Yellow Adder’s Tongue, Trout Lily – Flowers

(Erythronium Americanum) Lily family

Flower—Solitary, pale russet yellow, rarely tinged with purple, slightly fragrant, 1 to 2 in. long, nodding from the summit of a footstalk 6 to 12 in. high, or about as tall as the leaves. Perianth bell-shaped, of 6 petal-like, distinct segments, spreading at tips, dark spotted within; 6 stamens; the club-shaped style with 3 short, stigmatic ridges. Leaves : 2, unequal, grayish green, mottled and streaked with brown or all green, oblong, 3 to 8 in. long, narrowing into clasping petioles.

Preferred Habitat—Moist open woods and thickets, brooksides.

Flowering Season—March—May.

Distribution—Nova Scotia to Florida, westward to the Mississippi.

Colonies of these dainty Iittle lilies, that so often grow beside leaping brooks where and when the trout hide, justify at least one of their names ; but they have nothing in common with the violet or a dog’s tooth. Their faint fragrance rather suggests a tulip; and as for the bulb, which in some of the lily-kin has tooth.. like scales, it is in this case a smooth, egg-shaped corm, producing little round offsets from its base. Much fault is also found with another name on the plea that the curiously mottled and delicately pencilled leaves bring to mind, not a snake’s tongue, but its skin, as they surely do. Whoever sees the sharp purplish point of a young plant darting above ground in earliest spring, however, at once sees the fitting application of adder’s tongue. But how few recognize their plant friends at all seasons of the year!

Every one must have noticed the abundance of low-growing spring flowers in deciduous woodlands, where, later in the year, after the leaves overhead cast a heavy shade, so few blossoms are to be found, because their light is seriously diminished. The thrifty adder’s tongue, by laying up nourishment in its store-room underground through the winter, is ready to send its leaves and flower upward to take advantage of the sunlight the still naked trees do not intercept, just as soon as the ground thaws. But the spring beauty, the rue-anemone, bloodroot, toothwort, and the first blue violet (palmata) among other early spring flowers, have not been slow to take advantage of the light either. Fierce competition, therefore, rages among them to secure visits from the comparatively few insects then flying—a competition so severe that the adder’s tongue often has to wait until afternoon for the spring beauty to close before receiving a single caller. Hive-bees, and others only about half their size, of the Andrena and Halictus clans, the first to fly, the Bombylius frauds, and common yellow butterflies, come in numbers then. Guided by the speckles to the nectaries at the base of the flower, they must either cling to the stamens and style while they suck, or fall out. Thus cross-fertilization is commonly effected; but in the absence of insects the lily can fertilize itself. Crawling pilferers rarely think it worth while to slip and slide up the smooth footstalk and risk a tumble where it curves to allow the flower to nod—the reason why this habit of growth is so popular. The adder’s tongue, which is extremely sensitive to the sunlight, will turn on its stalk to follow it, and expand in its warmth. At night it nearly closes.

A similar adder’s tongue, bearing a white flower, purplish tinged on the outside, yellow at the base within to guide insects to the nectaries, is the White Adder’s Tongue (E. albidum), rare in the Eastern States, but quite common westward as far as Texas and Minnesota.