Posts Tagged ‘native plants’

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Purple Loosestrife and the Adirondacks

I was recently on a road trip to and from the beautiful state of Maine. The trip took me across Lake Champlain, through the agricultural and ski lands of Vermont, zipping down the forest-lined highways of New Hampshire, and then into Maine itself, where I briefly visited the coast before heading upstate to Augusta. As beautiful as each of these states is, there was one thing they all had in common: purple loosestrife.

I know, you are thinking “we’ve got purple loosestrife here in New York, too – even in the Adirondacks,” and you would be correct in this thought. But let me tell you – the Adirondacks have nothing compared to these other states, where this elegant purple flower is thick as thieves in every body of water I passed – be it fresh or salt. I was bowled over by how far its reach had stretched, and how established it had become. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Bladderworts: Pretty, But Deadly Adirondack Natives

What child hasn’t read about carnivorous plants? Usually by the time we are in 4th or 5th grade, someone we know has discovered the Venus Fly Trap, that classic carnivore of the floral world. But one needn’t travel to the tropics, or even The South, to discover the joy of plant carnivory. Right here in the Adirondacks we have pitcher plants and sundews, two carnivores that are popular in their own right. But we also have bladderworts, smaller and less unusual (at least on the surface – they look like snapdragons), but no less deadly. These are plants worthy of our attention.

New York is home to fourteen species of bladderworts, four of which are threatened and one that is endangered. Some species float in the water, while others are “rooted” in the soil at the water’s edge (bladderworts don’t technically have roots). Most sport bright yellow flowers that rival birdsfoot trefoil for brilliance, but two come in shades of pale purple, making them a delightful find.

Bladderwort – the name is bound to make one chuckle. It sounds funny and brings some funny images to mind. “Wort” comes from the Anglo-Saxon language, and it simply means “plant.” The “bladder” part of the name does not refer to an excretory system, however. If one pulls up a bladderwort, one will see all sorts of little pouches, or bladders, clinging to the plant. These bladders are the dangerous part of the plant.

Bladderworts come in two basic varieties up here: free-floating aquatics and terrestrial. Despite the name, terrestrial species (which make up about 80% of the world’s bladderwort species) are actually not growing high and dry – they are found in saturated, water-logged soils. This is because bladderworts must have water in order to get their food.

In a nutshell, here’s how it works. The bladders, which look kind of like little helmets, are more or less flat when they are set. When they are set, they are in a state of negative osmotic pressure. Across the opening to the outside world, each bladder has what is essentially a lid. Attached to the lid are the trigger hairs. When a small creature brushes by the trigger, a lever-like action takes place. Where the hair attaches to the bladder, it levers an opening in the seal around the lid. Once this seal is broken, the vacuum is released, the lid flies open, and the surrounding water (and its contents) are sucked into the bladder. When the bladder is full, the lid closes and calmness is restored…at least in the water. All of this happens in the tiniest fraction of a second.

Meanwhile, within the bladder, dire things are happening. Digestive enzymes and bacteria get to work on the prey. Prey items vary in size and species depending on the species of bladderwort involved. The free-floating bladderworts have larger bladders and can take on larger prey, sometimes capturing fish fry, mosquito larvae and even small tadpoles. More likely, however, they are eating things like water fleas and nematodes. The terrestrial species, with their smaller bladders, are consuming things like protozoans and rotifers, microscopic creatures swimming through the watery soil.

The rate of digestion depends on the size of the prey. Some food can be digested quickly, in a matter of minutes, while other items take hours, or even days, to be consumed. When the food had been completely reduced to soup, special cells extract the slurry, transporting it into the stem of the plant, once more creating a vacuum in the bladder. The trap is now reset and ready for its next victim.

While reading up on the digestive habits of these plants, I found myself grateful that they are so small. Can you imagine a bladderwort large enough to engulf a human? No body of water would be safe for swimmers! This could be the stuff of horror movies (giant bladderworts grow near nuclear reactors…swimmers and watercraft are warned to stay out of the water…)!

Science fiction aside, these are some pretty interesting, and highly sophisticated, plants. Bladderworts can be found in many of the Adirondack’s lakes, ponds, bogs, and even along streams and rivers. While they tend to prefer acidic water, some do very well in more alkaline conditions. If you are paddling along and see what look like bright yellow snapdragons sticking above the water’s surface, you have probably found a free-floating species. Reach in and lift out the leafy mass to see the bladders, but be sure to return it to its watery home when you are done.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cattails: A Wetland Favorite’s Useful History

The other evening I was walking along the shoreline of a local wetland, enjoying the songs of the thrushes, the ripples made on the water by insects and small fish, and the rustle of the tall, emergent vegetation in the light breeze. The edges were muddy – sometimes completely barren and squishy, while in other places thick with plants. Life was everywhere.

When we think of wetlands, the plant that most likely comes to mind is the cattail, with its green, sword-like leaves and brown corndog-like flowerheads. It is a plant that is known around much of the world. In some places, like parts of Africa, it is considered a menace, choking waterways and aiding and abetting the spread of malaria. Historically, though, especially in North America, this plant has helped pull humanity through harsh winters where cold and starvation could’ve had the final say.

Cattails are in the grass family, as are many of the plants we now depend upon for food (corn, wheat, rye, millet). Like its modern-day counterparts, the cattail is a highly edible plant. Practically the entire plant is edible at various times of the year. In late spring when the base of the leaves are young and tender, they can be eaten raw or cooked. As summer approaches, the stem, before the flowerheads develop, can be peeled and eaten like asparagus. Soon the male flower is growing, and before it ripens, it can be cooked and eaten like corn on the cob. Once it’s ripe and producing pollen, the pollen can be harvested and added to baked goods as an extender for flour and a thickener for sauces. From late fall until spring, the rhizomes, those horizontal stems that grow underground, can be dug up and eaten like potatoes.

