1871: Mary Hedges, botany professor, goes to the root of the matter!

December 16, 2019

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Some cultures have stories of the miraculous blooming of flowers in the snow at Christmas time, but Minnesota’s native flowers are locked up tight in the frozen ground. Snow trilliums, pasque flowers, and hepatica might bloom in early spring even through a late snowfall, but for now, all our native flowers are memories.

One of the earlier native wildflowers we’ll go hunting once spring thaw unlocks the ground is the dwarf trout lily, Minnesota’s one endemic wildflower, which only grows in three counties in Minnesota and nowhere else in the world and is listed as endangered both in Minnesota and federally.  Dwarf trout lily blooms for such a brief time and in so few known locations (as well as being really tiny—flowers are 1/3” across) that many years we miss it.

Last year we came across the story of the discovery of the dwarf trout lily as a distinct species. In the July 1871 issue of The American Naturalist, Asa Gray wrote about how he had received specimens from Miss S. P. Darlington, principal of St. Mary’s Hall in Faribault, MN.  The specimens had been found by the school’s botany professor, Mary Hedges, who recognized that their method of reproduction differed from other trout lilies in that the new bulb emerged not from the base of the parent bulb but from the plant’s underground scape. Gray writes, “Most lady botanists are content with what appears above the surface; but she [Hedges] went to the root of the matter at once.”

Gray states that it will not be easy to name this new species, but he will “venture to name it ERYTHRONIUM PROPULLANS.”  Erythronium, Greek for red, refers to the mottled leaves of trout lilies.  Propullans, as near as we can find, is from two Latin words:  pro meaning forward, and pellere, meaning to drive (also the roots of our words propulsion). So dwarf trout lilies are scientifically named for their mottled leaves and the way their reproductive bulbs are propelled out from the plant.  Although an accurate description, some part of us wishes there had been a way to honor Mary Hedges in the name, the “lady botanist” who went to the root of the matter.

Whatever their name, dwarf trout lilies delight us whenever we find them, tiny, delicate, rare—and beautiful.

And while snow is on the ground, we’ll enjoy winter, too, while we dream about next year’s wildflower searches.



Author: Phyllis Root and Kelly Povo, flowerchasers.com

Phyllis Root is the author of fifty books for children and has won numerous awards. Kelly Povo, a professional photographer for over thirty years, has exhibited in galleries and art shows across the country. She and Phyllis Root have collaborated on several books. This is their first book on Minnesota's Native Wildflowers.

2 thoughts on “1871: Mary Hedges, botany professor, goes to the root of the matter!”

  1. What a joy to have you in our Minnesota Master Naturalist Class for the Week of Winter Wonders! We would love to have you come back when the flowers are blooming for a visit or workshop! Pam (aka Pascal)

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