I guess that it is true that you can’t have it all. Wood anemones should know this adage well since they lack much.
To start with, there are no true petals on this blossom. The white (or pinkish, lilac or blue) petal-like structures are actually tepals, which are not an anagram of petal — they are sepals that are not green. Odor can also be counted out, since there the anemone flower has little fragrance. Bulbs, too, are absent: wood anemones reproduce by underground rhizomes. Not even nectar flows, although bees and insects will visit the flower for pollen.
All is not lost for the wood anemone. This sweet spring flower has charmed many. Walk Cedar Tree Neck or Menemsha Hills and you can appreciate these abundant white star-like flowers now blooming. Note its deeply divided leaflets if you are not sure of its identification. Wood anemone is a low creeping flower that spreads easily and is found in colonies in wet woodlands.
While its roots may prefer moisture, its flowers do not. Anemone blossoms are known to expand in sunlight and close up during the night and dewy morning to avoid getting wet. An anonymous poet noted, “Coy anemone that ne’er uncloses her lips until they’re blown on by the wind.”
Wind plays a role in the name of this flower too. The word anemone is derived from the Greek god Anemos, who gave the flower his name to herald his coming. Windflower and crowfoot are two aliases for this plant, the latter alluding to the leaves that resemble a bird footprint. The former might also have come from Greek mythology — when Venus wandered through the woodlands weeping after the death of Adonis, “where streams his blood there blushing springs a rose, And where a tear has dropped, a wind-flower blows.”
Like so many plants, this one is both reputed to be poisonous and heralded as a cure-all. One of my favorite herbalists, Culpepper, insisted that, “The body being bathed with the decoction of the leaves cures the leprosy: the leaves being stamped and the juice snuffed up the nose purgeth the head mightily; so doth the root, being chewed in the mouth, for it procureth much spitting and bringeth away many watery and phlegmatic humours, and is therefore excellent for the lethargy.... Being made into an ointment and the eyelids annointed with it, it helps inflammation of the eyes. The same ointment is excellent good to cleanse malignant and corroding ulcers.”
He adds, “And when all is done let physicians prate what they please, all the pills in the dispensary purge not the head like to hot things held in the mouth.”
Another herbalist, who no doubt had a different sense of “humours,” disagreed when he said, “There is little use of these (the anemones) in physic in our days, either for inward or outward diseases.” With a friend like that, who needs anemone?
What is currently known about the flower’s ability to heal or harm is that it contains a toxin called protoanemonin which can be deadly to some animals, and will at the very least cause severe skin and gastrointestinal irritation. No need to take any chances.
Other cultures erred on the safe side too. Egyptians considered these flowers an emblem of sickness; the Chinese called them a flower of death; and in Europe anemones were associated with ill omen. Only the Romans disagreed, calling the anemone a charm against fever and suggested tying it around an invalid’s neck to bring good health.
Wood anemone is a member of the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, a name that means “a little frog,” alluding to the wet habitat of both flower and amphibian. The Vineyard variety is anemone quinquefolia (five-leafed), and it is a native.
Perhaps, then, it is not as lucky as a four-leaf clover — you can just add that to the list of things that this flower must do without.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.