Ordinary Elegance

Some say that the wildflower known as Crow Poison was used by the Cherokee to eliminate crows that ate their corn. Today, Crow Poison (Nothoscordum bivalve) is better known as a pretty native wildflower that spreads from Arizona to the Atlantic coast, and from Texas north through Illinois and Ohio.

Its genus, Nothoscordum, combines the Greek words for ‘illegitimate’ (Nothos)  and ‘garlic’ (scordum). In fact, Crow Poison often is called false garlic, and sometimes is confused with wild onion, but it neither smells nor tastes like either of those plants.

As its buds emerge, they’re initially encased in two translucent membranes like those shown in the photo above. In time, those membranes dry and become two bracts beneath the flowers: the  ‘bivalves’ of the specific epithet.

One of the first early spring flowers to appear, Crow Poison often reblooms in the fall. On the other hand, it sometimes persists through every month, as it did this year: opening on warm sunny days and closing in cloudy or cold conditions. An early spring food source, the flowers are especially attractive to small butterflies, green metallic bees, bee flies, and syrphid flies.

When I first met Crow Poison, it was a part of the Liliacea, or lily family. Eventually, I discovered sources were including it within the Amaryllidaceae, or amaryllis family. Imagine my surprise when I found it moved into the newly constituted Alliaceae, or onion family!

Taxonomy can be taxing, but there were good reasons for the recent changes. Writing for Pacific Horticulture, Dean Kelch’s article titled What Happened to the Liliacea is one of the best I’ve found. It’s an easy read: well organized and understandable for non-specialists. It includes a helpful list of forty families formerly included in the old Liliaceae, as well as a listing of some of the familiar genera within each family.

Taxonomy aside, there’s nothing more lovely than these small, oft-ignored but elegant signs of spring. Today, they’re still scattered, but in time they’ll be filling pastures and roadsides with their own drifts of white.


Comments always are welcome.

48 thoughts on “Ordinary Elegance

  1. We conferred an ugly name on a very attractive plant. Now if only there existed a Lying Politician Poison, we could use lots of that.

    1. Perhaps if you were Cherokee and trying to keep your corn from hungry crows, you might think the name lovely and apt. On the other hand, no matter how poisonous someone’s rhetoric, and no matter how much I might disagree with their viewpoint, the thought of poisoning an opponent is distasteful.

    1. It’s pretty, isn’t it? Sometimes, as with this one, the sheath surrounding the buds is tipped with the same color. The details in such a small flower are remarkable.

    1. I think you might be south of its area in Florida. It shows up north of Brevard County, and is fairly common in the Panhandle. It can be easy to overlook, too. The buds in the first photo were only about three inches tall — they’d popped up in an area that had been mowed. The blooming flowers were taller, though: maybe eight inches or so.

    1. That Pacific Horticulture article is one of the best I’ve read. In fact, I printed it off for easy reference. I browsed through their other online articles,and while many are applicable only to the west coast, there were several that I bookmarked for later reading.

      From what I’ve read, whitetail deer will browse the plant, so perhaps crows would consume it, too. On the other hand, it is considered more or less toxic, depending on your source, and eating it isn’t advised for humans.

  2. Wonderful to be introduced to this beautiful wildflower, Linda. I loved the way you showed us the bud, gave us the interesting information, and made us wait ’til we got to the end to see the opened flower. Lovely post.

    1. I do enjoy being able to show plants in different stages, Jet, and it’s always nice to be able to pass on clear, accurate information like that found in the Pacific Horticulture article. There’s good reason to focus on flowers-in-bloom, of course, but it’s equally nice to be able to identify a bud or seed head. It’s rather like seeing a goldfinch in its winter colors rather than its breeding colors. After I stopped assuming a goldfinch always was a brilliant yellow-gold bird, I started seeing more of them!

    1. If it makes you feel any better, there’s no firm proof that crow-i-cide gave rise to the plant’s name. On the other hand, if you had a stash of corn to protect, you might feel differently. After all, how would you feel if you walked into your kitchen and found a couple dozen rats feasting on your scones and madeleines? I’ll bet a feeling other than sympathy would sweep over you!

  3. Your post’s title is good, as is the bud-and-flowers view at the opposite end of the post. And speaking of extremities, I hadn’t realized that Texas (in particular the Big Bend area) marks the southwestern corner of crow poison’s range, which the USDA map shows going as far north and east as Ohio and North Carolina. In your linked article I noticed the new Nolinaceae, which includes the beargrass that’s common in hilly northwest Austin.

    1. I tried a few other titles, but this is the one that came to me when I woke up this morning. Sometimes, my brain works the night shift.

      A friend in South Carolina knows the plant, and native plant societies in Arkansas, Illinois, and Missouri have pages dedicated to it. I was pleased to be able to sort out the family name. It’s common enough to find a plant moved from one family to another, but the fact that this one had moved again perplexed me. The Pacific Horticulture article explained it nicely.

      I’ve only seen bear grass once: at a ranch gate on the Willow City loop. I found my first photos of its flowers in my files, labeled ‘mystery pink.’

  4. This is certainly pretty … and so delicate-looking! Best of all, it’s a sign of Spring, which just can’t come soon enough for this cold-weary traveler. We got snow this morning — not much, just enough to pretty things up — but I’m already hungering for warmth and sunshine!

    1. I’ve already seen some dandelions and yards filled with a different species of buttercup. I swear I saw some sunflowers today, too. I’m going back tomorrow to see if my eyes were deceiving me. Pretty snow is good snow, but I well remember the Iowa blizzards in March. Still, we’re almost to February — I suppose things start getting better for you in March, too? Even when we had heavy snow in March, we knew it wouldn’t last long — we were still in the tunnel, but we could see the light!

