Wildflowers and Ferns
in the Loess Hills

The species of wildflowers you see in the Loess Hills often depends very much on how far north or south you are in the zone, and how deep the loess is beneath you.

Many of western Kentucky's Loess-Hills wildflower species don't extend as far south as the Hills' southernmost point in Louisiana, and a few species common in Louisiana's Tunica Hills and southern Mississippi don't make it far north. For example, Recurved Trillium and Dutchman's-Breeches grace loess slopes in extreme western Kentucky, but these species would never be expected in similar habitats in southern Mississippi and Louisiana. On the other hand, the Southern Shield-Fern, the most common fern in many places on thick loess in southern Mississippi, and ranging as far south as Brazil and Venezuela, is simply absent in Kentucky.

In S. Lee Timme's Wildflowers of Mississippi the loess zone is naturally considered as having its own characteristic assemblage of wildflowers. Just to gain a feeling for what kinds of wildflowers are present there, here are profiles of some of the "characteristic herbs" mentioned by Timme for Mississippi's loess zone:

Asters are an incredibly diverse and fun-to-figure-out group of wildflowers to try to identify and distinguish from one another. Arthur Cronquist's Vascular Flora of the Northeastern United States lists sixty-six species just for that region! Asters are members of the composite family, so they have blossoms quite different from regular flowers such as those of, say, tulips and apple trees. The thing most people regard as the aster flower is actually a structure composed of numerous flowers all packed together. One of the most common asters, a weedy species characteristic of old fields, is the Frost-weed Aster, often remaining flowering long after the first frost, even into the new year. The "typical aster" is composed of white rays surrounding yellow center areas, but several aster species are blue. The most common blue-flowered species in fall woods in our zone is probably the Spreading Aster.

Despite its attractive clusters of yellow composite flowers, this wildflower is considered a diabolic weed by hunters and others who tramp through woods and fields. That's because the seeds are ingeniously engineered by nature so that they can transport themselves into potential new habitats by affixing themselves, like ticks, to an animal's fur -- or a hiker's socks and trousers. The seeds bear two backward-barbed spines, or awns, that latch onto almost any rough surface. Beggar's Ticks are not to be confused with the Tick-trefoils, which produce flattish, flattish green-bean-like fruits covered with short, velcro-like hairs.

In early spring these particularly graceful plants, members of the lily family, produce yellowish flowers on a gracefully arching stem. The blossoms, often partially obscured by soft, green leaves, suggest with their drooping petals a certain demureness. There are several bellwort species, of which three may be sought in the loess zone. The Perfoliate Bellwort, whose pale-yellow blossoms, up to 1-3/8 inches long, emit a delicate fragrance, is found in well drained woods throughout the Loess Hills. The Large-flowered Bellwort is a smaller plant with larger, lemon-yellow flowers -- to two inches long -- growing only in the zone's northern half. A third species, inaptly called Wild Oats, is the smallest, rises only a foot high and bears greenish-yellow flowers only an inch long; it's found in all except possibly the most southern parts of the loess zone.

Cardinal Flowers, possibly our most brightly colored late-summer wildflower, grow best in partial shade and moist soil. Members of the lobelia family, they are robust, knee-high plants topped with brilliantly red clusters of flowers 1½ inches long in foot-long, slender clusters. Cardinal Flowers are perfectly adapted for pollination by Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. When the hummingbird inserts its beak, the blossom's extended stamens douse the bird's head with pollen (carrying the male sex germs); subsequently the bird deposits some of this pollen on the female parts of blossoms the bird visits later. Sadly, Cardinal Flowers are not only favorites of hummingbirds, but also of people who want to beautify their yards. Of course, the vast majority of Cardinal Flowers removed from their natural environment die. Please don't dig up this spectacular plant!

As with asters, there are many species of goldenrods, and they are nearly all late-summer and fall bloomers. The flowers are... golden colored! Goldenrods, also like asters, are members of the composite family, so the actual flowers are held in tiny flower-like clusters. Hundreds or even thousands of these tiny flower-like clusters are borne atop the knee- to waist-high plants. The best known goldenrod, a weedy species seen along roads and in old fields, is known as the Field or Canada Goldenrod. Probably the most common species on the Loess Hills' moist, rich, ravine slopes is the Wreath Goldenrod, which is much smaller and more fragile looking. Cronquist's flora describes fifty-three species and many varieties of goldenrods just in the North, and some are exceedingly rare and unique!