Historical utility didn’t end with food. Throughout the Northeast, native peoples collected cattail leaves to sew into siding for their homes. Wigwams were the housing of choice in the Northeast. These structures were constructed first from poles stuck into the ground and bent into a dome-like shape. More saplings were tied horizontally to the sides, creating a sturdy framework. The outside of this framework was then covered with some sort of mat, or shingles made from bark, depending on what was available. Where wetlands dominated, cattail leaves were sewn into mats that were tied to the wigwam. Early Europeans commented on how weather-proof these homes were – warmer and drier than the structures made by the more “civilized” settlers.

A variety of medicines were made from cattails. The roots were used to treat kidney stones, wounds, whooping cough and sprains. The downy seed fluff was applied to bleeding wounds and burns.

But wait – there’s more! Leaves were bundled together and sculpted into the shape of ducks to be used as decoys. Not only were these decoys used to attract real waterfowl, but also to lure in other animals that considered waterfowl food, like wild canines. Cattail leaves were also made into dolls and other toys, woven into bags, baskets, mats and hats. The dried flowerheads could be dipped in grease or wax and lit to provide a slow-burning light that smoked extensively, effectively keeping insects at bay. The seed fluff was used as tinder, stuffed into bedding and pillows, and during WWII was stuffed into life vests and seats cushions for tanks and airplanes.

The usefulness of this plant is not limited to historic records and a few modern foragers, though. Several scientists are studying the economic viability of converting cattails into ethanol. Currently, about 95% of our country’s ethanol is made from corn, which is an energy intensive crop (it needs a lot of water, and a lot of petroleum is also consumed in its production). Corn yields about 200 gallons of ethanol per acre. Sugar cane is also converted into ethanol, at about 640 gallons per acre.

Cattails, on the other hand, need very little encouragement to grow. In fact, many of the ethanol studies are growing them in sewage lagoons that are the by-products of hog farms. Not only do the cattails clean and purify the water in which they are grown, but when they are converted into ethanol, they can produce up to 1000 gallons per acre. There seems to be a fair amount of promise in this.

Two species of cattails are found in New York (and the Adirondacks): common cattail (Typha latifolia) and narrow-leaved cattail (T. angustifolia). The Revised Checklist of New York State Plants also lists “Cattail”, a hybrid of these two species.

Common, or broad-leaved, cattail is, well, pretty common. Odds are if you see a cattail, this is it. Its brown flowerhead is about an inch thick, and the leaves are also about an inch wide. Narrow-leaved cattail is also fairly common, but more so along coastal areas. Its flowerheads are narrower – about as thick as a finger (about half an inch wide), as are the leaves. From a distance you can usually tell if you are looking at a narrow-leaved cattail if the upper male flower spike is separated from the lower female flower spike by a space (see photo). On common cattails, the male flower spike sits right on top of the female spike.

This highly useful plant is one that everyone should get to know. Once you learn some of the nifty history of this plant, you will want to then study the critters that find it useful. Birds, mammals and insects all have a stake in this plant. It is worthy of our attention. Once the weather cools off a bit, find yourself a patch of wetland and spend some time with the cattails. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Remembering Ketch: Educator and Conservationist

Dr. Edwin H. Ketchledge died peacefully yesterday. He was 85.

“Ketch,” to all who knew him, was a botanist, teacher and founder of the Summit Steward program, a 20-year collaborative effort to educate hikers and protect vulnerable alpine plants that cling to the Adirondacks’ highest summits.

He was veteran of the 10th Mountain Division’s Italy campaign. Surviving that experience inspired Ketch to live a meaningful life. He dedicated himself to Adirondack conservation, botany and teaching.

Dr. Ketchledge was a distinguished teaching professor of environmental and forest biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

He authored one of the essential Adirondack field guides, Forests & Trees of the Adirondack High Peaks Region, first published by Adirondack Mountain Club in 1967. He understood the Adirondack landscape in both paleo and poetic terms.

“The forests we see around us now are unique; they have no analogs in the past. Interglacial conditions have been here for only 40 tree generations of time,” he wrote. “The outwardly stable forests we see in our human lifetime are more correctly understood as dynamic populations of competing species, adjusting as necessary over centuries of time to variations in the proverbial balance of nature: that so-called ‘balance’ is more truthfully an episodic teeter-totter!”

He worked in the High Peaks for more than 40 years, surveying, mapping and restoring alpine meadows. His belief that people would take responsibility for protecting the meadows if they were informed about them has been validated by the success of the Summit Steward program, which teaches hikers on-site about the mountaintop ecosystem.

Arrangements are incomplete with the Garner Funeral Home in Potsdam. Gifts in his memory may be made to the Summit Steward program, in care of the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, and to SUNY-ESF.

Photograph of Ketch on Whiteface Mountain, courtesy of Kathy Regan


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Adirondack Wintergreens: A Plethora of Pyrolas

Now that summer is here, finding woodland wildflowers can be more of a challenge. Gone are the flashy, brightly blossomed sprites that flourished in the spring sunshine. The dark shade cast by the trees and shrubs hides the nourishing rays of our closest star. Still, if one takes the time to look, and knows where to cast one’s gaze, one can find a few shy flowers that prefer the dimmer light. I give you the pyrolas.

Pyrolas, commonly known as wintergreens, even though they are not THE wintergreen made famous in flavorings and linaments, are small inconspicuous plants that dot many of our forest floors. Overall they are unimpressive, their leaves no more than a green rosette that clings tightly to the ground. But from the center of this rosette rises a slender stalk, and from this stalk the flower(s) droop(s).

Most common in our mixed northern woods is shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica). Its flowers are a greenish white, and, like all pyrolas, hang downwards as though the plant were nodding off to sleep. If you tilt a blossom upward and take a close look (a hand lens comes in real handy about now, or a macro lens on your camera), you’ll see some of the other traits of this clan of flowers.

