Gateway to the Classics: Wild-Flower Study by Anna Botsford Comstock
Wild-Flower Study by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Yellow Adder's Tongue

Teacher's Story

"Once a prize was offered to a child if she would find two leaves of the adder's tongue that were marked exactly alike: and she sought long and faithfully, but the only prize she won was a lesson in Nature's book of variations, where no two leaves of any plant, shrub or tree are exactly alike: for even if they seemed so to our eyes, yet there would exist in them differences of strength and growth too subtle for us to detect. But this child was slow in learning this great fact, and, until she was a woman, the adder's tongue leaves, so beautifully embroidered with purple and green, were to her a miracle, revealing the infinite diversity of Nature's patterns."

—"The Child's Own Book of Wild Flowers."

This little lily of the woods is a fascinating plant. Its leaves of pale green mottled with brownish purple often cover closely large irregular areas in the rich soil of our woodlands; and yet I doubt if the underground story of these forest rugs is often thought of. The leaves are twins, and to the one who plucks them carelessly they seem to come from one slender stem. It requires muscle as well as decision of character to follow this weak stem down several inches, by digging around it, until we find the corm at its base. A corm is the swollen base of a stem and is bulb-like in form; but it is not made up of layers, as is a bulb. It is a storehouse for food and also a means of spreading the species; for from the corms there grow little corms called cormels, and each cormel develops a separate plant. This underground method of reproduction is the secret of why the leaves of the adder's tongue appear in patches, closely crowded together.


Adder's tongue.

Only a few of the plants in a "patch" produce flowers, and it is interesting to see how cleverly these lily bells hide from the casual eye. Like many of the lilies, the three sepals are petal-like and are identified as sepals only by their outside position, although they are thicker in texture. They are purplish brown outside, which serves to render the flower inconspicuous as we look down upon it; on the inner side, they are a pure yellow, spotted with darker yellow near where they join the stem. The three petals are pure yellow, paler outside than in, and they have dark spots like the tiger lilies near the heart of the flower; and where they join the stem, each has on each side an ear-shaped lobe.


The adder's tongue, showing its underground storehouse.

Drawn by F. Dana Gibson, a pupil in seventh grade.

The open flower is bell-shaped; and like other bells it has a clapper, or tongue. This is formed by six downward-hanging stamens, the yellow filaments of which have broad bases and taper to points where the oblong anthers join them. The anthers are red or yellow. It is this stamen clapper that the visiting insects must cling to when probing upward for nectar from this flower at the upper end of the bell. The pale green pistil is somewhat three-sided, and the long style remains attached long after the flower disappears. The flower is slightly fragrant, and it is visited by the queen bumblebees and the solitary bees, of which there are many species. The flower closes nights and during cloudy, stormy days. The seed capsule is plump and rather triangular, and splits into three sections when ripe. The seeds are numerous and are fleshy and crescent-shaped.


Fruit capsule and seed.

But the adder's tongue, like many other early blooming flowers, is a child of the spring. The leaves, at first so prettily mottled, fade out to plain green; and by midsummer they have entirely disappeared, the place where they were, being covered with other foliage of far different pattern. But down in the rich woods soil are the plump globular corms filled with the food gathered by the spotted leaves during their brief stay, and next spring two pairs of spotted leaves may appear where there was but one pair this year.


The adder's tongue going to seed.

Photo by Verne Morton.


Adder's Tongue, or Dog-Tooth Violet

Leading thought—The adder's tongue is a lily, and its mottled leaves appear early in the spring, each pair coming from a corm deep in the soil below. It has two ways of spreading, one underground by means of new corms growing from the larger ones, and the other by means of seeds, many of which are probably perfected through the pollen carried by insects.

Method—This plant should be studied in the woods, notes being made on it there. But a plant showing corm, roots, leaves and blossom should be brought to the schoolhouse for detailed study, and then planted in a shady place in the school garden.


1. Where does the adder's tongue grow? Do you ever find it in open fields? How early do you find its leaves above ground? At what time do its blossoms appear?

2. How many leaves has each plant? What colors do you find in them? What is the color of their petioles? Do the leaves remain mottled later in the season?

3. Do the adder's tongue plants occur singly or in patches? Dig out a plant and see if you can find why the plants grow so many together?

4. How far below the surface of the ground did you find the corm or bulb-like growth? Is this the root of the plant? How does it differ from the roots? How does it differ from a bulb? Of what use is it to the plant?

5. Is the flower lifted up, or is it drooping? What is its general shape? How many sepals? How would you know they were sepals? How do they differ in color, outside and in, from the petals? How are the petals marked? Can you see the lobes at the base of each petal? When sepals and petals are so much alike the botanists call them all together the perianth.

6. If the perianth, or the sepals and petals together, make a bell-shaped flower, what makes the clapper to the bell? How do the insects use this clapper when they visit the flower? Do the flowers stay open nights and dark days? Why?

7. How many stamens are there? Describe or sketch one, noting its peculiar shape. Are the stamens all the same length? Can you see the pistil and its stigma? Where is it situated in relation to the stamens? Do you think the stigma is ready for pollen at the time the anthers are shedding it?

8. After the petals and sepals fall what remains? How does the ripe seed-capsule look? How does it open to let out the seeds? Are there many seeds in a capsule? What is their shape?


Design for embroidery from adder's tongue.

Drawn by Evelyn Mitchell for Child's Own Book of Wild Flowers.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Hepatica  |  Next: Bloodroot
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.