Two-leaved false Solomon’s seals, or, two-leaved false lilies-of-the-valley (Maianthemum dilatatum) have the misfortune of being commonly named for other species they passingly resemble, rather than for what they are: charming, cross-continental additions to the forest understory. A groundcover perennial, they can carpet the woodland in great swathes, neatly lining other forest features with shiny, philodendron-like leaves and, as spring creeps up the mountainsides, spikes of curious little blooms that resemble satellites with antennae akimbo or bugs in flight.
Also called mayflowers or May-lilies, two-leaved false Solomon’s seals bloom from late spring (usually beginning in May) to mid-summer. The genus name “Maianthemum” literally means “May blossom” and is a reference to the nymph Maia of Greek mythology, for whom the month of May is named. The blooms are borne singly and in clusters along a terminal raceme.1A raceme is an unbranched flower cluster. Along with the similar M. canadense of eastern North America and M. bifolium of Europe and Asia, two-leaved false Solomon’s seals have the distinction amongst not only others of their genus, but also of their broader Liliaceae family of bearing blooms in parts of two and four, rather than in threes or sixes, which perhaps lends to the whimsical appearance of their individual flowers. The four tepals2Tepals are undistinguished petals and sepals. (Sepals are modified leaves that enclose a flower bud and are usually green, but in some species have adopted the form of petals, in which case they and the petals are called “tepals.”) reflex backward from the pistil3The pistil is the female reproductive organ of a flower, consisting of the ovary where seeds develop, the stigma that accepts pollen, and the usually elongated style that lofts the stigma into the reach of pollinators. and four splayed stamens. The prominently globose ovary is superior4An ovary is superior when it is positioned entirely above the point at which all floral components join. and tipped with a distinctly forked and recurved stigma.
In early spring, two-leaved false Solomon’s seals sprout from rhizomes5Rhizomes are thickened stems that grow along or under the soil surface and bear shoots above and roots below. that overwinter beneath the soil and spread readily to create the plant’s characteristic groundcover form. Short, unbranched stems ascend from the rhizomes to a height of around 6 inches/15 centimeters, although they can sometimes almost triple that measure. Each stem typically carries two leaves (hence the reference in its common name), but can bear from one to three. The leaves are typically cordate,6Heart-shaped with double lobes surrounding deep notches where the leaves join their stems (although the topmost third leaf that is sometimes present is usually diamond-shaped). They are also smooth7Without hairs with a shiny appearance, entire,8Having untoothed edges and prominently ribbed from the base.
After pollination, the flowers form clusters of round berries, which are at first green to nearly white and increasingly speckled with red (hence the plant’s other common name, “snakeberry”). The berries gradually ripen to a full, juicy claret with seeds visible inside. In autumn after the deciduous stems and leaves have disintegrated, the jewel-like berries scatter the ground.
Two-leaved false Solomon’s seals range around the northern Pacific Ocean from Japan, Korea, and eastern Russia, over to Alaska, and extending south through California. Although they prefer damp shade, they are tolerant of drier conditions and are common on both sides of the Cascade Range, extending along the mountainous British Columbia/Washington border into northern Idaho. Look for them in the shade of mixed and coniferous forests at low to middle elevations.
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