This pretty, knee-high plant is easy to identify because its several 1.5-inch-long flowers are blood red on the outside, but each flower's five petals flaring outward to reveal a bright yellow blossom interior. The plant has also been called Pinkroot and Wormgrass, the latter name relating to the fact that extracts from the root contain an alkaloid that has been used in medicine to combat intestinal parasites. Don't try this home remedy, however, for too much is poisonous.

Though common in rich spring-time woods, Jack-in-the-pulpit produces very strange flowers. The actual flowers are tiny and arranged on a slender, finger-like spike poking straight upward. Around the spike a green-striped tube is formed, and the tube extends over the spike like a fancy awning. The spike is "Jack" and the tube with its awning is the "pulpit." Above the pulpit, a three-pieced leaf looks a little like a broad, green arrow. This plant's special flower structure makes beetles and other insect pollinators feel dry and at home as they wander atop the hundreds of tiny clustering around "Jack" as the look for pollen and nectar. In the fall Jack and his pulpit wither away, leaving a splendid cluster of bright red, pea-size fruits. The plant's root is thick and succulent, but filled with calcium oxalate crystals. This means that any critter or human chomping into them will feel immediately incredible pain! Nonetheless, the Indians are said to have dried slivers of the root and then cooked them, destroying the calcium oxalate, thus acquiring a tasty, starchy food. In fact, sometimes the plant is called Indian Turnip.

This is one of the most common and easy-to-identify wildflowers. It consists of a Y-shaped stem with an umbrella atop each of the Y's arms. In early spring a solitary white blossom 1-2 inches wide appears where the Y's arms unite, then a few weeks later the "apple" forms where the flower was. The "apple," about the size of a golf ball, is delicious when ripe, but raccoons and other animals eat them so readily that usually it's hard for us humans to find a ripe one. The root is poisonous. Large colonies of May-apples are sometimes seen. Often when a forest is converted to pasture, the following spring, May-apples emerge where they always did, and persist there for many years.

Several summer-flowering milkweed species occur in the Loess Hills. All milkweeds have blossoms with very complex anatomies, and most have waxy green leaves that issue an alkaloid-rich "milk," or latex, when injured. Milkweeds are favored host plants for Monarch butterfly caterpillars. When the caterpillars eat the bitter, alkaloid-filled leaves, the caterpillars themselves become so bitter that birds avoid eating them. The White Milkweed, with white blossoms held in roundish, snowball-like clusters, is found in upland woods throughout the Loess Hills. In wet ground, the rose-purple-blossomed Swamp Milkweed is always a pleasure to see. The most spectacular milkweed is the Butterfly-weed, a robust, knee-high plant topped with dozens of orange-red flowers. It likes thin woods and unlike most milkweeds has no milk. Unfortunately, this species is often dug for transplanting in peoples' lawns, where it nearly always dies. Please don't dig up wildflowers!

In wet ditch-bottoms and the margins of woodland pools, in summer and fall, any knee-high plant with yellow blossoms ½ to 5/8-inch across composed of four broad petals is surely the Seedbox. The plant's name derives from the squarish fruit-capsules, which are filled with tiny seeds. This is a good example of a wildflower with a very definite ecological preference: It likes mud. It's common over a large section of eastern North America, but only in wet and moist places.

The huge-blossomed sunflower grown for its seeds is a horticultural variety of just one of many native, summer-and-fall-blooming American sunflower species: Cronquist describes thirty-two species for the U.S. Northeast. Sunflowers have composite flowers, anatomically similar to the asters, but much larger. Typically a wild sunflower's composite blossoms are one to two inches across, with yellow rays and somewhat darker "eyes." In the Loess Hills, the Narrow-leafed Sunflower likes moist, shady places and open depressions. The Rough-leafed Sunflower prefers dry, open woods, and has thick, firm, very rough-feeling leaves. It's often hard to tell the various sunflowers apart, but it's always fun to try.

In woods throughout the Loess Hills two of the most common and easily recognized ferns are the Christmas Fern and the Ebony Spleenwort. Both stay more or less evergreen. Christmas Ferns are robust ferns taking their name from being used as greenery during winter holidays. You know you have a Christmas Fern when you notice that its leaflets, or pinnae, are shaped like stockings of the chimney-hanging kind. Ebony Spleenworts are much more delicate, sending stiff little pagoda-like fronds straight up. The fronds possess stems that are not ebony, but rather of a dark mahogany hue. Several interesting and rather rare ferns can be looked for in the loess zone's deep, steep-walled ravines. It's always a good idea to carry a field guide to the ferns when hiking there.

Return to the Natural History Menu