North America's native toothworts are something worth celebrating. These wonderful little mustards burst into bloom each spring all over moist deciduous forests, putting on a show that lasts only a few weeks. By mid June these little plants are just about ready for dormancy. Coming across a patch of any toothwort species is always a joy, especially after a long winter.
The toothworts were once placed in the genus Dentaria but are now residing in the genus Cardamine. With their four-petaled flowers and long, slender siliques they are unmistakable as members of the mustard family. Probably the most familiar species to most would be the cutleaf toothwort, Cardamine concatenata. Finding it is a good indication that the land has not been too heavily disturbed. It is one of the first species to disappear after heavy human disturbance.
There are a handful of other toothworts that play an important role of at least one lepidopteran species flying around eastern forests, the Virginia white butterfly (Pieris virginiensis). Its larvae feed primarily on the slender toothwort (Cardamine angustata) and the broad leaf toothwort (Cardamine diphylla). Due to severe habitat fragmentation, this butterfly has declined rapidly throughout parts of its range. As forests give way to farmland and sub-developments, the toothworts they raise their young on quickly disappear. Also, populations of the Virginia white are becoming more and more isolated as they will not disperse across fields, roadways, or any other open space. Instead, they must rely on pockets of forest with healthy toothwort populations.
To add insult to injury, the much maligned garlic mustard also finds toothwort habitat to its liking. Aside from crowding out toothworts, garlic mustard is toxic to Virginia white larvae. Sadly, the butterflies will still lay eggs on garlic mustard, dooming the next generation to almost certain death. As forest patches grow smaller and smaller and the native species within them disappear, entire food chains will come crashing down around them. The plight of the Virginia white stands as a stark reminder of why land conservation is a must.
Help monitor for the Virginia white in your area:http://www.leapbio.org/west-virginia-white
Photo Credits: Vicki DeLoach (http://bit.ly/1E1a8sD)