Know Your Natives – Jumpseed

Jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana), formerly Polygonum virginianum, of the Buckwheat (Polygonaceae) family has slender knobby terminal stems that bear long racemes of tiny white flowers. In the U.S., it occurs throughout the East, from eastern Texas north into eastern Nebraska and southern Minnesota, and east to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. In Arkansas, it occurs statewide. The genus name originates from Greek words for “arrow-shaped,” a description of the leaf-shape of many Persicaria species. The specific epithet refers to the species’ original discovery in Virginia. Another common name is painter’s palette, based on a splash of color across some of the larger leaves. The name “jumpseed” describes the kinetic dispersal of the seeds. Preferred habitats are areas of rich, relatively moist, woodland soils in shade to partial shade.

Photo 1: Jumpseed has large lower leaves that may have a splash of darker color at mid-leaf. Other plants shown: lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), spotted jewel weed (Impatiens capensis), and aniseroot (Osmorhiza longistylis).

Jumpseed is an herbaceous perennial with shallow reddish, branching rhizomes and long fibrous roots. Current year’s stems grow from tips of dominant rhizomes, and new rhizomes extend from near the same tips. Older portions of the rhizomes remain viable.

Plants may be 3 to 5 feet long, but plant height is shorter due to the somewhat reclining stems. The sturdy terete stems are divided by several prominent, hairy, widely spaced, leaf-bearing nodes. Main stems of mature plants are mostly glabrous below and pubescent in the inflorescence with short ascending hairs. Stems are a light green early in the growing season, but become darker green with reddish shading. In open conditions, plants can bear axillary branches up to 2 ft long from the upper nodes.

Photo 2: Two stems from the same rhizome display widely spaced main-stem nodes and axillary branching. Photo – September 6.

Nodes along the main stem, especially earlier in the growing season, bear tubular sheaths to ¾ inch long that are heavily covered with glassy hairs. Such sheaths, termed ocreae (singular ocrea), are modified stipules attached like a collar at the petiole base and characteristic of several genera in the buckwheat family. Jumpseed ocreae are truncate at the apex. Early in the growing season, they are the same color as the stems, but become dry and brown by the time of flowering. 

Jumpseed has simple, alternate leaves. Lowermost stem leaves (no basal leaves), to 7½ inches long and 4 inches wide, are ovate-elliptical, becoming smaller and more elliptical along the upper portion of the main stem and lower portion of some axillary stems. Larger leaves tend to have ascending auricles (ear-shaped projections) where the blade joins the pedicel. Leaf color is medium green above and a silvery lighter green beneath; larger leaves often have a dark chevron-shaped overlay at midleaf, oriented toward the leaf apex. Leaf margins are entire. Venation is pinnate, with secondary veins that arch toward the leaf apex. Petiole length is about 1 inch long, becoming shorter above. Petiole bases clasp the stem. Short, hooked, hispid pubescence covers upper and lower leaf surfaces, with the upper surface bearing longer hairs and feeling rougher than the lower. Short, hispid pubescence may also be scattered along the petioles and upper stems.

Photo 3: Hairy truncated sheaths or ocreae extend from nodes. At right, several sheaths are in contact before becoming separated as the stem elongates. Note clasping petioles. Photo – April 20.

Photo 4: The lower ovate-elliptical leaves often have a dark chevron-shaped overlay. Venation is pinnate. Midveins of upper (left) and lower (right) leaf surfaces are expressed. Leaf on left has auricles. Photo – April 20.

Racemes, from 3 inches to 2 feet long, bear well spaced, easily discernable clusters of one to three flowers. Nodes, sheaths and rachis of racemes are clothed with scattered, straight, stiff, ascending hairs. Lengths of terminal and axillary racemes may equal or exceed length of the main stem.

Photo 5: Upper portion of main stems is arching, while axillary branches and their inflorescences tend to spread downward. These upper leaves are elliptical. Along racemes, spacing of sheaths is regular. Photo – August 21.

In mid-summer, tiny, dangling flowers, about 1/8 inch long, bloom from the base of the racemes upward. Short pedicels are hidden within the sheaths. At fruiting, they are seen to be about half as long as the flower.

Flowers have four greenish white to white (occasionally pinkish), acute, flaring sepals (petals are absent), four or five stamens, and a pistil with a deeply divided style. Stamens have slender, white filaments topped with ball-like white anthers. They project slightly above the perianth, while the styles extend slightly past the stamens.

Photo 6: Flowers have five stamens and one divided style. At bloom stage, pedicels are hidden within protective sheaths. Sepals and styles persist as seeds mature.

With fertilization, pedicels reach their maximum length, about 1/4 inch, and sepals close around the developing fruits. Mature, spindle-shaped, pointy, 1-seeded fruits (achenes) are bent downward on reflexed pedicels. When touched, for example, by a passing animal, tension stored in the pedicels causes achenes to be forcefully thrown (“jumpseed”) to several feet. Seeds can also be dispersed when the hooked styles latch onto a passing animal.

Photo 7: Ovoid 1-seeded achenes, covered by dried sepals, are ¼ inch long from base to tip of styles. Tension in the pedicels, now exposed, causes achenes to jump from the raceme when touched. Lower side of a leaf is shown in background. Photo – October 18.

Jumpseed may be appropriate as an accent plant in a partially shady, low-wind garden with rich mesic soil. Its rhizomes seem to extend slowly. For a larger natural area, it may be effective as a groundcover (new plants can be established from root division, and plants self-seed readily). Plants provide coarse texture and their oddly proportioned leaves and inflorescences add interest. They are not bothered by deer or rabbits.

In addition to Persicaria virginiana, 13 other species of the genus occur in Arkansas, of which three are not native. All 14 species have sheathed (ocrea-bearing) stems and small flowers in racemes. Persicaria virginiana can be distinguished by its woodland habitat; large, more ovate leaves; exceptionally long and slender spike-like racemes; well-separated flower clusters; and exserted styles.

Article and photographs by ANPS member Sid Vogelpohl

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