Berkshire Wildflowers Assert Themselves Amid Colorful Foliage
In Berkshire County alone, 1,650 species of flowering plants have been found, one of the largest concentrations of species for a comparable area in the Northeast! Take a leisurely stroll or challenge yourself to a climb, but take a moment to stop and smell the wildflowers. AND-please don't take them with you-in doing so, you may be disturbing our delicate ecosystem. Enjoy!
White to Cream flowers
White Snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum), a member of the Aster family, offers dense white fuzzy clusters on plants up to four feet tall. The flower heads consist solely of disk flowers, and the fuzz is the tips of the stamen. This plant contains the toxic alcohol tremetol, which caused considerable loss of human life from colonial times into the 19th century. People became ill after drinking the milk of cows that had eaten white snakeroot; 10 to 25% of them died, including the mother of Abraham Lincoln. It grows in shady areas in woods, and along trails and roads. It blooms until frost.
Wild Cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) is a viny annual with 5-lobed maple-like leaves that are up to 3-1/2 inches long. The plant grows over other vegetation and may reach up to 25 feet in length. The flowers are greenish white, 1/2-inch long and 6-lobed on tall cones. Fruits start developing when the plant is still blooming. Some Native Americans used it as a bitter root tea or as a love potion. It is found along roadsides throughout the Berkshires.
Yellow to Orange flowers
Canada Goldenrod, Tall Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is one of the most common species of Aster found here. The dense flower configuration looks like a stubby cone at the top of the plant. It can be found in open areas, such as pastures, fields, and along fences.
Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) has funnel-shaped orange, reddish-spotted, 3-petal flowers which dangle on ancillary stalks. The leaves are pale-green, ovate, and coarsely toothed on succulent stems. The seeds are said to taste like walnuts and make a good trail snack, and burst at the slightest touch. The juice is used widely to prevent or treat poison ivy rash. Ruby-throated hummingbirds, Archilochus colubris, feed on the nectar and are thought to be an important pollinator. This plant may be found throughout the Berkshires wherever there is damp ground.
Pink to Red flowers
Bouncing Bet, Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) has fragrant pale pink or white flowers with notched petals enclosed by a narrow tube. Plants may be up to 2-1/2 feet tall. Bouncing bet is an old name for a washer-woman and refers to the use of this plant as a soap substitute-if bits of it are rubbed together between wet hands, soap-like suds will form. It is still used by museums for cleaning old tapestries; the Pennsylvania Dutch used it to give a foamy head to beer. It is common along roads and in fields.
Musk Mallow (Malva moschata) might remind you of hollyhocks. The flowers are pink to white, up to 2 inches wide, and consist of 5 slightly notched, wedge-shaped petals surrounding a central column. The stems are hairy and may reach 3 feet tall. Because of their high mucilage content, the young leaves are sometimes used to thicken soups; some snack on the seeds. It is commonly found in fields and along roadsides.
Purple to Blue flowers
Heart-leaved Aster, Blue Wood Aster (Aster cordiolius) is one of many blue asters found throughout the Berkshires. If the lower leaves are somewhat heart-shaped and less than 3 inches wide and the plant measure from 1 to 4 feet tall, it is this species. The flowers are blue or violet (other species are yellow) disk in heads up to 3/4 inches wide in clusters. This species is found in woods, clearings, and along trails and roads. It may be used to produce dyes.
Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) appears just when the flowering season has run its course. The flowers are intensely violet blue, about 2 inches long, with 4 fringed lobes. They open in the bright sun; otherwise the petals twist together to close. The flowers are solitary on erect branched stems that grow on plants about two feet tall. It may be found in moist areas in meadows and woods. This species is the subject of Berkshire poet William Cullen Bryant's poem To the Fringed Gentian.
Green to Brown flowers
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is a plant you will want to know -- the slightest touch will elicit a sharp stinging sensation! The greenish to cream flowers are tiny, less than 1/10 of an inch long, and consist of the outer parts of the flower with no petals. They occur in feathery, branched, drooping clusters. The stems may reach up to six feet tall, and the entire plant is covered with stinging hairs. It may be found in woodland borders and along trails and roadsides. When cooked, the plant loses its stinging ability and becomes an excellent source of iron and vitamins C and A; it has many uses throughout Europe. Should you get stung, relief may be found by rubbing stung areas with the stem of Jewelweed.
The excursions were excerpted from Hikes & Walks in the Berkshire Hills, 2nd Edition by Lauren R. Stevens (Berkshire House, 1998). Stevens has lived and walked in the Berkshires for 30 years and has written on outdoor recreation and the environment for most Berkshire regional publications. The information on wildflowers was excerpted from Wildflowers of the Berkshire & Taconic Hills (Berkshire House, 1995) by Dr. Joseph G. Strauch, Jr. Dr. Strauch is a naturalist and photographer and former director of the Berkshire Botanical Garden.