Golden marshes

Marsh marigold at the seepage swamps along the river at Pine Bend Bluffs Scientific and Natural Area in Inver Grove Heights.

The recent discovery of gold in Minnesota may come as a surprise to some, but anyone who lives near a shallow marsh or wet meadow is likely well aware of our local golden riches. They would also know that this treasure could only be found in early spring, as it is a botanical rather than metallic jewel, and an ephemeral one at that. I’m referring, of course, to marsh marigold, that wonderful, early blooming wildflower of wet places. It may not have the monetary value of gold, but after a long monochromatic winter, these bunches of large sunny flowers gladden the soul almost as much. (For this reason, I personally refer to them as merry marsh-gold!)

The scientific name for marsh marigold is Caltha palustris. Caltha means “cup” in Greek and palustris means “of the marsh” in Latin. While the ornamental marigolds that people plant in their gardens each year are in the aster family (Asteraceae), marsh marigolds are actually in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). They share a feature common to many other buttercups — the flowers do not have petals! This may seem counterintuitive when you’re staring right at a patch of bright yellow flowers, but in the botanical world, those yellow parts are actually “sepals.” Sepals are specialized leaves that protect the developing flower and provide support. They grow beneath the petals of a flower and on most flowers are small, green and inconspicuous. In the case of marsh marigold and many other flowers, the sepals perform the functions of both petal and sepal and have simply replaced the petals altogether.

Marsh marigold flowers have little detectable scent and are pollinated by bees and flies. The plants grow throughout Minnesota in sunny or moderately shaded shallow marshes and seepages, where soils stay saturated through the growing season. One of my favorite Twin Cities places to find them is Pine Bend Bluffs Scientific and Natural Area, where they grow in the seepage swamps along the river alongside skunk cabbage. They can also be found at Lilydale Park, Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, and many other areas.

For more information, visit the Illinois wildflowers online guide.