Toothwort is a nonwoody, perennial, single-stemmed plant. The flowers are several, occurring toward the top of the stem, borne above the leaves. The petals are white, sometimes pale lavender, and fairly large. Plants in the mustard family (like this one) characteristically have 4 petals in a cross-shaped arrangement. Blooms March–May. The leaves occur in a whorl, midway on the plant stem, divided into 3 deeply incised, narrow sections that are pointed and coarsely toothed, giving a 5-lobed appearance. The root is a small tuber with toothlike projections.
Similar species: There are 7 other species in the genus Cardamine recorded for Missouri, all called “toothwort,” “cress,” or “bitter cress”; their flowers are white, pink, or purple. The toothwort described on this page is distinguished from the others by its leaf shape.
Height: to 16 inches.
Statewide, except for the southeast lowlands.
Habitat and Conservation
Occurs in rich wooded slopes, ravines, and valleys, never in large groups but quite common through woods in early spring.
This is one of the many native early spring wildflowers that declines when invasive garlic mustard takes over an area. The nonnative garlic mustard forms big patches, grows taller, and leafs out earlier than toothwort, shading it out and outcompeting it.
Native Missouri wildflower.
The rhizomes of this plant are spicy and edible and can be eaten raw in salads or dried, ground, mixed with vinegar, and used like horseradish. Most people, however, enjoy toothwort as one of our early spring wildflowers.
This plant can be grown in woodland gardens, wildflower gardens, or in naturalized areas. If you wish to include toothwort in your garden, make sure you get your plants from an ethical nursery.
The deeply palmately lobed, toothed leaves sometimes draw attention when people see them and wonder if they are tiny cannabis plants. For the record, they are unrelated; they are in different families. Toothwort is more closely related to broccoli, cabbage, and radishes.
A wide variety of bees and other insects visit the flowers for nectar, pollen, or both. Early spring wildflowers are important food sources for insects as they leave winter dormancy.
Many animals gratefully nibble these tender green plants in springtime.
Toothwort and other woodland flowers require a forest habitat to survive, so they depend on the oaks, hickories, maples, and other trees around them. The presence of toothwort in an area can be an indicator that the soil has not been disturbed by such activities as construction or plowing.