Although its flowers closely resemble those of the native bloodroot that often grows near it, twinleaf has a charm all its own. It’s one of the first native ephemerals to adorn the soils of early spring, and its butterfly-shaped leaves and cheery, white flowers atop slender stems make a short-lived but stately appearance. The leathery seed pod that follows merits observation: it grows into an elongated acorn shape, complete with its own lid that pops open when the seeds ripen (another common name is helmet-pod). When fully open, the capsule resembles a gaping frog mouth. The seeds have fleshy appendages called elaiosomes; these attract ants, which carry the seeds back to their nests to serve as food for ant larvae. The uneaten seeds are moved to a nutrient-rich waste area of the nest, where the seeds germinate the following spring.
Twinleaf thrives in the rich soils of woodlands in full to part shade; it adds charm to shady woodland gardens, spreading easily by rhizomes or seeds as it establishes. It can be distinguished from bloodroot by its seed pods and leaves, which are smaller, more oval shaped, and only lobed in two parts—thus the common name and specific epithet. Once the blooming season ends, the leaves continue to grow until they resemble small elephant ears. The flowers of Jeffersonia diphylla lack nectar, but they have other methods to achieve pollination. The petals contain flavonoids that absorb ultraviolet light and create color patterns that are visible to insects, and the flowers produce a mild aroma and copious amounts of pollen to attract insects. An assortment of bees collect the pollen, and flies and beetles feed on and unwittingly spread the pollen while exploring for nectar. And if the insects don’t get the job done, there’s always self pollination. The flowers open in late morning, releasing pollen from their anthers hours later. In late afternoon, the flowers close up, allowing pollen to cover the stigma. The plant needs many opportunities for pollination because the flowers are fragile and short lived. Twinleaf is listed as endangered or threatened in many states due to habitat loss and collecting in the wild.
Botanist Benjamin Smith Barton named the plant after his friend, Thomas Jefferson. Twinflower is one of two species in the genus Jeffersonia, which is part of the barberry family. The other species is found in Asia.
Native habitats include moist woodlands, partly exposed rocky slopes, and floodplain forests. Include these beauties in shadier areas and woodland gardens.
Grows 4-18” tall.
Prefers part or full shade.
Performs best in rich soils.
Bloom season is April-May. Single, 1” flower at the end of a slender stem has 8 white petals and yellow stamens surrounding a green ovary in the center. Fruit is a green to yellow-green capsule ¾-1 ½” long. Contains shiny, ¼” oblong seeds.
Basal leaf on a thin stalk is deeply cleft at the tip and base, appearing to be a pair of leaves mirroring each other. Ovalish leaflets are 4-6” long with wavy, lobed, or coarsely toothed margins and pointed tips. Stems are long, smooth, and purplish.
Pollinating visitors include long- and short-tongued bees, syrphid flies, and beetles. Rodents often eat the seeds that ants don’t get first.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans used the root to treat gastrointestinal issues, dropsy, diarrhea and urinary problems, and external sores and ulcers. The rhizome was also used to treat rheumatism, giving the plant the common name of rheumatism-root.
Warning: the roots contain berberine, an anti-tumor alkaloid, which renders the plant poisonous.
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