For example, sticking out from the center, extending well beyond the reach of the petals, is the style – part of the female productive system. The tip of the style supports the stigma, which is the part that receives the pollen. On pyrolas, the stigma is flared, or sometimes lobed, and it acts as a landing platform for the flower’s insect pollinators, most of which are flies.

Surrounding the style are the stamens, the male parts. At the tip of each stamen is the anther, which produces the pollen. Now, what’s really cool about the anthers is that they look like straws: hollow at the tip. Go ahead and grab a hand lens and take a good close look. The tips have holes! They remind me of some of the anemones one sees waving about on coral reefs. It is from these holes that the pollen is shed.

The pollen, which you will not likely see, is sticky. When the flies come in to sup at the flower, the pollen is shed upon and sticks to their furry bodies. The flies travel from flower to flower, and the pollen is transferred from their bodies to the sticky stigma. From here the pollen travels down the style to the ovary and voila! the plant is fertilized.

Pyrolas are fascinating in other ways as well. For example, they have a close relationship with the local fungi. The soil all around us is full of mycelia, the vegetative structures of many fungi. The pyrolas are what scientists call mycoheterotrophs, meaning they acquire nutrients by feeding off these mycelia. It’s a parasitic relationship. In and of itself, this isn’t all that unusual, for many forest plants have similar relationships with fungi. What makes the pyrolas stand out, however, is that they can also survive completely photosynthetically – they can make their own food. It seems that the parasitic relationship is optional for them. From what I’ve been able to determine in the literature, the exact nature of this plant’s relationship with (and without) the fungi is not well understood. There could be a good research project in this, just waiting for the right graduate student to unlock the secret.

Recently I’ve been fortunate enough to see several of our local pyrolas in bloom, including the pink, or bog, pyrola (P. asarifolia), which is a threatened species in New York State. With a little scouting around our forest floors, especially damp woodlands, you, too, can add shinleaf pyrola, one-flowered pyrola (P. secunda), one-sided pyrola (Moneses uniflora), green-flowered (P. virens)* and round-leaf pyrola (P. rotundifolia) to your life list. And if the flower gods are smiling on you, you can also add the pink pyrola, a real treat to any nature nut, even if flowers are not your passion.

* this is the one pictured above


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Adirondack Plants: Indian Cucumber Root

Now is the time to hit the woods if you want to find Indian cucumber root (Medeola virginiana), for not only are its two-tiered leaves quite visible, but it is now bursting into blossom, and these are flowers you simply have to see.

Indian cucumber root is a member of the lily family, which to many of us seems odd, since lily leaves look rather like green tongues sticking out of the ground. However, if you look closely, you will see that the veins on the leaves run parallel to each other on the cucumber root as well as the other lily family members. This is a trait to look for when you are out botanizing.

When the plant is young, or when it lacks the energy to reproduce, it produces only one whorl of leaves. At this point in time, it is easily mistaken for starflower, although the latter’s leaves vary in size from less than an inch to almost three inches, and the leaf veins are not parallel to each other (it is not a lily). When conditions are right, however, stand back and wait to be impressed.

In some areas where it grows, Indian cucumber root can reach heights upwards of two feet. About half way up, it sports a whorl of five to nine leaves, all the same length. From the center of this whorl, the stem continues its skyward journey, ending in a second set of about three smaller leaves. There is nothing else out there that looks like this.

From now until the end of the summer, when you find one of these plants, you should look beneath the upper set of leaves for the yellowish-green nodding flowers. Take a close look at these flowers, for they are quite intriguing. The pale petals fold back, like a Turk’s cap lily, and from the center emerge three long reddish styles (part of the female reproductive bits) and several purple stamens. The color combination is striking, and the styles almost give the flower a spidery appearance.

Once fertilized, the flowers slowly convert into fruits. During this conversion, the flowers lose their droop. The pedicles straighten so that the purple-blue berries stand erect above the top tier of leaves.

Many people are most interested in this plant’s edibility. Historically, the native peoples of eastern North America dug the rhizomes* for food as well as medicine. The small white rhizomes, which measure only one to three inches in length, are reputed to have a cool, crisp, cucumbery taste, and are good eaten raw or lightly cooked with other vegetables. Doug Elliot, who is famous for his wildcrafting, writes that he took first place at the Fryeburg Fair for his Indian cucumber root pickles.

Today, however, the plants are not terribly common, and in Florida and Illinois they are listed as endangered. Because most of us do not need to wildcraft for our food, it is best to simply file away the information about the edibility of this plant under the category of interesting plant lore rather than actually harvesting it for a meal. Also, we should keep in mind that plants growing on state land are all protected by state law, so it is not legal to harvest them.

Edibility aside, this is still a spiffy plant, and one that is very easy to identify in the moist woodlands of the Adirondack Park. A quick jaunt down any of the VIC’s trails will likely yield at least a half-dozen of these plants. Stop on by and take a gander at them.

* Rhizomes are essentially horizontal stems, which usually grow underground. Stolons are also underground stems, but they sprout off from the main stem. Tubers, which the edible part of Indian cucumber roots are often called, are the swollen tips of rhizomes or stolons and are used by the plant for storage (eg: potatoes).


Saturday, June 5, 2010

Water Avens: Understated Wildflower Elegance

It was about three years ago that I first stumbled upon water, or purple, avens (Geum rivale), a native perennial of some of our soggier soils. I was walking along the Sage Trail, just crossing the boardwalk that rises above a boggy area, when my eyes were caught by a rather unusual flower. It’s purplish, brownish, reddish, yellowish colors stood out while at the same time serving to conceal the flower in its sun- and shade-dappled home. I plunked myself right down on the boardwalk and took out my field guide; I had to know what it was.

Since then, I have encountered water avens on several occasions, and every time I stop and marvel, for this unassuming wildflower is yet another perfect example of one of Mother Nature’s hidden beauties. Not showy like pink ladies slippers, not fragrant like balsam poplar, not social like daisies, it hangs out in habitats that are seldom visited by casual travelers, where its subtle coloration keeps it fairly well hidden.

