Taking advantage of walls
Roadside natives 2: Unexpected irises

Roadside natives 1: An impressive Smilacina

I’ve been driving along this road, close by our Pennsylvania home… probably every week for more than ten years. Then just the other day, right by the side of the road, I noticed this plant. Perhaps it just never flowered before although the rough grass along the road there is rarely cut.

But there it is, a fat plant with over a dozen flowering stems – Smilacina racemosa (now called Maianthemum racemosum) - feathery false lily of the valley. As you can see (above, click to enlarge), this is not a small plant that would be easily missed. It’s a big chunky perennial that makes an impressive specimen, both with its creamy June flowers and with its red berries later. It’s growing on a north-east facing bank, 3-4ft/0.9-1.2m above the roadside ditch.

A quick look at the Pennsylvania flora website reveals that there are records of Maianthemum racemosum from only two sites in our county – and they don’t include this one. So it’s a new record. Pike County, PA, is 567 square miles (1,469 km²) that’s about the size of South Yorkshire. There’s plenty of the tiny MaianthemumcanadenseM. canadense (right, click to enlarge) all over the place, but M. racemosum is far far less common.

And why were the twenty five species of Smilacina merged with the three species of Maianthemum? Well, there’s a fascinating explanation in the RHS magazine The Plantsman (December 2005) but unfortunately this is not available online. You could simply say that they are just too similar to be considered different genera, especially when you consider two genetic DNA studies published in 2000. Let’s leave it at that.

Anyway, it’s great to see this impressive clump growing in such a prominent position and to record a new site in our county.

Next time: Unexpected irises