Dwarf Waterleaf

Dwarf waterleaf (Hydrophyllum capitatum) flowers are often difficult to see. The plants often grow in thickets or beneath shrubs such as sagebrush. Additionally, instead of exposed blossoms, dwarf waterleaf flowers are borne near the base of the plant and are often covered by leaves. Leonard and I were speculating why a plant would “hide” its flowers. One possible reason (guess) could be to assist in seed distribution. There is a correlation between plants with ground level flowers and the scattering of seeds by ants.

This low perennial flowers in the early spring immediately after the snow melt. It prefers moist soils and inhabits in a variety of communities and elevations, from the sagebrush steppe to ponderosa forests, where there is springtime moisture. A native, dwarf waterleaf can be found in the Western States, British Columbia and Alberta.

Dwarf waterleaf leaves are pinnately compound with 7 to 11 lobed leaflets and alternate on short stems. As with all members of the waterleaf family, “fives” describes the flowers – five petals fused to form a “cup”,  five sepals and five stamens. The blue to lavender/purple flowers are clustered into a ball-shaped head (from which another common name, ballhead waterleaf, derives) and the stamens extend beyond the petals. The roots of dwarf waterleaf are fleshy and fibrous.

The leaves, stems, flowers and young roots are edible and were utilized by Native Americans. I tasted a leaf and found it bitter and “fuzzy”. Indigenous people cooked dwarf waterleaf before eating it since cooking is reputed to make this plant more palatable. Since I never find dwarf waterleaf in large numbers, I prefer to not destroy plants to cook them. So their taste when cooked will, for now, remain a question. The leaves are slightly astringent and have historically been employed as a poultice for insect bites and other minor skin irritations.

The genus name, Hydrophyllum, is from the Greek and means “waterleaf”: hydro is water and phyllum is leaf. The leaves of dwarf waterleaf are not particularly succulent or filled with water. The name may come from the fact that the leaf surfaces are flannel-like and collect or cradle droplets of water. Another possible derivation of the name could refer to the fact that the leaf petioles (stalks) are grooved and allow water to flow from the leaf to the stem and down to the roots – the leaf waters the plant. I do not know.

These dwarf waterleaf plants (there were about five in all) were growing in a ponderosa pine/juniper forest along Ash Creek (Lassen County CA).

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