I was walking through a floodplain woods with a friend recently when we happened on a typical resident of that habitat’s ground layer. I joked that we were seeing one of the showiest members of the floodplain flora, than pointed out the humble Honewort. We wondered a bit about the curious common name, and I said this was one species where the Latin name was actually more attractive: Cryptotaenia canadensis.
I thought about this incident later, when Habitat 2030 asked if I could do a blog submission around some of my photos. We all love to look at photographs of rare and showy species. I thought, why not do a different piece – one on the common but inconspicuous.
My first task was to research where the name Honewort originated. It seems that European settlers noted its resemblance to another member of the umbel family, Sison amomum. They used this back in Europe to treat a localized hard swelling, especially of the cheek, called a hone. This archaic term was then immortalized in the American species Honewort. Sison amomum has its own issues, given its common name of “Bastard Stone Parsley.” I don’t know why the legitimacy of flower species is such a perceived issue – they can tell each other apart, even if we sometimes can’t.
What then is the role of the Honewort, if no longer to treat our swollen cheeks? What creatures could possibly make effective use of those tiny flowers? According to John Hilty’s Illinois Wildflowers site, “Halictid bees (Halictus spp., Lasioglossum spp., Sphecodes spp.), masked bees (Hylaeus spp.), Andrenid bees (Andrena spp.), cuckoo wasps (Hedychrum spp.), wild carrot wasps (Gasteruption spp.), Ichneumonid wasps, Syrphid flies, dance flies (Empis spp.), bee flies (Bombyliidae), thick-headed flies (Conopidae), Tachinid flies, Chloropid flies, long-horned beetles (Cerambycidae), leaf beetles (Chrysomelidae), tumbling flower beetles (Mordellidae), and other insects.”
Whew! Maybe those tiny flowers are more important than they might appear. What’s more, insects that feed on the leaves include “caterpillars of the butterfly Papilio polyxenes asterius (Black Swallowtail).”
The Eastern Black Swallowtail is anything but inconspicuous, a large, attractive butterfly with plenty of highlighting. So the inconspicuous honewort plays a supporting role in maintaining this better known species. It is always valuable – and maybe a bit humbling – to see such a nondescript member of the flora in terms of its overall role in the ecosystem.
Several years ago I stumbled across a 1927 thesis by Faith Gamble, a remarkable woman who received her Masters Degree in Botany from the University of Chicago. For her thesis research she roamed a large part of the Des Plaines River valley, making a comprehensive list of the flora and categorizing it by associations. Ms. Gamble was actually doing ecology, relating species to their specific habitat. Since my home preserve Ted Stone is in the Des Plaines Valley, I was interested in species that she mentioned for the relevant associations. One she lists in her “Middle Flood Plain Association” is Ellisia nyctelea, a species so obscure that you can’t even find it in the widely used wildflower guidebooks by Peterson and Newcomb. H. S. Pepoon listed the species in his classic “Flora of the Chicago Region,” but the entire extent of what he said about it reads: “Shaded damp places, common.” Swink and Wilhelm say, “It is a weak, soft, short-lived spring annual, growing in rich soil.” Kind of dismissive, to say the least.
Finally in my battered copy of “Fieldbook of Illinois Wild Flowers,” a pocket-sized 1936 publication, I found a detailed description of the plant whose common name is, intriguingly, “Aunt Lucy.” The entry begins with: “This innocent little plant is so common in partly shaded damp places and in cultivated fields that it is often classified as a weed.” Interesting, since I had never consciously identified the plant in all the hours I spend tromping around partly shaded damp places. My chief steward, an avid botanist, insisted that she hadn’t even heard of the species. The Fieldbook at least included a sketch (see below), so I had some idea of what I was looking for.
On May 18, 2014, I was in the shaded floodplain of the unnamed creek that runs through Ted Stone, when I stopped short and had one of those mini-epiphanies. “There’s Aunt Lucy!” I still don’t know whose Aunt Lucy was perceived as so weak, soft, or innocent, but this common yet elusive little ephemeral was now a plant I knew.
Its role in the ecosystem is explained once again by John Hilty’s valuable site: “The nectar of the flowers attracts various kinds of bees, including Mason bees (Osmia spp.), Little Carpenter bees (Ceratina spp.), Halictid bees, and Andrenid bees. Bee flies are also attracted to the nectar of the flowers, while Syrphid flies feed mostly on the pollen.” Note that many of the same insects also frequent Honewort. Maybe they are connoisseurs of the inconspicuous.
Another vintage book, “Illinois Wild Flowers” by John Voss and Virginia S. Eifert (1951), treats Ellisia in considerably more romanticized fashion: “It is mid-May when Ellisia blooms. Mid-May, and the warbler migration is passing its peak…For the first time in many months the woods are deeply shaded. Now when the once neat floor of the woods grows dense with greenery, there come the little tattered, weak-kneed plants of Ellisia. Insignificant, inconspicuous, not at all exciting, the little Ellisia spreads its watery little deeply cut leaves with their widely scattered long hairs and weak, watery stems. It is prostrate on the ground or leans for support against sturdier plants, and opens a few little buds.” This is descriptive, certainly – anyone familiar with woodlands knows exactly the seasonal period the authors are describing. But the lack of respect for or real interest in this little plant leaps from the page. Ironically, Aunt Lucy is a member of the Hydrophyllaceae, a family including the much showier Virginia Waterleaf.
I guess every family has its wallflower. As an annual, Aunt Lucy probably gets around a bit more than most wallflowers.
Next time you are out and about, marveling over an intricate orchid, a blazing Fire Pink, a towering Compass Plant, or a vivid blue Prairie Gentian, I hope you will take a moment to look around for its inconspicuous neighbors. They all have something to tell us.