Wildflowers of the Adirondacks:
Shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica Nutt.)
Shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica Nutt.) is a native Adirondack wildflower which produces waxy white flowers in early summer in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. It is classified as a shrub or subshrub. At one time, these and related plants were classified as a separate family (Pyrolaceae), but more recent genetic research has reclassified Shinleaf and other pyrolas into the family Ericaceae.
Shinleaf is the most common species of pyrola. This plant is one of five pyrolas that occur in the Adirondack area. The others are: Round-leaved Shinleaf (Pyrola americana), Pink Shinleaf (Pyrola asarifolia ssp. Asarifolia), Green-flowered Shinleaf (Pyrola chlorantha), and Lesser Shinleaf (Pyrola minor).
The genus name (pyrola) is a diminutive form of Pyrus (pear) – purportedly a reference to the shape of the leaf. The species name (elliptica) refers to the elliptical shape of the leaves. The scientific name includes a reference to Thomas Nuttall, an English botanist and zoologist who published Genera of North American Plants in 1818. He later developed an interest in ornithology and published his Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and of Canada in the 1830s. Shinleaf is listed in some sources as Pyrola compacta.
The common name (Shinleaf) opposis a reference to the medicinal properties of the plant. The leaves are said to have analgesic properties and were used as a poultice on bruised shins and other sores and wounds. Such a leaf plaster was referred to as a shin plaster. Other common names include Waxflower Shinleaf, Wax-flower Wintergreen, Elliptic-leaved Shinleaf, Large-leaved Shinleaf, and Common Shinleaf.
Identification of Shinleaf
Shinleaf is an erect perennial, about four or five to ten or twelve inches tall.
- The leaves are green and one to 2 ¾ inches long.
- The leaves grow in a rosette, usually at ground level.
- The leaves have very small teethToothed leaves have a saw-toothed edge..
- The leaf stalk is generally as long as or slightly shorter than the leaf bladeThe flat portion of a leaf, petal, or sepal..
- The leaf shape is oblong (elliptical). This distinguishes the Shinleaf from a similar plant that grows in our area – the Round-leaved Pyrola (Pyrola americana). The Round-leaved Pyrola has roundish leaves and somewhat shorter leaf stalks.
The fragrant, nodding flowers bloom on unbranched stalks. The stalks vary in height, from about four inches in some cases to up to about 10 inches in height.
- Each stalk has three to 21 greenish-white, waxy flowers. The long flower stalk is hairless.
The flowers are alternateAppearing singly along the stems, not in pairs.and appear along the upper part of the stem.
- In contrast to One-sided Wintergreen (Orthilia secunda), another member of the Ericaceae family, Shinleaf flowers are not one-sided; they appear around all sides of the flower stem.
- Each flower is about ⅓ inch wide. Shinleaf flowers have five oval petals and a cluster of orange-tipped stamensThe male part of the flower, made up of the filament and anther.under the upper petals. The flowers also have a long curved, pale greenstyleThe narrow part of the pistil., which is the long, tube-like part of thepistilThe female part of the flower made up of the stigma, style, and ovary.. The petals may have greenish veins. ThesepalsThe parts that look like little green leaves and cover the outside of a flower bud to protect the flower before it opens.are triangular, about as long as wide and about ¼ as long as the petals.
Shinleaf usually begins blooming in late June or early July in the Trilakes area of the Adirondacks. A tally of flowering dates for the upland Adirondack areas compiled by Michael Kudish, based on data collected from the early seventies to the early nineties, lists the flowering dates for Shinleaf as 7 through 28 July, with a median flower date of 18 July.
The flowers are followed by fruit, which is a flattened, round, five-chambered capsule about ¼ inch in diameter. Attached to the bottom is the remains of the style. In the Adirondacks, Shinleaf fruit appears around the first week of September.
Uses of Shinleaf
No edible uses were found for Shinleaf.
The Shinleaf does appear to have some medicinal uses. The leaves are said to contain an aspirin-like substance and have been used on bruises and wounds to reduce pain. Native Americans used the plant to treat several ailments. The Cherokee, for instance, used it as a dermatological aid for cuts and sores. The Iroquois reportedly gave babies a decoction of roots and leaves to relieve fits or epileptic seizures. They also used a compound infusion of plants for rheumatism. The Mohegans are said to have used an infusion of leaves as a gargle for sores or cankers in the mouth.
Wildlife Value of Shinleaf
Shinleaf has negligible value as a source of food or cover for wildlife. It is not a favorite browse for White-tailed Deer. Shinleaf plants, along with other pyrolas, are reportedly eaten in minimal amounts by Ruffed Grouse in some areas, but constitute only ½ to 2% of their diet.
Distribution of Shinleaf
Shinleaf is widely distributed on the North American continent. The plant is found across most of the northern half of the US, south to West Virginia. It is also found in the southern provinces of Canada.
In New York State, Shinleaf occurs in most counties and in all of the counties within the Adirondack Blue Line.
Habitat of Shinleaf
In terms of site and soil requirements, Shinleaf is relatively versatile. It apparently prefers dappled shade or a shady edge, but can grow in shadier sites on well-drained soils.
Its habitat requirements are also rather flexible, growing in several different kinds of forests, including sandy or loamy woods and on shaded stream banks, especially under hardwoods. It usually occurs in non-wetlands, but has been seen occasionally in wetlands.
In the Adirondack region, Shinleaf can be found in both hardwood and mixed wood forests, under both hardwoods and conifers. It grows along many of the trails featured here. In the Lake Placid area, for instance, you can find Shinleaf along the Peninsula Interpretive Trail and the Potato Loop Trail at John Brown Farm.
- Look for it blooming in shade under Balsam Fir and Hobblebush, near low-growing Dewdrops, which are also blooming around this time.
- Not too far away look for the orange flowers of another summer bloomer: Spotted Touch-Me-Not.
- Nearby Clintonias, which bloom in late spring, will have stopped blooming by this time, but are already sporting their deep blue berries. Jack-in-the-Pulpit, another late-spring blooming wildflower, will also have gone to fruit, displaying a cone of shiny green berries which will later turn a vibrant red.
Michael Kudish. Adirondack Upland Flora: An Ecological Perspective (The Chauncy Press, 1992), pp. 25-28, 146-147.
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Gary Wade et al. Vascular Plant Species of the Forest Ecology Research and Demonstration Area, Paul Smiths, New York. USDA Forest Service. Research Note NE-380, p. 4. Retrieved 22 January 2017.
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