Canada Mayflower

Maianthemum canadense

Family Ruscaceae related to False Solomon’s Seal M. racemosum

Cany May Drawing
Alternate leaves pull the stem into a zigzag pattern.

This became one of my favorite spring plants once I started looking closer. Because I knew its name and saw it everywhere, I had stopped “seeing it.” But after learning about plant parts, I noticed the elegant pistil, shaped like a beautiful white jade vase (below). The female organ of a flower, protecting seeds, is usually surrounded by other parts and hard to find. Discovering it made me want to make the effort to notice the pistil of every flowering plant. I’m trying my best.

Habitat: They can cover a dry upland New England forest floor with few shrubs and dappled sunlight peeking through the canopy of tall tree leaves (below left) 5-15-18. The leaves of this low herbaceous (non-woody) plant are some of the first I find in spring coming up tightly coiled before they spread out to receive more sunlight.

Name: ‘Mai’ is from Latin for May and ‘anthemum’ from Greek for flower. Canadense means it is more of a Northern flower. It used to be in the Liliaceae family but is now in the Ruscaceae family. Although not all sources agree on this family name, it is still a monocot.

Roots/leaves:  They can reproduce vegetatively with rhizomes (underground stems) anchored by fibrous roots. It has typical monocot leaves with parallel veins and smooth edges (entire). They are ovate (kind of oval), widest near the bottom, and cordate (the base has heart-shaped lobes). They can be sessile (no leaf stalk) or have a short petiole (stalk).

Can May habit
A single leaf won’t produce a flower. A plant that has enough energy to reproduce sexually by creating flowers needs to have 2 or more leaves. 5-16-18


Inflorescence: this terminal cluster of flowers that has one stalk (peduncle) and each individual flower (floret) has a stalk with its own name (pedicel). Called a raceme because the stalked florets start opening at the bottom. They are not branched but do appear in pairs, a new detail I noticed this time around.

Sepals and Petals: Sepals usually protect an immature flower and petals might attract a pollinator. Together they are called the perianth. When the round bud of a Canada Mayflower opens, 2 sepals and 2 petals look similar so they use the term tepals. These bend down (reflex) and expose the stamens and pistil, the inner reproductive parts of a flower. That’s why the pistil is so easy to see.

Stamens and Pistils

  • Stamens are the male reproductive parts. Each stamen has a thin filament (stalk) topped by the introrse anthers that have already released their pollen. This means the opening in each anther faces the center of the flower. Say introrse 3 times fast. There are only 4 stamens which is unusual for monocots that ususally have 3merous parts (or parts divisible by 3).
  • Pistil: the female reproductive part usualy has 3 components to find: ovary, style and stigma. The swollen ovary holds the seeds. This style is the divided neck that lifts the 2-lobed stigma high enough to receive pollen from another similar flower (also unusual for a monocot.

Fruit (berry) A berry is a fleshy fruit produced from one ovary. It does not open (dehisce) to release its seeds and does not have a stony seed which is another fleshy fruit called a drupe. It is usually dispersed by animals eating the fleshy part and eliminating the seeds with a bit of fertilizer.

Left below: the ovary is ripening on top of the stamens and fading tepals. Right above: the fruit later has changed color and the other flower parts have dropped off because the stamens have released their pollen and the tepals have done their job to protect the new growth and attract a pollinator. Right below: the leaf changes color in fall.

Flower Formula: a fast way for me to remember all four whorls of a flower from the outside to the center: sepals, petals, stamens and pistils. I can quickly include symmetry, fusion, ovary position and fruit. Usually formulas are done for plant families, but are so variable and, for me, not much use. Canada Mayflower is perfect for a floral formula:

*, 2+2, 4, 2: berry

A short way to say:

* Symmetry of this flower is regular, actinomorphic, or radially symmetrical which all mean the same thing: like a wheel that can be centrally divided in any direction. X is used for irregular flowers.
2+2 Usually sepals and petals are different but, in this case, they look alike (tepals). No fusion. If some parts are fused, I can circle those parts.
4 4 stamens that are not fused.
2 this pistil is above the other plant parts (note underline), Hypogenous or superior are other terms for this. The ovary has 2 chambers (locules).
berry Type of fruit: fleshy with 2 seeds.

Members of the Ruscaceae Family are monocots and usually have parts that are divisible by 3, while Canada Mayflower has parts divisible by 2. I always like a nonconformist.

