Plant of the Week
Twisted Stalk (Streptopus amplexifolius)
By Walter Fertig
To the public, scientific names of plants can sound silly, old-fashioned, or even a bit pretentious. Sometimes, however, the Latin name can be quite descriptive and even a bit mellifluous. One of my favorites to pronounce is Streptopus amplexifolius, also known by its less melodious common name of twisted stalk. Technically derived from Greek, “streptos” is twisted and “pous” is footed, referring to the diagnostic 90-degree twist in the flower stalk after it emerges from the base of the upper leaves. To complete the etymology, “amplexi” means clasping and “folius” is leaf in reference to the upper leaves that snuggly embrace the stem.
Streptopus amplexifolius is one of seven species in its genus that range across temperate areas of North America, northern Europe, and Asia. Carl Linnaeus himself named the species in his seminal work, Species Plantarum, though initially as a member of a similar genus in the lily family, Uvularia. Twisted stalk ranges across Canada and south to California, the Rocky Mountains, and over much of the eastern United States. It is typically found in moist, shady mountain forests and streamsides.
Like other monocots, twisted stalk has parallel-veined leaves with smooth margins. Flowers are relatively small and consist of six greenish-white tepals (sepals and petals that are of similar size, color, and texture). Only one flower occurs on each flower stalk and these hang downward, thanks to the distinctive “twist”. The flowers give rise to a single elliptic yellow or red berry, which is edible. Wayne Phillips, retired Forest Service ecologist, author, and noted Lewis and Clark impersonator, reports that the green shoots are also edible and taste like cucumber when eaten raw. Populations tend to be small and the species can be mistaken for the poisonous Veratrum, so perhaps twisted stalk is better left unsampled for others to observe rather than taste