Yellow Fumewort

Corydalis flavula. Most early spring ephemerals are perennials, making use of the brief period of pre-leaf light both to bloom and to create and store food for the next year’s flowering. Not so the Yellow Fumewort. It’s an annual that relies on seeds that sprout the same year they’re created — but not until circumstances are just right. Among the earliest of the spring bloomers, Corydalis flavula is showing off its small but elegant yellow flowers by April, attracting early insects needed for pollination. By the arrival of summer, seeds have fruited and been dispersed — often with the help of ants that carry them to their nest to dine on the fatty seed appendages called eliasomes. The seeds remain dormant through the period of high summer temperatures that might desiccate the seedlings, and instead wait until late summer and cooler air before sprouting. The seedlings then overwinter and return to life in the spring to become adults. Yellow Fumewort likes a forest floor that is not too deeply covered with leaf litter and, in fact, appears to favor woods that have burned, colonizing spots with little or no litter at all. Burned forest often has less canopy, and fumewort seedlings may take advantage of that in the fall. While American Indians used to burn and breathe in the smoke of fumewort to “clear the head,” that’s not where the “fume” of the name comes from. The plant is a member of the family called Fumitory, a name from the Latin, fumus terrae, “smoke of the earth,” because the leaves are grayish.  Those fumes the Indians sniffed may have done more than clear the head – Fumitories are members of the Poppy order, famous for their narcotic alkaloids — of which fumitory has several.

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