Spotted Wintergreen/Pippsissewa

Chimaphila maculata

Ericaceae is a large, varied family in New England that is tolerant of our acidic soils. It includes blueberries, rhododendrons and many others.

Name: Unusual evergreen leaves make Spotted Wintergreen a treat to find all year. More striped than spotted, maculata is Latin for spotted. Chimaphila comes from the Greek words chima “winter” and phila” “love”. It’s helpful when the scientific names are descriptive. I used to play a board game about Uncle Wiggily, and there was a rhinoceros-like monster called Pippissewah. I don’t know if that has any significance.

Abandoned Parking Lot

Habitat: This plant seems to thrive in disturbed manmade habitats as well as the dry upland woods close by. Above: I found Spotted Wintergreen in the fall with Rough Goldenrod, Stiff Aster, Little Bluestem Grass, Cinquefoil, a moss, a fungus, and a lichen happily growing on the berm of an abandoned parking lot in a State Park in Eastern MA. I like that native plants and other organisms will eventually take over if a man-made area is not used.

Roots/Shoots (Stems and Leaves) Smaller roots help anchor the rhizomes (underground stems) that can create a clonal colony. When mature enough to form flowers they will be able to cross-pollinate so the seeds will have genetic diversity. Two reproduction strategies are an adaptive plus. This small perennial has a semi-woody stem above ground, some call a sub-shrub. Not quite big enough to be a shrub but not herbaceous either. The red stems, red petioles (leaf stalks), red bud scales and red beneath the dark green leaves make it stand out from other plants. I’m thinking that red color helps protect the leaves in winter when the bright sun might burn them. I’m not sure what caused the lighter green colored leaves on the right.

Spotted leaves1

Leaves: The sturdy leaves help them survive the drought of winter when water freezes and is difficult to absorb. I might find 2 opposite leaves at the base of a stem and then a whorl of 3 leaves beneath the flowering shoot. The pinnate venation (like a feather) creates a beautiful vein pattern that is easy to see because of the lighter color. The leaf shapes are described as ovate or lanceolate which means they are variable but usually longer than wide and larger below the middle.

Leaf edges or margins are toothed, but there is also a variety of teeth. Different sources describe the leaf edges as widely spaced dentate or denticulate (little dentate) meaning teeth point out as opposed to pointing forward which is serrate or serrulate (little serrate). I also saw crenate used which means round toothed or scalloped. The leaves above have teeth pointing forward (serrate).

Striped Wintergreen Flower

Inflorescence: After a flurry of earlier spring flowers, I look for the unbranched peduncle (main flower stalk) topped with an inflorescence or cluster of flowers. Individual flowers (florets) hang down from their own stalks (pedicels) that emerge from the same point (umbel).

Sepals and Petals: the round buds formed from 5 tiny sepals and 5 white petals open and face down. The buds look like Victorian gaslights. These were really hard for me to photograph well. I will try again next year. Or maybe a drawing.

Reproductive parts (Stamens/pistil) When the florets start to turn up, I can finally see the 5 pink stamens and green pistil (below).

Spotted flower and leaves

Stamens: 5 stamens with bifurcate anthers that divide into 2 parts and scatter pollen through holes at their tips. The short filaments (stalks) are described as hairy (villous and ciliate). Villous is soft and shaggy and ciliate describes the fringe of pink “fuzz” surrounding the green ovary.

Buzz Pollination: To release ripe pollen, solitary bees grab the stamens and move their flight muscles rapidly to vibrate the pollen loose. Blueberries and cranberries are also buzz pollinated. I have never seen this but will be on the lookout next year.

Pistil: the superior (above other plant parts), subglobose (almost round) compound ovary has 5 bright green lobes that will ripen into a fruit. A ripe fat stigma on a short style (neck) will receive ripe pollen from another plant. So different from the pointy Skunk Cabbage stigma. The diverse shapes of similar flower parts that have similar functions are exciting for me to discover.

Fruit: After the nodding flowers turn up, drop their petals and stamens that are no longer needed, the ovary ripens to form fruit. Below left: the green fruit in my neighbor’s mulch. Right: the fleshy sepals and flat stigma are still there.

Spotted fruit.png

Below: This capsule stayed on until the following February. The round flat stigma looks like a button on top of the 5-parted loculicidal capsule. A capsule is a dry fruit that often opens along a seam (septicidal capsule) to release seeds. A loculicidal capsule opens along the locules which are the empty spaces between the seams. Notice the openings are not at the seams. Fruits are interesting to try and define but many don’t conform to existing definitions. This one does. No seeds left inside the fruit.