Water avens is in the rose family, and I’ve seen photographs of the flower that show a definite rose-like form, but when I look at it, I’m more readily reminded of columbines; perhaps that is because dark outer sepals protect the often yellow inner petals, a combination seen in our wild columbines. Not only that, but the flowers droop, their faces hang towards the ground, another columbine-like quality.

When it comes into bloom, this flower attracts several insect pollinators, primarily bumble bees, but also a few flies (like the syrphids) and beetles. However, on the off chance that no insects come around, the plant has a back-up plan. As each flower grows, its stigmas (the female part) ripen first, which prevents self-pollination. Maturation continues, though, and the stamens (the male parts) continue to elongate as they ripen. Eventually the stamens shed their pollen on any remaining stigmas that have not already been cross-pollinated thanks to the efforts nectar- and pollen-seeking insects.

Once fertilized, hooked seeds develop. This is another great survival strategy, for thanks to those hooks, the seeds can hitchhike on the fur of some passing animal to take up housekeeping in a new location, thus spreading the range of the plant beyond its own back yard.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am interested in the uses to which people have put plants over the years. Some plants have rich histories, full of all sorts of lore and superstition. Others have nothing more to recommend them than their names and locations. I was expecting water avens to fall into the latter category, but one of its common names made me suspect I was wrong: chocolate root.

It turns out that water avens has quite an extensive history of usage, both medicinal and culinary. Many native peoples used it to treat a variety of ailments associated with the stomach, digestion, and even the common cold. In truth, it has anti-inflammatory properties, is antiseptic, and can induce sweating, making it good for treating fevers. I even read that the dried root can be used as a moth repellent. Its most intriguing use, however, was as a substitute for hot chocolate. The rootstock was boiled and made into a chocolate-like beverage. I knew I liked this plant!

Water avens is in bloom from now until the summer ends, so you have a pretty good chance of finding one if you visit wetlands. There is a fair amount of variation in the color of the petals, however. Some are purple, others pink, and still others are yellow. Regardless of petal color, the sepals are dark purple, and the flower droops – both characteristics that are bound to catch your eye. A delightful flower, it is well worth the search to find.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Bunchberry: Fast Flowers in the Adirondack Park

One of the signature plants of the North Country is just starting to bloom: bunchberry, or dwarf dogwood (Cornus canadensis). This low-growing plant, which reaches towering heights of 2-8”, is actually considered a shrublet, and in many aspects it is identical to its more southerly relative the flowering dogwood.

Take a walk through almost any patch of Adirondack woods now and you are bound to see this striking plant. It’s four green leaves, with their gently curving veins, are smartly offset behind the four white bracts that are often mistaken as the plant’s petals. It’s only the diligent nature nut, who gets down on his hands and knees to look closely at the plant, who will see the actual flowers, for they are the tiny bits that form what the rest of the world thinks is the center of a white-petaled flower.

And it is these tiny flowers that have amazed and stunned the world of natural science. With the assistance of a good handlens, you can see the flowers up close. When closed, they look pretty unassuming, with four small greenish-white petals that come together at their tips. One of these petals has a awn, or a hair-lik projection, at its tip. So far, none of this is particularly impressive. What happens when that awn is touched, however, rocked the science world.

Bees, such as bumblebees and solitary bees, are some of this plant’s primary pollinators. As they fly from plant to plant, they brush against these hair triggers. With a speed that is unmatched by any other living thing, the petals burst open. At the same time, the stamen (part of the male reproductive structure) is driven forward by water pressure built up in its cells. Along the stamen are hinged structures containing the pollen. With a force that would pulverize any space ship at the launch pad, the pollen is flung upwards away from the plant and driven deep into the fuzzy hairs covering the unsuspecting bees. Completely unaware of what has happened, the bees fly off to the next plant and get peppered with more pollen while at the same time shedding some pollen from previous explosions.

The end result of all this pollen flinging is, hopefully, the production of small, bright red berries, which are terribly popular with a wide variety of wildlife. Spruce grouse, moose and veeries are among the many animals that frequently dine upon the lightly apple-flavored fruits. Even people can eat them, and apparently bunchberry jelly is a treat for those who go through the efforts to make it. In the 19th century bunchberries were popularly used to thicken plum puddings.

A denizen of cool, acidic soils, bunchberry cannot tolerate having its roots in dirt that exceeds 65 degrees Fahrenheit. On the other hand, it can survive all but the most severe of forest fires. In other words, this is an ideal plant for our boreal forests.

If you miss seeing it bloom this week, fret not, for bunchberry continually reblooms throughout the growing season. Any time from now until the snow flies, if you find yourself walking past a cluster of dwarf dogwoods, hunker on down and give one of the plants a gentle poke. If you are lucky, you might witness a puff of pollen as the plant tries to enlist your finger in its quest to pass its genes into the future.


Saturday, May 29, 2010

Overlooked Adirondack Grasses, Sedges and Rushes

Birders love their birds, and botanists love their flowers; rock-hounds love their rocks and minerals, and entomologists love their insects. But who loves the grasses, sedges and rushes? Even though some members of this group of plants have become global celebrities (wheat, corn, rye), most are overlooked by the majority of people, or at least they are in this country, where the knowledge of local plant life is no longer vital to our daily survival.

Those who took a basic botany course in college probably learned some version of the rhyme “Sedges have edges and Rushes are round; Grasses have joints where elbows are found,” an amusing bit of poetry designed to help students learn which of these plants were which. As with all such things, there is an element of truth in it, but every rule has its exceptions.

Learning to tell grasses from sedges from rushes can be a challenge and one that not too many are willing to tackle. We like grass in our lawns and not in our gardens (unless it is ornamental), but there our knowledge ends. In an effort to try and stimulate a little interest in these seemingly “boring” plants, let me share some quick descriptors from Grasses, an Identification Guide, by Lauren Brown.

