Check out pawpaws

By Eric Dinerstein Published:

By Eric Dinerstein

WASHINGTON At this time of year, as many as a million people descend on Washington, their visits prompted by the spectacular, synchronous flowering of our beloved cherry trees. The trees are not natives, of course, but are naturalized citizens from Japan, first arriving on our shores in 1912. Now the trees are revered like the Founding Fathers.

But a touch of heartbreak accompanies this sweet story: Our native plants are being overlooked by visitors and residents alike who only have eyes for the showboats along the Tidal Basin.

The indigenous wild cherry, Prunus serotina, for example, produces a beautiful spray along the C&O Canal towpath and scattered about the forest, but it barely merits a glance from most people.

Early spring is also the time of skunk cabbage and its cousin, the jack-in-the-pulpit; bloodroot; and that most mysterious of trees, the purple-flowered pawpaw. As a biologist and unrepentant nature lover, I think of these as my favorites, and each has a story to tell.

Skunk cabbage is so named because the plant is said to resemble a cabbage. I say it looks more like romaine lettuce. The skunk part of the name comes from the plants foul smell. Skunk cabbage is part of a diverse group of plants that make no attempt to mask their odor. The plants have evolved to tap insect pollinators, often flies and beetles, that are connoisseurs of rotten aromas. These plants include the recent star attraction at the U.S. Botanic Garden, the titan arum. Its gigantic flower caused lines to form around the block, but it greeted its admirers with a smell of death warmed over.

If the appealing flowers of the skunk cabbage dont impress, its startling ability to survive might. In late winter, with snow still on the ground, skunk cabbage releases heat to melt the snow and allow its leaves upward mobility. The skunk cabbage will not be denied.

Then there is bloodroot. Its delicate white flower hugs the ground, so it is easy to miss. Its name comes from the deep orange sap that it bleeds if its stem is broken, but dont do that bloodroot is an endangered species. Such an odd-colored ooze is rare in flowering plants, but perhaps it is unsurprising in the bloodroot, considering it is a member of the opium (poppy) family.

Bloodroot isnt intoxicating, but its roots have been used to make antiseptics, anesthetics and anticancer agents. The local Indians once used bloodroot to treat rheumatism, laryngitis, fevers, asthma, bronchitis and other lung ailments.

But my favorite flowering plant in our region is the pawpaw. Some know it for its funny but edible fruit, which is the largest fruit in North America; it resembles and tastes like a banana. Every spring the pawpaw also produces blackish-purple flowers with bright yellow buttons of reproductive bits at the center. Pawpaw flowers so diabolical, so mysterious and so tropical-looking draw the eye of any towpath naturalist.

The pawpaw is one of only a handful of trees in its family (the Annonaceae) that survive in our area; most are natives of tropical Asia. When I walk through the lowland forests of Borneo, one out of every three or four trees may be a member of the pawpaw family. Gazing deep into the flowers of the pawpaw here evokes thoughts of orangutans, clouded leopards and Sumatran rhinos.

The cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin may teach us about horticultural fashion and how man can shape plants and cityscapes, but native plants whisper of the wild and of the splendor of evolution. If nothing else, the Cherry Blossom Festival is an annual reminder of the deep roots of flower power in our consciousness, both sophisticated and primal.

Special to The Washington Post

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