Friday, June 9, 2023

Plant Profile: Starflower

Starflower blooming in late May in a mixed coniferous-deciduous forest in north-central Minnesota.

Starflower (Trientalis borealis, aka Lysimachia borealis) is a spring-blooming, perennial wildflower of coniferous and deciduous forests. In early spring, stems emerge from overwintering tubers and grow 4–8 inches tall, their slender stems bearing six to eight lance-shaped leaves of unequal size. In May and June, one, two, or rarely three flowers grow from the leaf axils. Each flower is about ½ inch wide and typically has seven white, pointed petals and orange anthers that later turn brown.

The flowers are self-incompatible, so they can’t pollinate themselves. To form seeds, they must receive pollen from another patch of starflowers, delivered primarily by native mining bees (andrenid bees), sweat bees (halictid bees) and hover flies (syrphid flies). If the bees are present, if the patches are close enough for the bees to transit, and if pollination is successful, small seed capsules eventually form at the tips of the stems.

That’s a lot of ifs and little assurance of a next generation. Starflower doesn’t depend only on seeds for reproduction, however. In fact, very little of its energy is dedicated to flowering and seed set. Most of its reproductive effort is spent on rhizomes, underground stems that extend the plant’s reach and give rise to new plants. It’s a faster way of reproducing, and in a stable environment, it’s more reliable. The downside is that the parent plant and its vegetative offspring are genetically identical, so if the environment changes, the plants may not have what it takes for a population to survive.

If conditions remain favorable, though, the rhizomes grow and form patches of new plants. By midsummer, tubers begin forming at their tips. Aided by the cool nights of late summer and fall, they fill with starch to fuel next year’s growth. Rhizome connections then wither and the leaves yellow and fall. Bare stems topped with capsules are all that remain above ground, while tubers below ground carry their incipient roots and shoots through winter, ready to resume growth in spring. Starflower seeds also overwinter, but they don’t germinate until fall of the second year.

Starflower range in North America (left ) and the Upper Midwest (right). Maps from USDA Plants Database.

As with many plants, Starflower is facing challenges brought by climate change. The cool nights needed for maximum tuber development are warmer now, and researchers have found that flowering and seed set lessen toward the southern edge of the plant’s range. These changes raise questions and concerns about whether the species can adapt, because in some places, it isn't. Starflower is state-listed as endangered in Georgia and state-listed as threatened in Illinois.

Populations in Minnesota and other northern locations are responding to warmer May temperatures by flowering earlier. That may or may not be beneficial, but so far, starflower seems to be holding its own here. The species name borealis, meaning “of the north,” may be truer than ever.


Minnesota Wildflowers

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA, NRCS. 2023. The PLANTS Database (, 06/03/2023). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC USA.

Roger C. Anderson. June 1970. The role of daylength and temperature in tuber formation and rhizome growth of Trientalis borealis Raf. Botanical Gazette, Volume 131, Number 2, pp. 122-128.

Roger C. Anderson and Orie L. Loucks. July 1973. Aspects of the biology of Trientalis borealis Raf. Ecology, Volume 54, Issue 4, pp. 798-808.

Roger C. Anderson and Michael H. Beare. March 1983. Breeding system and pollination ecology of Trientalis borealis (Primulaceae). American Journal of Botany, Volume 70, Issue 3, pp. 408-415.

Emily Dangremond. No date. Climate change and starflower in the Midwest. Illinois Native Plant Society.

Emily Dangremond, Christopher H. Hill, Shahd Louaibi, and Ivette Muñoz. 2021. Phenological responsiveness and fecundity decline near the southern range limit of Trientalis borealis (Primulaceae). Plant Ecology, Volume 223, pp. 41-51.  

Linda G. Chafin. 2020. Trientalis borealis Raf. Georgia Biodiversity Portal, Georgia Department of Natural Resources/Wildlife Resources Division.

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