We’ll start with grasses. Grasses have (usually) round stems that are (mostly) hollow, and long narrow leaves with parallel veins. When you get to the part of the stem where the leaf is attached, the stem is solid and a little node or joint is formed. The base of the leaf (called the sheath) wraps around the stem at this joint. On grasses the sheath is split open along part of its length. When a grass blooms, its flowers grow in two rows along the stalk. The base of the flowering portion of the plant has two empty scales (no flowers inside).

Sedges can look a lot like grasses to the untrained eye. Keep in mind, though, that they have solid stems, and their stems are often, but not always, triangular (hence, they have “edges”). The leaves, which are also long, narrow and have parallel veins, wrap around the stem, too, but their sheaths are entirely closed. The flowers grow in a spiral around the stalk, and there are no empty scales at the base of the flowering section. You will tend to find sedges in cooler and wetter areas than grasses.

This brings us to rushes. Rushes are round (but then, so are most grass stems). Their leaves are also similar to those of the grasses and sedges: long, narrow, and with parallel veins. Their stems can be solid or hollow. Unlike the grasses, however, they don’t have nodes/joints. And unlike the grasses and sedges, their flowers are terribly tiny and occur in a circle at the very tip of the stem. Described as lily-like, the flowers have three petals and three sepals. Like the sedges, rushes prefer cool, damp habitats.

Recently a friend and I were out exploring the Ice Meadows of the Hudson River, just outside Warrensburg. This is a special habitat that runs for about 16 miles along the course of the river, where the heavy snows and ice of winter collect to depths often in excess of ten feet. Spring thaws send these small glaciers grinding along the river, scouring the cobble-strewn shore and rocky upthrusts of all but the most tenacious of plants. Anything tall and resembling a shrub stands very little chance of surviving the seasonal onslaught. The end result is one of New York’s few native grasslands. But don’t expect to find something that looks like the prairies of the Midwest. These grasslands would probably be better named “rocklands,” but the term Ice Meadows suits.

Our goal this particular morning was to find and photograph dwarf sand cherry (Prunus pumila var. depressa), a lovely sprawling plant that is on the state’s protected species list. We found it blooming in all its glory and immortalized it in pixels. The highlight of the walk for me, however, was a sedge.

Like most folks, I haven’t taken the time to try and learn many grasses, sedges or rushes. Oh, I have a of couple books, and on more than one occasion I have declared I’m going to learn them, but soon they seem overwhelming in their similarity and difficulty to ID. In truth, however, there are plenty of differences if we just take the time to learn them.

This particular plant caught my eye because of its lovely colors (see photo above). I had never seen such a grass (which I incorrectly thought it was) before. The black and green striped scales were stunningly beautiful. I was seized by its splendor like a teenager dazzled by a movie star.

My botany buddy told me that it was Buxbaum’s sedge (Carex buxbaumii), a threatened species in New York State. This was another target species for our trip here, although admittedly it was secondary to the dwarf sand cherries. Most of them weren’t blooming yet, but that was fine by me, for it was the bicolored pistallate scales that had me enthralled.

It turns out that Buxbaum’s sedge, also called brown bog sedge, is a circumpolar species that has a global status of G5 (secure), while in NY its abundance is listed as S2 (imperiled). It was named after Johann Christian Buxbaum, a German botanist who lived from 1693 until 1730. I’m not sure if he “discovered” this plant or not – sources have not been forthcoming on this point. As for the label “brown bog sedge”, well, it likes wet, boggy areas, and the stripes on its scales are actually brown, not black.

The delightful discovery of this unassuming plant has renewed my interest in learning my grasses, sedges and rushes. A daunting task, perhaps, but not impossible. With the added incentive of hanging out with other amateur botanists whose knowledge of plants is nothing short of impressive, I feel pretty confident that this summer I will master at least a few of these treasures that are hidden in plain sight.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Pin Cherry: An Overlooked Adirondack Native

A little bit of sunshine, a little bit of rain, and suddenly the trees are in bloom. It starts off slowly, with our friend the shadbush, but before you know it, white blossoms are springing forth from trees and shrubs all around us. In just a short amount of time, the novelty of delicate white flowers can become mundane, as one flowering shrub starts to look like the next. Add to this some similarity in names, and it is not surprising that many of our native shrubs are unknown or misidentified. In an attempt to shed some light on this confusing subject, today I give you the pin cherry (Prunus pennsylvanica).

The pin cherry is a small tree, or a large shrub, I suppose, depending on how you look at it. Further south, in the Great Smokey Mountains, it can reach heights of 30 to 40 feet and a diameter of 20 inches. Around here, however, I’ve only seen it as a fairly small tree – a giant if it reaches ten feet. This could be because the deer browse it heavily in winter, preventing it from gaining much height. What it lacks in stature, however, it seems to make up for with stems – instead of a single trunk rising serenely above the surrounding vegetation, it grows into rather dense copses, sometimes mixed in with its relatives the choke cherries (P. virginiana), black cherries (P. serotina), and the look-alike choke berries (Aronia sp.). And when they all come into flower, they can be difficult for the novice to tell apart, especially at a distance.

Pin cherry, also called fire cherry, bird cherry, wild cherry and red cherry, has long, narrow, dark green leaves that are very finely toothed along the edge. The delicate white flowers grow in clusters from single points along the branches, much like the needles on a white pine or larch. Each flower blossoms at the end of a long stem. When the flowers become fruits, they resemble large-headed pins, like the hat pins used by women long years ago. Today we might liken them to corsage pins.

The other common names are equally easy to interpret. The birds (and other wildlife) happily feed on the wild red fruits in fall. When a disturbance, like fire, moves through the forest, this pioneer species is one of the first to produce seedlings in the newly opened spaces. This is because the seeds can remain viable in the soil upwards of a hundred years! Just add sunshine and voila!

