of the stamens with the other condition. In addition to this there is an absence of bracts, or diminutive leaves along the flower stalks, and all these circumstances together will generally enable the student to decide on the natural order when it is met with; and herein we may see the advantages of the natural over the old sexual or artificial systems. Many points are taken into consideration, and we are less liable to go astray than when only one point is regarded as the chief foundation stone.
It may be noted that the English writers refer to our plant as the "coral-root," and not "Tooth-wort" as we have it, and this seems to be really the older name. The "Dentaria," or "Tooth-wort," of the oldest writers of more modern times, was a plant of the order Orobanchiacea or "Broom-rapes," in which the "scales of root represented teeth." This is worth remembering, because some of our modern authors, in explaining why our plant is called Dentaria, tell us it is from dens, a tooth, "because of the scales," etc., when really the root of our plant has no scales. The old definition has been carried to the new plant. In view of the incongruity Mrs. Lincoln, in her "Botany," may be justified in remarking that it is as likely to have had its name from being, perhaps, an ancient remedy for the tooth-ache!
In regard to medical virtues our Tooth-wort does not seem to have much to boast of. Dr. F. Peyre Porcher makes no mention of the plant. Darby, in his "Botany of the Southern States," says the roots are pungent; and the "Treasury of Botany" says: "The roots of Dentaria diphylla (scarcely different from our species) have a pungent, mustard like taste, and are used by the natives of the mountains of North America, from Pennsylvania to Canada, instead of mustard, under the name of Pepper-wort." This pungency is shared in by the roots of other closely allied plants of the cruciferous order, of which the horse-radish, the common garden radish, and even the cabbage and turnip under some circumstances, are familiar examples. But the ancients believed it possessed greater merits than that of a mere condiment. Culpeper, the quaint old herbalist, says of the English form: "It is under Mars, and is a good vulnerary. It is recommended to stop all kinds of fluxes and hemorrhages; helps to consolidate wounds and fractures; especially the root." Salmon, another herbalist of the time of Queen Anne, says, pointedly, " they are dedicated to the curing of wounds."
This medical character is of course drawn from the European kinds, and chiefly from the Dentaria bulbifera; but the species are so closely allied that it is difficult to distinguish them, and hence a property found in one may be looked for in most. In the case of our present plant, several species have been made of it by various botanists at different times. When referring to one yet supposed to be distinct, Dentaria heterophylla, Mr. Sereno Watson says, in his Bibliographical Index, "uniting D. laciniata, maxima, and multifida." How well justified Mr. Watson is in this suggestion is confirmed by a remark of the editor of the "Botanical Gazette." In the first volume he says: "It is one of our earliest spring flowers, and one of the most variable and perplexing species I ever met. A long list might be made of the various forms in which it occurs. Dentaria maxima, D. hetero-phylla, D. laciniata, and D. multifida, undoubtedly run together in this locality. Specimens of these different species have been found growing in the same patches, and even from the same root! The leaves vary from entire to finely dissected. In some specimens there are three leaves in a whorl; in some there are but two leaves, opposite or alternate. In short there is no kind of division or position of leaves which is not represented in this species." What we have quoted is a very good lesson on leaves, for modern botanists, in distinguishing species, do not place near as much dependence on characters drawn from them, as those botanists did who lived in more ancient times.
Dentaria laciniata does not seem to have been found by the earlier botanists who examined the flora of our country. Muhlenberg, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, sent specimens, and proposed this name to Willdenow, who so describes it in Willdenow's "Species Plantarum," in 1800. Michaux, the French Botanist, published his work on the "Flora of North America" in 1803, and apparently not identifying it with Willdenow's plant, named it Dentaria concatenata, and which being a later name is carried to the list of synonyms.
Our cut-leaved Tooth-wort is peculiar in not being found abundant in any one place, and yet being scattered over a wide extent of country. It is seldom found in sufficient quantity at one time to have any material effect on the character of the wild scenery; and it has therefore to be sought for and enjoyed for its own individual interest and beauty. Along the Wissa-hickon, from whence our specimen was taken, it occurs sparingly among rather damp rocks, or under the partial shade of hemlock spruce trees; and in almost all localities it has trees for its most intimate companions. It does not produce seeds very freely, and, as it has therefore to depend mainly on its roots for continued existence, it has not the same chance for a liberal distribution as if aided by seeds.
It extends across the continent in northern latitudes, and through most of the Atlantic portions of the United States.