Under the Umbrellaleaf


The first time I ever laid eyes on this species, I was certain there must be a mistake. What was a large Begonia doing growing on a wet seep deep in the woods somewhere in the Southern Appalachians. Surely something very strange was going on in this spot. After a few minutes of observation though, I realized my initial assumption wasn't correct. This wasn't an escaped species of Begonia. Instead, what my field guide revealed was that this gorgeous plant is actually a wonderful southeastern native called Diphylleia cymosa.


Known commonly as "umbrellaleaf," D. cymosa is a member of the family Berberidaceae and is a distant cousin of the more widely spread mayapple. North America has only one species of Diphylleia as does Japan (D. grayi) and China (D. sinensis). Phylogenetic evidence hints at a time in which North America and Asia were connected and shared much of their respective flora. Tectonic movements have since isolated these once connected populations, allowing ample time for the speciation that led to the species we know and love today. North America's species (D. cymosa) is found only in wet areas of the Appalachian Mountains.


As the generic name "Diphylleia" suggests, each individual plant produces two large, umbrella-like leaves. Arising from the middle of these leaves is a cluster or "cyme" of beautiful white flowers. After pollination, the cyme gives way to a cluster of berries, which gradually turn a deep shade of blue. The pedicels themselves turn a deep shade of red. All of this creates a beautiful fruit display aimed at attracting woodland birds, D. cymosa's main seed dispersers. 

Photo Credit: Owen and Aki (http://bit.ly/1gjC2w4) and Emma Harrower (http://bit.ly/1S34aiJ)

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