Insects also delight in this unassuming shrub. Spring brings bees and flies galore to sup at the flowers, making the whole plant buzz with life. Come summer, look for white trails on the leaves – these are the mines made by the larvae of a small moth known only by its scientific name: Bucculatrix copeuta. This moth is a true specialist, for its larvae feed on nothing but pin cherry leaves.

While a boon to wildlife wherever it grows, and a delight to the eye in the spring with its froth of flowers and in the fall with its glowing-coal-red leaves, to the logger pin cherry is naught but a weedy thing, a tree with no timber value. Reading through Donald Peattie’s A Natural History of Trees one can tell that this is a species for which the author has little regard, which is surprising considering the elegant prose and great praise he provides across most of the pages of this book.

Still, the fruits are edible by people as well as wildlife. I found a couple recipes online for pin cherry jelly and pudding. The important thing to remember is that the seeds/pits (as well as the leaves and bark) do contain hydrocyanic acid, which is toxic, so be sure you only eat the flesh of the fruit.

Last spring I planted a row of native shrubs/trees along the border of my property. Two of these plants were pin cherries. While each of the thirteen new shrubs was barely more than a stick with roots when placed in its new home, the pin cherries burst forth with blossoms this year. What a pleasant surprise when one isn’t expecting anything more productive than leaves for the next two or three years. I’m sure the birds will also appreciate the earlier-than-expected fruits when fall returns in a few months’ time.


Saturday, May 1, 2010

American Fly Honeysuckle: A Sweet Adirondack Native

In today’s world, the word “honeysuckle” is bound to get mixed reactions. To some people, it brings back memories of childhood, when they would gather the flowers and suck out the sweet nectar. To others, it conjures up olfactory reminiscences of the air filled with a sweet, sweet scent. In these days of invasive species of awareness, a good number of us think of honeysuckle as an evil, aggressive invader, taking over yards, fields, wetlands and forests. And all of these opinions would be correct, for there are about 180 species of honeysuckle in the genus Lonicera worldwide (all within the northern hemisphere), and each has its rightful place on the planet and in our memories.

Here in the Adirondacks, we are lucky to have several species of native honeysuckle: American fly (Lonicera canadensis), wild/glaucous/smooth-leaved/limber/mountain (L. dioica), hairy (L. hirsuta), swamp fly (L. oblongifolia), trumpet/coral (L. sempervirens), and waterberry/mountain fly/northern fly (L. villosa). None are considered rare or of special concern, and yet how many of us have, knowingly, encountered them?

Personally, I can only claim having come face-to-face with one of these shrubs, and that is the American fly honeysuckle. Usually blooming in the central Adirondacks in May, this year it began putting forth its twin, pale trumpets in mid-April. These delicate yellow flowers, sometimes tending towards a greenish-yellow, dangle almost completely hidden beneath the plant’s leaves. As you can see in the photo, I lifted the leaves for a better view. Later in the summer, these flowers are replaced with bright red fruits, paired, looking kind of like miniature glossy red mustaches.

Like all good honeysuckles in the family Caprifoliaceae, the American fly sports opposite branching. The leaves, growing in pairs on opposites sides of the branch, are oval-shaped, and if you look very closely at the edge of a leaf (you need a good handlens), you will see a fringe of hairs. Do these help protect the plant in times of cold weather? I have my doubts, since they are not terribly thick and woolly, and they only occur on the margin of the leaf. Still, they must have some significance, even if the world of science hasn’t discovered it yet.

Last night I looked through all my plant books (and that’s a good number, with volumes dating from the late 1800s right up to modern times) for some nifty information about American fly honeysuckle, but found nothing. Eventually I decided I’d settle for any lore about any of the honeysuckles. The world of botanical literature has let me down. The most interesting thing I could find was that the genus (Lonicera) is named after a 16th-century German botanist: Adam Lonicer (1528-1586). Reading up further on this fellow, I found that he was rather quite accomplished. He received his Master’s degree by the time he was sixteen-years-old. He went on to become a medical doctor, a mathematics professor, and quite the herbalist. Apparently his passion was in plants. His is most noted for his revision of Eucharius Rosslin’s herbal (book) in 1557. He called his herbal the Kräuterbuch.

Many of the Eastern Woodland natives knew that honeysuckles had some medicinal properties, too, for Native American Ethnobotany lists several of our native species, American fly among them. While treatment for various venereal diseases was a biggie in the lists, it seems that an infusion of the bark was equally important for calming children who spent the night crying – it is a sedative.

American fly honeysuckle is listed as an important nectaring plant for hummingbirds. Hm. Looking at the state of the flowers in the woods here, I’m thinking those hummers had better show up pretty soon if they want to take advantage of this food source, for many of the blossoms are looking rather past their prime. This could be a side effect of the recent snow, however, for I also saw a number of flower buds. Even so, hummingbirds usually don’t arrive in Newcomb until almost the second week of May. It seems we have another example of seasonal shifts and their effect(s) on wildlife.

If you should decide that you want to plant honeysuckle around your property, please take advantage of our native species. Some can be quite lovely, with flowers of yellow, orange and even red. Believe it or not, the red trumpet, or coral, honeysuckle, which is a vine, is native. So go ahead and put this in your gardens – the hummingbirds will love you for it. And forget the Japanese and tartarian honeysuckles. While beautiful, sweet, and full of bees when their blossoms open, they are “vigorous growers,” a gardening euphemism for aggressive invaders. Instead, support your local wildlife by supporting your local native plants.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: Bee Watching

Anyone who has read my nature blog lately has probably noticed my current preoccupation with bees. This is likely due to several things, such as the fact that the most visible and approachable wildlife around my yard right now is the bees busily visiting my giant pussy willow shrub, which is blooming with great profusion thanks to the recent heatwave. A variety of insects are obsessed with this shrub, for it is one of the earliest flowering plants up here, and these newly awakened insects are in need of sustenance. QED. But my interest is in the bees, mostly, because native bees are generally given short shrift by people. If it isn’t a honey bee, then it’s not worth knowing. In some circles, this is considered “job security” for people the likes of me because it provides grease for the educational wheel. So, with this in mind, let’s take a look today at some of our native bees.

