Dog-toothed Violet: What’s In A Name?

photograph and text by Tony Oppersdorff

Consider a few of Maine’s lesser-known creatures: the wandering glider, the widow skimmer, the ebony boghaunter, or the zigzag darner, and my favorite, the stygian shadowdragon: all harmless, beneficial Odonata, or dragonflies. By comparison, the dog-toothed violet (Erythronium americanum), seems almost prosaically named, but why dog tooth? For the answer we must dig into the ground. The plant, which is a lily, not a violet, grows from an underground swollen stem, a corm, which somewhat resembles a dog’s tooth. Through the years, the distinctive mottled leaves of E. americanum have suggested the flanks of various animals leading to other common names: adder’s tongue, trout lily and fawn lily.

The corms can be boiled and served with butter, or the young leaves can be boiled and sprinkled with vinegar. One writer suggests that the corms can be eaten raw; another that they help with ulcers, and have merit as a contraceptive (a little adder’s tongue, my dear?). It is said to be a mild emetic, and antibacterial.

Perhaps the trout lily is best enjoyed for what it is, a spring ephemeral and a delicate harbinger of warmer temperature, thriving next to lingering patches of snow beneath larger, still leafless shrubs and providing early forage for winter-starved deer. The two-leaved plants are fertile; the one-leaved, sterile. Watch for them at this time.