Spotted capsule










Skunk Cabbage

Symplocarpus foetidus

Araceae Family. Arums or aroid family: Jack in the Pulpit is a temperate relative and Elephant’s Ear a tropical relative. See below

This unusual plant has something to find all year and is difficult to describe. It took a lot of reading and observing to figure out what was what. I went back again and again and finally got stung by some ground nesting bees when I was photographing a seed I found for the first time. Exciting and painful. I put a glossary at the bottom that helped me see more. Lot’s of new words for me.

Skunk painting smaller
Life Cycle of a Skunk Cabbage

Upper Left: Spring leaves expanding above the mottled spathe that wraps itself around a flower cluster (detail on right); Center: Before the leaves expand the flower cluster (spadix) is protected by the open spathe. Pale blue modified leaves protect new growth; Bottom: fruit on ground next to a seed and decomposed leaf; Left: seed with new roots and shoot.

Habitat: Shallow wooded wetland covered with emerging skunk cabbage leaves in spring. This is where I got stung. Because there are such huge colonies, I was surprised to find out they only reproduce from seeds and not vegetatively (clones).

skunk Habitat 4-12-10
Ashland MA State Park 4-12-16

Roots: Contractile, fleshy roots pull plants into the ground and vertically orient new shoots. I don’t usually see Skunk Cabbage roots but noticed some in an old photo after I read about them. They widen and then contract lengthwise every season to anchor Skunk Cabbages in a shallow, wet habitat.

Skunk new shoots
Three new shoots at different angles. 4-6-14

Shoots (Stems and Leaves) Leaves on top of a vertical rhizome (underground stem) form a basal rosette. They radiate out (rosette) and appear to grow out of the ground (basal). New green leaves emerging (below) from two pale blue protective leaves. Some call this convolute vernation (open with overlapping sides). The word vernation is an old term that describes different ways new leaves open.

They also have pinnate venation, not vernation, unusual for a monocot. The lateral veins are arranged like a feather extending out from the midvein and not parallel to it. The veins are in relief when you can see the back of the the leaf.  (below).

Skunk leaf back flower smaller

Below Left: After the leaves create enough sugars to store in the  rhizomes for next year, they start to decompose. Right: In winter you might find these pale modified leaves that some call stipules because they are so different.

Flower (spathe and spadix)

Spathe: A typical flower has 4 whorls from the outside to the inside: sepals, petals, stamens and pistils. The outside sepals usually protect new growth. A skunk cabbage is anything but typical. Instead one bract protects the entire flower cluster called an inflorescence. A bract is a term used when a flower has “extra” parts that are hard to define using the 4 whorls. This bract is unique to the Araceae family and has a special name (spathe). Left below: a mottled spathe emerging between winter leaves. Right: The spathe surrounds the spadix, a cluster of flowers crowded together on an axis.

Spathe color variations

Flower parts: Back to the 4 whorls. The two outer whorls, sepals and petals, grouped together are called the perianth. When the petals and sepals look the same, they are called tepals (like a tulip). Skunk cabbages don’t need protective sepals because the spathe does that. They don’t need “attractive” petals because the pollinators are attracted to the heat (thermogenesis) and a fetid odor the plants produce in early spring. The specific epithet or species name foetidus is Greek for foul odor. The sepals and petals seem to be fused into 4 fleshy “somethings”. I see the words sepals, petalsperianth or tepals used in different sources struggling to describe these fused whorls.

Female Stage of a Skunk Cabbage: The female part of a typical flower is a pistil that includes 3 parts: the ovary, style, or neck that raises the stigma that receives pollen. In a Skunk Cabbage it is hard to see these parts. Stamens are usually the 3rd whorl described. But I put the pistils now because they ripen (are ready to receive pollen) before the stamens. This is called protogeny and helps to prevent self-pollination.

Left below: spathe removed to see the spadix which is a cluster of flowers (inflorescence). Each individual flower (floret) has 4 flat “somethings” (sepals, petals, tepals, or perianth) with a pointy stigma showing. No stamens yet. Right: I drew white lines around a few single florets.

Below left: a single floret. Below right: a cross section of the spadix at this stage showing the fleshy axis with immature ovaries (that hold the seeds) attached and topped by the stamens that haven’t emerged yet (3-1-18).

