Almost too fantastical to be terrestrial, youth-on-age, or, piggyback plant (Tolmiea menziesii) is one of Cascadia’s most unusual wildflowers. In moist environments, it is abundant in the forest floor mosaic, yet easily goes unnoticed, its tiny blooms in muted tones blending with the woodland shadows it prefers. Each extraordinary flower consists of five sepals that form a flaring calyx1A calyx is the outer structure that encloses or forms the base of a flower. It is composed of the sepals, which are modified leaves that enclose a flower bud before it opens., four tendril-like petals that curl from its jutting maw like the whiskers of a dragon, three prominent stamens, and two translucent styles. Their color ranges from chartreuse through maroon to brown. Each bloom is barely a half inch/1.50 centimeters long, but joins a raceme, or, unbranched flower spike of up to fifty others reaching nearly three feet/one meter high.
As if the alien-like flowers weren’t strange enough, they are followed by curious, arrowheaded seed capsules protruding from the husks of the blossoms that bore them. However, youth-on-age’s unusual characteristics don’t stop there. Not only does this prodigious plant procreate conventionally by seed, it also reproduces asexually by sprouting new plantlets directly from where its fuzzy, palmate leaves join their petioles, or, leaf stems. As the maturing leaves fan downward and touch the ground, the plantlets root. Hence, both the common names “youth-on-age” and “piggyback plant.” Underground, this perennial plant also spreads by rhizomes, subterranean stems that produce roots below and new shoots above. By this combination of sexual and asexual methods of reproduction, youth-on-age forms a loose groundcover in shady conditions where it has an ecological advantage, but also joins others in mixed understory communities. In Western Washington, it is commonly found in the company of the distantly related fringecup (Tellima grandiflora), as well as the largeleaf avens (Geum macrophyllum).
Look for youth-on-age blooming in late spring and early summer. It favors mixed coastal and riverine woodlands at low to mid-elevation from southern Alaska through northern California, as in the habitat photo below where most of the other photos on this page were taken:
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