  5. Well, the plant family is not where I expected to find the word, “Bivalve.” I can see why, though. It does look a bit ‘clam-my”

    I haven’t seen any Crow Poison but my forsythia has already popped into bloom, as have the tulip trees around town. Just in time for another Big Freeze.

    1. I know! When I saw bivalve, the first thing I thought of was a trumpet, and then I thought of clams. I never would have guessed the real meaning of the term in this context.

      Forsythia and pussy willows were our first signs of midwestern spring — that, and the dripdripdripTHUNK! of icicles melting and finally dropping from the roof. I’ve not yet seen any trees in bloom, but it’s a touch early. I have a feeling that this is going to be a fast-arriving spring, though. We’ve got another cold front or three forecast for next week, but then we’re nearly to Valentine’s Day: the traditional rose-pruning day.

  6. It may be false garlic but it’s truly pretty. Maybe it just served as a repellent— I’ve noticed crows will order sausage and anchovies on their pizzas, but never garlic. They like most types of fast food, anything you can eat on the fly.

    1. Our wild onion would do nicely on a pizza, although I’m not sure how it would mix with anchovies. It makes sense that the crows would favor anchovies, though; I’ve seen numerous grackles catching bait fish and eating them, so an anchovy-eating crow wouldn’t be at all surprising. But, in the case of this plant, they’d better say, “Hold the garlic.”

    1. They’re as pretty as dandelions, and an equally sure sign of spring. They’re tough, too. Last year I found some blooming only a couple of weeks after our freeze. I suppose because they’re a bulb plant, they were somewhat protected through all that.

  7. Lovely photos and a very interesting read. I have a close friend from college who is a botanist and I’ve ragged on her for botanists changing names on those of us who just want to garden.

    1. It took me a while to get used to the scientific names, but once I did, I was willing to allow for their usefulness. Still, the continual changes can be confusing — especially now that DNA analysis has come into the picture. If there were more articles like Dean Kelch’s, it surely would be helpful. I actually enjoyed reading that one, and even better — it made sense to me!

    1. They are a bulb plant, and they certainly have that shape. Last year there was quite a collection of them near my ‘Walden,’ and I’m hoping that they appear this year as well. I can’t quite believe that January’s almost over, and it will be time to make my February trip back to the pond: or whatever it is at this point.

  8. Taxonomy is difficult and changeable, but this little plant remains the same regardless. I will look for it this spring. It is truly beautiful, and I was glad to see the buds and the flower both.

    1. It’s hardy as well as beautiful, and where conditions are right, it can fill a meadow. It seems to like everything from woodland edges to roadsides, and I’ve even seen it sneaking into suburban lawns. Since its bloom period is so long, it’s easier to photograph different stages on the same day; I’m glad you enjoyed seeing them.

  9. These photos are absolutely gorgeous, I really like them. Such a beautiful background with that nice solid green and the buds and flowers just pop out. I also very much like the first photo and how it shows the buds just peeking out of the membranes. There was something eye opening about that. Perhaps I’m so used to seeing single buds at a time that seeing this small cluster was a bit of a wake up call to what’s out there.

    1. Our wild onions and garlic all emerge that way: with the buds encased in a membrane. Other species do, too, like ragworts and Texas tauschia: an endemic that’s a very early bloomer. I’ll be showing that one soon. The background of the bud was ordinary, mowed grass along a walkway. “Just grass” never looked so good!

  10. Absolutely splendid photographs showcasing an easily-overlooked bloom!
    So often, we busy ourselves looking around for something special when, if we only take the time, there it is, right by our feet.

    I suspect the Cherokees were not responsible for many crow deaths from this plant, as, with most wildlife, a crow would find the plant offensive and keep its distance. Problem solved.

    This plant grows mostly north of us and I encountered it often when wandering the Apalachicola National Forest with my botany-smart brother.
    Interestingly, there is another plant bearing the same common name, Crow Poison, growing throughout the southeastern U.S., including Texas. Stenanthium densum, also known as Osceola’s Plume, has a beautiful flower but is quite toxic.

    Thank you for sharing a bit of hopeful early Spring with this wonderful extraordinary elegance.

    1. When I looked up Osceola’s plume, I found two interesting things. One is that the taxonomists have been busy again, and it’s new name is Zigadenus densus. BONAP hasn’t caught up with the change yet, so I searched for S. densum. I found that it’s here, but listed as ‘present and rare.’ The maps show it in four counties here, and in four parishes in Louisiana — but it’s creeping our way.

      An interesting relative, S. gramineum, or Eastern featherbells, is here, but mostly in our eastern counties. I’ll have to keep an eye out for that this year. There’d be no missing that one!

      1. Keeping up with name changes can be very taxing. (Taxinomicking?)

        Eastern Featherbells is gorgeous! And tall! For Florida, looks like a rarely occurring plant in a few panhandle counties.

    1. It really is. When I was out this weekend, it was multiplying nicely, although we have another freeze on the way that will slow it down — but that certainly won’t stop it! It’s tough little plant, and growing from a bulb ensures that the ground will help to protect it.

  11. Crow Poison – what a name for such a beauty! The white wisteria-looking tree here has a local name of ‘mata raton’ which means rat killer — but the only thing that I’ve heard of it killing is that a simmered elixer of the leaves/roots in water is good for treating mange and maybe for fleas…. More research needed.

    1. Reading your words, the first thing that came to mind was Boca Raton, Florida. Curious, I looked up the source of the name. Sure enough: “The city’s name comes from boca de ratones, a Spanish term meaning “rat’s mouth” that appeared on early maps and referred to hidden sharp-pointed rocks that gnawed or fretted ships’ cables.” Connections! They’re wonderful.

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