I like every element of the popular name: Early Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum giganteum). Early means the flowers appear when I most long for them—in April, when winter has just released its grip, and the soil, if not frozen, is still clammy and cold. Blue signifies a color I don’t see much of so early in the season, aside from the violets that grow in bunches just as this plant is raising its purple stalks in the air and starting to unfold its leaves with all the imperious authority of a flamenco dancer’s hands. And Cohosh, which comes from the Algonquian word for “rough,” referring to the plant’s rootstock, which the Indigenous peoples valued for its anti-inflammatory properties. A fine native name for one of our finest native wildflowers.
I like that it grows exclusively in the shadowland of the forest floor, where, even in April before the trees have leafed out, the light, at its strongest, is merely dappled thanks to the interference of the tree trunks and branches. In Toronto, where I live, the plant survives in the most secluded and heavily wooded areas of the river ravines that cut through the urban sprawl.
I like that all the field guides tell us this plant grows only in “rich woods,” by which they mean where the soil is abundant in humus and leaf mold, friable from decades of natural composting. I like that the plant chooses to grow at a remove from the highways and byways and crowds of joggers and dogwalkers, and that you have to penetrate deep into those “rich woods” and climb their hillsides to get the chance to see it.
I like that it has chosen for its companion plants other early-season woodland flowers such as Trout Lily and Mayapple, Bloodroot and Trillium.
But maybe most of all, and to harp again on something I’ve already mentioned, I like that shade of purplish blue that the stalks and leaves and flowers contain. Not at all the lush periwinkle blue of the low-lying violet, which insists on being regarded, which demands our affection; but an austere, you might almost say (the flamenco effect, again) disdainful purple. You can gaze or not or you can go to hell, this plant doesn’t insist on anything other than its own self-sufficient beauty, a beauty so perfectly realised that there isn’t any need to flaunt it.
In 1968, Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny published A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and Northcentral North America. At the end of his Introduction to that book, Peterson appended a one-page section he called Survival. There he observed that most of the wildflowers that appear along roadsides and in the empty lots of North America are actually alien species, many of them, such as Black Mustard, Red Clover, Chicory, Dandelion, and Ox-eye Daisy, imported from Europe, others from Asia.
Native wildflowers, in Peterson’s time, had retreated to those parts of wild woodlands set well back from highways and railroad right-of-ways. Open prairies, coastal marshes, the bog habitats favored by native orchids, were all disappearing at an alarming rate, and with them the indigenous wildflowers that were once so common. All those developments led Peterson to strike a plaintive note as he wondered: “What of the future of rare native wildflowers? Because of the attrition of habitat, some are in a very precarious position…. When a forest has been cut, its shade-loving orchids may also disappear, and half a century or more may pass before succession makes the forest suitable for them again. How can they return? … We know little about this.”
Now, more than fifty years after Peterson wrote those words, the situation of our native wildflowers has only grown more precarious, the flowers themselves more rare, and this affects the way we look at them, it affects our emotional response when we see them. Not to be melodramatic, but at this point, I look at a stand of Early Blue Cohosh unfurling its sticky leaves to the sun with the same sense of tenderness and dread I might regard a smiling child who doesn’t yet know she has an untreatable cancer and will be dead within the year.