Anyone who has completed the first grade will hopefully remember learning what a plant nerd our third president was, but few know that there’s a plant named in his honor. Yes, it’s true, Jeffersonia diphylla, otherwise known as “Twinleaf” is named in honor of Tommy Jefferson and just happens to be one of my favorite early spring plants.
I almost referred to it as “one of my favorite early spring ephemerals,” but that would only be half true. Half true because as fragile as the pure white, silver dollar-sized flowers are (they can be shattered by a drop of dew), this almost shrub-like plant is persistent all the growing season long.
That’s especially true if planted in full shade and given some extra water during dry spells.
Making its home in the Berberidaceae family — the same family as “May Apple”, “Blue Cohosh” and, believe it or not, the invasive, horrible “Barberry” — Jeffersonia diphylla is one of our least known and most desirable native plants.
Surprisingly, it does quite well in my somewhat low-pH woodland gardens. I say surprisingly because in nature, Jeffersonia chooses to grow in high-pH limestone soils. Yet another testament to the ability of so many plants to accept and adapt to a wide range of growing conditions.
As stated above, the flowers are very short-lived, but there is a consolation prize: a very cool seed head. I’ve always described it as having a little sombrero. It’s a uniquely shaped structure with a “lid” that opens, exposing copious amounts of shiny brown seeds when they’re ripe. Unlike a lot of other plants with explosive seed-dispersal mechanisms, these seeds will patiently wait for you to come collect them and create your own, very special Twinleaf colony.
That’s right, the common name for this treasure is “Twinleaf” and as you can see from the image, it’s a no-brainer to figure out where that comes from. By the way, don’t wait too long to collect the seeds, as the plant depends on wind, wild animals and hikers to help it spill the seeds out and they may just beat you to them.
Typical height varies anywhere from 10 inches to 18 inches, and I’ve had single mature plants up to 24 inches in diameter.
A related species, Jeffersonia dubia, occurs in Asia and is Jeffersonia diphylla’s identical twin, except for the flower color, which just happens to be blue rather than white.
I’ll refrain from suggesting companion plants as this super easy-to-grow plant does just fine on its own and having a colony in your garden, large or small, is quite a staggering sight.
Barry Glick, a transplanted Philadelphian, has been residing in Greenbrier County, W.V., since 1972. His mountaintop garden and nursery,Sunshine Farm and Gardens, is a Mecca for gardeners from virtually every country in the world. He writes and lectures extensively about native plants and Hellebores, his two main passions, and welcomes visitors with advance notice. Reach Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org 304.497.2208. Read all his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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