We will start with basics. Honey bees are not native. Honey bees were brought to this country over three hundred years ago as indentured servants: they made honey and we wanted it. Additionally, colonies of honey bees were established in (and later moved among) orchards and other crops, where their penchant for pollinating was exploited by the agriculture industry. This is all very well and good, but we also need to recognize that North America is home to several hundred species of native bees, most of which are solitary rather than colonial, and most of which are important pollinators in their own right, even if they are overlooked by the bulk of humanity.

The majority of native bees in New York State are solitary ground-nesters. In fact, these fuzzy little bundles of energy make up about 60% of all NY bees. That’s an impressive amount. I first became aware of these little bees just about a year ago when I stumbled upon a group nesting site in the dusty, sandy margin of the road while I was picking up trash. It was fascinating to watch as the bees flew in and out of their pencil-sized holes in the ground. Curious, I had to know more.

My investigations into the identity of those ground bees suggest two possibilities: mining bees (Adrena) or digger bees (Anthophora). The individual in the photo above (a visitor to my willow) has been identified as Adrena frigida. Nationally, there are something like 1200 species of Adrena; New York is home to 112 of these, which account for about 23% of all NY bee species.

Adrena are non-aggressive little bees, measuring a little over a centimeter in length, and are one of the first bees to emerge in the spring, foraging for pollen among early flowering plants like willows. As soon as there is pollen to be had, these bees head for the blooming larders, the females collecting pollen on the fuzzy hairs that cover their bodies. Later, they’ll remove the pollen and store this protein-rich food in the brood cells they build, one at a time, underground. Here they lay their eggs, one per cell, each cell stocked with enough food to see the larva through to adulthood. Unless…

Another early springtime bee I’ve seen around my shrub is a cleptoparasite from the genus Nomada. These little bees are hairless, making them look more like wasps than bees. While they may be gathering some pollen and nectar for food, they are not collecting it for their offspring. Nope, these little bees seek out the burrows of our friend Adrena and lay their eggs in Adrena’s nests, kind of like a cowbird laying her eggs in a robin’s nest. When the Nomada larvae hatch, they eat all the stored food, either starving the Adrena larvae or outright killing them. What emerges later in the season are not happy little Adrena bees, but new Nomada bees, and the cycle begins again.

It’s a bee eat bee world out there.

Although Adrena are solitary bees, they often nests in communal aggregations, like the one I saw last spring along the roadside. This is because good nesting ground is at a premium. Go outside and take a look around. How much bare ground do you see? Odds are that unless you live on a construction site it isn’t much. Most ground is covered with pavement, grassy lawns, fields or forest, depending on where you live. Therefore, when bare patches are found, these bees move in. Sandy slopes are likely to be peppered with many bee nests (upwards of 100 nests per square meter), each with a pencil-sized opening. If you sit and watch for a while, you’ll see the busy little females zipping in and out of the holes, bringing in pollen to fill the larder, laying eggs, or putting the final touches on a brood cell.

Why should the average New Yorker care about Adrena? Based on this article, you might think that all they do is pollinate willows. Well, willows only bloom in the spring; therefore, these bees visit other flowers as spring turns into summer and summer progresses towards fall. If you like apples, which are a major crop in New York State, then you must tip your hat to Adrena and our other native bees. Cherries are also popular with little Adrena and her solitary cousins.

Colony collapse had been in the news for a few years now – a mysterious disorder that had resulted in massive die-offs in honey bee populations. Scientists studying colony collapse are also interested on the effects it might have on populations of native bees. Native bees are also being looked at as possible replacements for honey bees in the agriculture pollination game. One of the big problems with using native bees is that they simply do not live in colonies composed of thousands of workers, like honey bees do. Bumble bees, our native social bee, may have a few hundred workers at most in a colony – not as conducive to industrial agriculture as the honey bee.

But native bees should not be discounted just because they are more individually oriented. In fact, many a home gardener should do everything possible to make his or her yard appealing to our native bees, many of whom are also facing a population decline. Native bees evolved with native vegetation. As people spread across the country, they brought non-native plants with them – from flowers to food crops. While native bees have adapted to many of these foreign foods, they still only thrive on the plants with which their species developed. So how can we help? By planting native plants and cutting down on non-native varieties.

So, head outside and take a seat in a nice sunny spot. Start watching for bees. See if you can make out more than one species. Are they patrolling the grass, maybe looking for a good nesting spot? Can you determine which plants are frequented by which bees? Are they visiting your flowers beds or your veg gardens? Perhaps they are enjoying a wee dram at your hummingbird feeder. Bee watching can be a lot of fun. Mark my word: bee watching will soon be the latest thing, right up there with butterfly and dragonfly watching.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

Stinking Benjamin:A Trillium That By Any Other Name Would Still Smell as Sweet

You know spring has truly arrived when the trilliums are in bloom. Around these parts, the trillium that first appears is usually Trillium erectum, known to the layman as purple or red trillium, wake-robin, or stinking Benjamin. This deep red flower, almost burgundy in color, graces our woodlands usually by the end of April and early May. This year I expect we may see its richly colored blooms earlier than usual.

One of the things I like best about studying plants is learning what our ancestors thought of them. Those plants that came over with the colonists, intentionally or not, have written histories going back sometimes to the days of the Roman Empire. Others we only find in records dating back to the Middle Ages. Reading through some of the accounts of Nicholas Culpepper or Pliny the Elder can be alternately enchanting and humorous. But when it comes to our native plants, like the red trillium, our histories can be Spartan.

Books that describe the uses plants were put to by the various native peoples often tend to be no more than lists (diuretic, emetic, febrifuge, treatment for coughs, treatments for skin ailments, dye, cordage, etc.) . In one sense it is informative, yet in another it is lacking in detail.