Male stage of a skunk cabbage: A typical flower’s male parts are called stamens that usually include filaments (stalks) and anthers (pollen holders). Left below: The stigmas can still be seen on the lower flowers. The closed anthers start to emerge and surround the stigma on the upper florets. Right: 4 clustered extrorse anthers on fat filaments before they dehisce (open to release pollen). Extrorse means they release pollen away from the axis.

Fruit: After the flowers have been pollinated, the peduncle (flower stalk) lengthens and the spathe and spadix fall over. The leaves are expanding.

skunk fallen flower

Below: individual floret parts with 4 flat tepals and a pointy stigma in the center together form a subglobose (almost round) compound fruit. Symplocarpus is from Greek “symplo” meaning connection and “carpos” meaning fruit. These fruits are so bizarre and unusual. This compound or multiple fruit is formed from the ovaries of several individual florets that ripen into small fruits fused together into a larger fruit.

skunk fruit.jpg

Below: the leaves, petioles (leaf stalks), peduncles (flower stalks) and spathe decompose. What’s left is the compound fruit. When the spadix finally decomposes the seeds are exposed. And undergtound bees make their nests on the ground there. I should have photographed them but I was occupied by running away.

Skunk Fruit labeled smaller

Tropical Relative: Elephant’s Ear Alocasia portora painted in the Wellesley College Botanic Garden’s old greenhouses. Notice the spathe and spadix

Elephant's Ear smaller

Botanical definitions: words that helped me see more

Monocots: often described with one cotyledon (seed leaf) inside their seeds, parallel-veined leaves, flower parts in multiples of 3s, fibrous roots and underground storage organs like rhizomes. Skunk cabbages do not have parallel veins and has flower parts in multiples of 4. I love it when plants don’t follow our rules.

Roots: Contractile roots are wrinkled roots help pull plants into the soil.

Stem: A rhizome is an underground stems where new growth happens. It sits vertically on top of the roots in a Skunk cabbage. Most rhizomes are horizontal. The above-ground stem is tiny and surround by basal leaves.


  • Ovate, cordate (almost oval shape with a heart-shaped base)
  • Petioles: leaf stalks. These start out short and fat, lengthen during the summer and finally decompose into a black goo.
  • Stipules: modified leaves. Some use this term to describe the light blue leaves that protect next year’s Skunk Cabbage plants.
  • Vernation: how new leaves expand in spring.
    • Convolute vernation: rolled up longitudinally with overlapping edges.
  • Venation: how the leaf veins grow
    • Pinnate venation (like a feather), unusual for a monocot that usually has parallel veins.

Flowers: (standard flower: sepals, petals, stamens, pistil)

  • Spathe: Modified leaf  or bract that surrounds the clustered flowers. Partly underground, w/ short peduncle (flower stalk) that lengthens and eventually falls over after it is pollinated.
  • Spadix: cluster of small, stalkless, flowers closely arranged around a fleshy axis. A stalkless cluster of flowers is also called a spike. Spadix is a term used for the characteristic spike of the Araceae family.
  • Inflorescence: a cluster of connivant flowers that cover the spadix.
    • Connivent: converging or coming together but not organically united.
    • Florets are the individual flowers of the spadix.
  • Perianth: sepals and petals grouped together.
    • Sepals: Fleshy and flat, in a skunk cabbage these never unfold to expose the other parts as in a typical flower.
    • Petals: Skunk cabbages attract pollinators with smell and heat, so they don’t need “attractive“ petals.
    • Tepals: when sepals and petals look similar. I love the fact that the experts struggle to define what appear to be petals in the skunk cabbage. In any case, there are 4 of them.
  • Perfect flowers have both male (pollen) and female (seed) parts
  • Stamens: extrose anthers that dehisce longitudinally (they open to the outside lengthwise away from the axis to release pollen. They sit on the fat filaments or stamen stalks.
    • Androecium. All of the stamens collectively. Some of the older references use this term when they describe the stamens.
  • Pistil: female reproductive organ (ovary that protects the seeds), style or neck that raises the stigma up to receive pollen. In a skunk cabbage the style and stigma look like a cone where we can only see the tip or stigma.
    • Gynoecium. All the pistils collectively.
    • Protogynous: the stigma ripens before the anthers release pollen. This helps prevent self-pollination. Pro means beforehand in Latin.


  • Fruit: ripened ovary with seed inside.
  • Compound fruit: Two or more like parts in one organ that protects seeds.
  • Infructescence: a cluster of fruits
  • Multiple fruit: an inflorescence or flower cluster, each floret with a separate ovary, develops into separate fruits fused together into a larger fruit.
  • Subglobose: sub means almost or almost round