A picture speaks a thousand words, and that’s a good thing because I have a lot to say about this plant that could best be said in pictures. And I’d be happy to hear that this article stimulated you enough to go out hunting for Hydrophyllum virginianum in the wild this spring.
First, let’s chat about the name of the genus—Hydrophyllum, which is Latin for "waterleaf." The plant's common name is Virginia Waterleaf, bestowed upon it because of the silvery marbling of its leaves, which resemble water spots.
A well-known plant among most native-plant nerds, why is it not on everyone's radar? Perhaps because it emerges early in the spring as a low-growing plant that's quickly hidden by larger plants and shrubs. Perhaps you weren't out early enough to see the marbling before the leaves faded to a dark green hue? But now that you know, slow down and look along the roadbanks that you’ve been speeding by for years.
According to some virginianum fans, young leaves and shoots are tasty when cooked, but eat them early. They're tender when young but grow chewy. Native Americans used root tea as an astringent for diarrhea and dysentery, and raw roots were chewed to treat mouth sores.
Hydrophyllum virginianum is an attractive ground cover in moist, shady spots, and its leaves will last throughout the growing season if sufficient moisture is available. If you decide to transplant it to your garden, make sure to give it that moist, shady spot and plenty of room, as it is a vigorous grower.
You may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned its flowers yet. Well, the foliage is so dramatic and striking that the flowers take a backseat to the foliage. The flowers of this species are small clusters of bell-shaped white-to-lilac flowers about a third of an inch long. They bloom from May to June—sometimes with an infrequent additional bloom in August.
So, here’s another uncommon but definitely-not-rare plant to add to your knowledge base of the native plants we are blessed to have in this botanical paradise called West Virginia.
Barry Glick, a transplanted Philadelphian, has resided in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, since 1972. His mountaintop garden and nursery attract gardeners from every country in the world. Barry writes and lectures extensively about native plants and Hellebores and welcomes visitors with advance notice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, Sunfarm.com, or 304-497-2208.