Botanical Rambles

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Three Ts on Tiger Mountain

Fringecup (Tellima grandiflora) Photo: Ben Legler

 Last summer I trained for a 9-day hike, which led me up the stony, steep, and well-traveled trail of West Tiger 3 near Issaquah several times. While not a botanical barnburner, the West Tiger 3 trail has its floral pleasures. Lois Kemp put together the Washington Native Plant Society plant list for all of Tiger Mountain back in 1995 (the plant lists are now housed in a responsive data system, developed with support from the Garneau-Nicon Foundation and chapters of the Washington Native Plant Society). On one day's hike, I noticed such crowd-pleasers as the orchid, spotted coral-root (Corallorhiza maculata), that low-growing charmer, twinflower (Linnaea borealis), and—fittingly—tiger lily (Lilium columbianum).

It also struck me, as I huffed up the trail, that on West Tiger 3 you can see the three Ts of the Washington's Saxifrage family: Tellima, Tiarella, and Tolmeia. I checked the Washington Flora Checklist, and—phew—all three are still in the Saxifragaceae and they are still called Tellima, Tiarella, and Tolmeia.

The plants are quite distinctive, but those names! Guaranteed to trip you up: all beginning with T, ending with A, and with combinations of E, I, and L in between. So, let's unpack them a bit: 

Close-up of fringecup flowers (Tellima grandiflora) Photo: Ben Legler


Tellima grandiflora, or fringecup, is monotypic—meaning that the genus Tellima has just the one species. Its native only in western North America, but I have seen it cultivated in Britain. In western Washington, it's common in the lowlands and foothills, growing in moist wooded areas and along streams. You can see why it has the common name fringecup from its photo—the petals have a number of fringy lobes.

The name Tellima, Hitchcock tells us somewhat unhelpfully, is an anagram for Mitella (mitrewort). Mitre derives from mitra, Latin for cap, referring to the shape of seedpod, which looks like a very tiny bishop's hat. Wort is an old Anglo-Germanic word meaning plant, or so the Internet tells us.

Mitella—or the genus formerly known as Mitella—also has fringed petals. I learned from the Washington Flora Checklist that the Mitella caulescens (leafy mitrewort) I saw growing on Tiger Mountain is now considered in the genus Mitellastra. Other former Mitella species are now considered members of the genera Ozomelis and Pectiantia.

I am sorry about that. Ozomelis sounds like a musical instrument from the Land of Oz, and Pectiantia sounds like a rash you might get from eating too much apple jelly. But Tellima remains mellifluously itself, with grand flowers that are large enough to make them a good demo plant for novices to dissect and actually see what they are dissecting.
Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata) Photo: Ben Legler


Tiarella trifoliata, or foamflower, has three varieties in our area, with different numbers of lobes on the leaves. Worldwide, the genus Tiarella has about half a dozen taxa in North America and one in eastern Asia. Foamflower does look foamy when it's in flower—the many small white flowers rising frothily above the robust clumps of leaves. It gives generously of its flowers, too, and can be seen flowering late in the summer when most other plants in Washington's forest understory have given it up for the year.

The name, Tiarella, not surprisingly, derives from tiara. But I was surprised to learn from Pojar and MacKinnon that "Tiarella is the diminutive of the Latin for a "tiara," which was a turban-like headdress of ancient Persians, not the glittering diamond affair worn by Princess Diana." Or Meghan Markle. You can see images of a statue wearing such a tiara on the website of the British Museum.

The tiara reference presumably comes from the shape of the seedpods, which have given rise to another common name, "sugar-scoops."

Piggyback plant (Tolmiea menziesii) Photo Ben Legler


Tolmiea menziesii was considered monotypic until recently, when a second species was described, T. diplomenziesii. Both are native only to western North America, but T. menziesii has spread far and wide as a houseplant. As I've described in a previous post, Tolmiea has a couple of common names, youth-on-age and piggyback plant. Both of these names refer to the new plantlets that "piggyback" at the base of leaf blades. Mercifully, neither the scientific name nor the common names make any reference to headwear.

Tolmiea blooms for a relatively short period in the spring, and its flowers are an amazing color—sort of yellowish-reddish-brown—and a bizarre shape. The nineteenth century dynamic duo of North American botanical nomenclature, John Torrey and Asa Gray, named the genus after William Fraser Tolmie, who served as a surgeon naturalist with the Hudson's Bay Company, among other activities. Tolmie collected plants in various parts of what is now Washington State and made an 1833 attempt to climb Mt. Rainier. Tolmie Peak, northwest of Mt. Rainier, is named for him, as is Tolmie State Park near Olympia.

The specific epithet honors Archibald Menzies, who was the surgeon naturalist with the Vancouver expedition when it surveyed what is now Puget Sound.

So, if you venture up Tiger Mountain or out on any number of hikes in the low to mid-elevation woods of western Washington, perhaps you too will encounter three Ts of the Washington's Saxifrage family: Tellima, Tiarella, and Tolmeia. 

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