Three-lobed, whorled leaves that are 2-5” wide with many coarse, deeply cleft teeth.
Family: Mustard (Brassicaceae)
Height: To 10” (25 cm)
Flowering: April - May
Habitat: Shaded, Deciduous Woods
Cutleaf Toothwort is a name that relates specifically to the foliage of the plant. The leaves of this wildflower have deeply cut lobes which resemble teeth. Tooth also refers to the tooth-like projections on the underground stems. Wort is a term meaning common, possibly alluding to it being a common spring flower. Its delicate beauty however makes it anything but common.
The scientific name, Dentaria lacinata, refers to the appearance of the plant. Dentaria is derived from the Latin word dens means tooth, which may describe the shape of the closed bud, the toothed leaves, or the underground tubers. Lacinata is a Latin word meaning ragged, which refers to the haggard appearance of the torn leaves.
Crinkle Root: Refers to the shape of the tubers that wrinkle as they dry out.
Pepper Root, Pepper Wort: Describes the pungent taste of the long fleshy rhizomes.
Purple Flowered Toothwort: Though the flowers are generally a milky white color, some may become lavender over time.
Cutleaf Toothwort is a true ephemeral and among the first of the wildflowers to bloom. It blossoms early before the canopy closes blocking the sun. Early flowering poses several risks to the Toothwort, including unstable weather conditions and limited pollinator activity. To compensate for the time in which it flowers, Toothworts are adapted to attract a variety of pollinators, which has been the topic of many scientific studies. Cutleaf Toothworts are typically pollinated by a variety of early spring bumblebees including honeybees, Mason bees, Cuckoo bees, and Miner bees. The short ivory corollas of Cutleaves house nectar that can be reached by bees with either short or long proboscises. It is often the short tongued bees that act as primary pollinators that need to forage deep inside the flower to reach the nectar. Less often, the flower is pollinated by spring butterflies.
For caterpillars of the Checkered White Butterfly (Pieris napi oleraceae), Cutleaf Toothworts are host plants. These caterpillars feed on the foliage, usually destroying the plant in the process.
Cutleaf Toothworts have not been used extensively in early medical treatments and remedies. The roots of the plant were used by various tribes as a poultice to treat colds and headaches. Native Americans also chewed the roots of Toothwort to alleviate toothaches, suggesting another possible explanation for its common name. The Mohawk Indians used an infusion of the roots mixed with those of Yellow Lady Slippers (Cypripedium calceolus) to treat tuberculosis.
Though it has not been medically proven, various tribes believed Toothworts were a valuable source of vitamins and therefore antiscorbutic. It is doubtful however that the boiled roots contained any important vitamins that would treat a person with scurvy.
Cutleaf Toothworts have been used as a food source for early pioneers. The raw tubers have the taste of mild horseradish and can be mixed with vinegar and salt and used as a substitute for the condiment. The crisp peppery rootstocks were gathered in early spring and used throughout the season by pioneers for soups, stews, meats, and other dishes. Today, the chopped up roots and tubers are used by wild plant enthusiasts to dress and apply a distinct flavor to salads.