Among the most conspicuous wildflowers of early May, my favorite is a native wetland plant, the yellow so-called “Marsh Marigold.” It’s also called “American cowslip” and is always found blooming early in marshes, roadside ditches, fens and wet woodlands and at watery edges of damp pastures.
Marsh marigold is a hardy, native perennial. It’s considered to be one of the ancestral plants of the northern latitudes. It’s thought to have thrived in torrents of post-glacial melt-water following the last “glaciation” in the northern hemisphere.
Technically, marsh marigold isn't your garden-variety marigold. It is a buttercup relative. The common name "marigold" is an adaptation of "Mary gold" which refers to its role in Medieval church services at Easter as a tribute to the Virgin Mary. Flowers were historically picked on the eve of May Day ceremonies and were believed to protect households against evil.
As with other members of the buttercup family, the plant is mildly poisonous and dangerous to eat. Contact with sap causes skin rash and a burning sensation. Yet conspicuous bright yellow flowers contain nectar and pollen which attracts early bees and flies as pollinators.
Its most compelling attribute is the conspicuous emerald-green, heart-shaped foliage and bold yellow flowers. Look for it now in bloom surrounded by running water
against the pale backdrop of winter-dry wetland grasses and sedges beneath the shade of emerging tree leaves. This "spring ephemeral" wild flower blooms early and quickly fades amid the myriad shades of green to come.