Star flower, star power.

If you find yourself seeing stars in the middle of the day, in bright sunlight, it may not necessarily be due to a bump on the head. It may simply be Mother Nature making magic.

Her starry handiwork can be seen on the forest floor for a short time in the spring. Look down, not up, for these daytime stars: star flowers are blooming in the woodlands.  These small, white, ephemeral flowers can make their appearance before the leafing out of most trees, but they can also bloom later and persist into the month ofJune. 

This flower’s scientific name, Trientalis borealis, describes more than just the plant’s typical location in the north (borealis). Trientalis speaks to its small stature, translating to “one-third of a foot,” which is this flower’s usual height. 

Seven is the lucky number for star flowers. Seven leaves, seven petals, and seven sepals are typically found on eachplant. Go ahead and confirm this floral jackpot for yourself; it really is usuallytrue! 

Star flowers also caught the attention of Susan Fenimore Cooper (eldest daughter of James Fenimore Cooper), one of the first woman nature writers (a woman after my own heart). In 1850, she penned Rural Hours, a literary nature journal that covered two years of observations of the natural world in New York. Although she wrote this treatise a few years before Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, it was Thoreau’s journal that received all the attention, quickly overshadowing her work. 

Susan Cooper was not one to complain about the accolades going to Thoreau or other male writer counterparts. She was known to subjugate her works to those of herfather. In fact, she was no women’s libber at all, having written a letter arguing against women’s suffrage (my initial admiration for her is thus much reduced.)

Even if I can’t agree with her politics, I can appreciate her sense of indignation (but not her condescension) over the nomenclature that others use for the star flower.  In Rural Hours, Cooper notes that some people called it “chick wintergreen,” a name, she complained, “which is an insult to the plant, and to the common sense of the community. Why, it is one of the daintiest wood-flowers, with nothing in the world to do with chicks or weeds, or winter. It is not the least of an evergreen, its leaves withering in autumn, as a matter of course, and there is not a chicken in the country that knows it by sight ortaste.  Discriminating peo ple, when they first find its elegant silvery flower growing in the woods beside the violet, call it May-star.” 

Whether discriminating or not, other names for star flower include Indian potato — a small node at the base of the stem explains this name, but this swelling is not edible and was not consumed by Native Americans (Ms. Cooper could therefore have gotten indignant over the inappropriateness of this name, too). In fact, the only use prescribed for this flower is the smoking of its dried root whilehunting. This was thought to attract deer for a successful hunt.

Other aliases for the plant — star-anemone and star of Bethlehem — are more fanciful references to its most notable characteristic, its star quality, if you will. 

Despite its star power, its fame will be short-lived. Star flower will have its time in the sun, but like any Island summer celebrity sighting, soon enough, it will only be a fading memory.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.