Yellowroot mystery

by Jonathan Damery

April 26, 2018

Yellowroot mystery

Inconspicuous flowers of yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima, 17610*A) on April 25. Photo by Jonathan Damery.

Now begins the season when we all flock in sweeping formations towards flowering cherries (Prunus) in the Bradley Rosaceous Collection—in fact, the Arboretum spotlights the genus with a Collections Up Close event on Sunday, April 29. Already the Fuji cherry (Prunus incisa forma serrata, accession 172-95*B) prominently situated along Meadow Road is as irresistible as the gleaming bean-shaped sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park in that everyone—myself included—must snap a photo. But across the road, a curious woody shrub is beginning to flower, a low creeper called yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima, accession 17610*A).

Yellowroot flowers won’t stop traffic, rarely even pedestrians. The small mauve flowers are mounted on floppy panicles that erupt like half-hearted fireworks from the end of otherwise bare branches. Pinnate leaves will follow shortly. On closer inspection of the flowers, especially with a hand lens, you can pick out multiple distinct pistils (the female structures), suggesting the taxonomic position within the morphologically idiosyncratic buttercup family (Ranunculaceae).

The specimen on Meadow Road arrived at the Arboretum in 1887 from a botanist in Highlands, North Carolina. Strangely, our records list the seed coming from F. C. Boynton, although Charles Sprague Sargent’s most notable contemporary in Highlands was Frank Ellis Boynton, an autodidact carpenter-turned-botanist who began working at the Biltmore Herbarium in 1893. (See Sargent’s account in the thirteenth volume of The Silva of North America.) Though another F. Boynton could have been collecting plants near this small mountain town—population 82 in the 1880 census—all signs point towards Frank Ellis as the individual referenced.

In 1886, the year before the yellowroot shipment arrived, Sargent visited Boynton near Highlands, while searching for cucumbertree magnolia (Magnolia acuminata, then considered M. cordata). Boynton referenced the trip in Popular Science Monthly the following year and described the surrounding environs as a “botanical bonanza,” filled with novelties like pinkshell azalea (Rhododendron vaseyi), Carolina hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana), and bear huckleberry (Gaylussacia ursina), all taxa that the Arboretum received from “F. C. Boynton” in 1887.

The original Arboretum record for accession 17610, showing “F. C. Boynton.”

Boynton subsequently managed a commercial nursery in North Carolina, although Sargent, in a letter [pdf] to the director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1912, noted that Boynton was unsatisfied with this horticultural turn. “He is a good collector,” Sargent wrote. “He seems anxious to do botanical work.” Incidentally, the Arboretum received several additional collections from “F. C. Boynton” over the following years, suggesting that Boynton’s botanical itch was ultimately (at least partially) satisfied. Boynton did, in fact, have a brother, Charles Lawrence, who also worked for the Biltmore Herbarium, but he moved to California in 1905, long before botanical curios stopped arriving from Highlands. In cursive, perhaps a slapdash E could be mistaken for a C, but regardless of how or why, the error propagated and remained.

Yellowroot—unlike pinkshell azalea, bear huckleberry, or Carolina hemlock—ranges beyond the southern Appalachians, with scattered populations (likely introduced) as far north as Maine. Regardless, you don’t have to tramp down a mountain stream to find one flowering, nor do you have to take the train to Seneca, South Carolina, as Boynton recommended in another article, and hike twenty-odd miles into hinterlands with “no hotels nor stores.” Rather, stop to see yellowroot flowers along Meadow Road, and then, yes, succumb to the pull of the cherries.

One thought on “Yellowroot mystery

  1. Thank you for this photo of yellowroot flowers; I had never heard of it before and then,
    this week, I heard about it twice! First, it was lauded on nativeplantpodcast.com (4/24/18 show), and now I am delighted to hear how it came to the Arnold Arboretum!

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