So, unless we have personal connections with native people who have retained their ancestral knowledge of medicinal, edible, and otherwise useful plants, we find ourselves having to rely on plant lore that may date back only a couple hundred years. Thank goodness for the Victorian era when the study of plants (among other things) was “in.” Interest in plants and their uses continued to be popular among the laypeople up through probably WWII, after which industry and a keen interest in all things mechanical took over in the mind of John Q. Public, where we most of us remain mired to this day.

But I digress. Back to our friend the trillium.

Sometimes with plant names, their origins are obvious. Red trillium is red in color. Or purplish, hence the alternate name purple trillium. But how in the world did it end up called Stinking Benjamin or Wake-Robin? Let’s look at the more obvious one first: Wake-Robin. This fanciful name is applied to many flowers of the genus Trillium, not just the red ones, and they were dubbed thus because the flowers traditionally bloomed about the same time that the first robins of spring were sighted.

Ah, but Stinking Benjamin – surely that is a name behind which a good tale lies. Sadly, no. It turns out that it, like so many words in our language today, is a corruption of something else, in this case the word benzoin, which itself was a corruption of the earlier word benjoin, an ingredient derived from plants from Sumatra and used in the manufacture of perfume. Our trillium, however, does not smell sweet or spicy, hence the tag “stinking.”

Go out this spring and find yourself a red trillium and take a sniff. You may discover it smells a bit like rotting meat. Mmmm. This aroma, however, serves a purpose, which goes hand-in-hand with the flower’s rather raw-fleshy coloration, and that purpose is to attract pollinators. In this flower’s case, though, the pollinators are green flesh-flies who are out in search of rotting meat on which to lay their eggs. Instead of finding the perfect nursery, however, they end up assisting the plant in its procreative efforts. And you thought plants were boring! These flies aren’t left without any reward though, as some insects are when they are deceived by other plants. No, as payment for their services, they are rewarded with a meal of pollen – the flowers produce no nectar (which is probably another reason why bees don’t visit them).

Here are a few other monikers that are listed for Trillium erectum that I find amusing or interesting: nosebleed (it was apparently used at one time to help staunch the flow from a damaged schnozz), trinity lilies (anything with three parts was attributed to the Christian idea of divinity, and they are part of the lily family), and true love (awwww). How about this one: birthroot – for the native people taught early settlers to use it to stimulate birth.

While today many of the medicinal uses to which this plant was put (treatment for gangrene and tumors, heart palpitations and hemorrhages) are debated among herbalists, we can still enjoy it for the way it lifts our spirits every spring. Here in Newcomb I’ve encountered both the red trillium and its cousin the painted trillium (T. undulatum). Further south in the Saratoga region I’ve heard tales of snow trillium (T. nivale – also called dwarf white trillium) and I’ve seen the giant large-flowered trillium (T. grandiflorum), which is also pure white.

Already in those more southern climes the trilliums have come into bloom, but plant enthusiasts can still get their fill of these delightful harbingers of spring here in the North Country, where they have yet to show their faces. But keep your eyes open, for I suspect they will open sooner than usual this year. And remember, they are on New York’s list of protected native plants. Look, sniff, photograph, but do not pick or remove. If you want trilliums for your garden, find a nursery that specializes in native plants – leave the wild ones in the wild for all to enjoy.


Saturday, April 3, 2010

Ruminations on Rock Tripe

One of the popular features along the Rich Lake Trail is our glacial erratic, an enormous boulder left behind by the glaciers over 10,000 years ago. Kids love it because it is huge and easily accessible. Adults love it because it is huge and impressive. Naturalists love it because it is covered with wonderful plant communities, each occupying a niche that meets its specialized needs.

For example, on the western face of the rock there are assorted mosses and liverworts. On the top of the rock, looking rather like a crewcut, is a healthy population of polypody ferns and even a small balsam fir seedling. But along the shady eastern face, ah, one encounters these crazy flat, flappy growths of significant size: rock tripe.

Rock tripe are a kind of lichen, and there are many species of rock tripe around the world. The species that graces our glacial erratic is Umbilicaria mammulata, the smooth rock tripe. Probably the most common rock tripe in the northeast, it can reach diameters upwards of 30 cm – this is a lichen of some significance.

Let’s start our investigation of smooth rock tripe with a look at the name. According to most sources, the English name “rock tripe” comes to us via France, where it is called tripe de roche, literally “rock guts.” I am not a speaker of the French language, but even I can deduce that roche is rock, which means tripe must translate as gut. Some further digging proved me right, for “tripe” is the word used to describe the tissue from the stomach of a ruminant animal (a cow, for example), which is used for food (mmmmm). I grew up with the phrase “tougher than tripe” peppering the family’s lexicon, so I can only imagine that eating real tripe is an exercise in developing the muscles of the jaw. This does not bode well for the edibility of this lichen.

Yet, it turns out that rock tripe is indeed edible. Of course, the palatability no doubt depends on the species in question. For example, in many Asian countries, rock tripe is considered a delicacy and is much sought by connoisseurs. On the other hand, the Inuit consider rock tripe to be a starvation food, eaten only as a last resort. The Cree, however, ate rock tripe as a regular part of the diet, often using it as a thickener for fish broth. Each of these peoples is eating a different species, which one should keep in mind if one is deciding to give rock tripe a try.

Reading through the history of the use of this lichen, I’ve come to the conclusion that the description of the Inuit’s rock tripe best fits smooth rock tripe – a starvation food that you’ve got to be pretty desperate to eat. George Washington’s men filled their bellies with it at Valley Forge in the winter of ’77 – they lived, but didn’t thrive. This could be in part because the lichen can act as a purgative. Or it could be because it’s not terribly nutritious – it will fill you up, but your body won’t get much from it.

Eating rock tripe is not something to be undertaken lightly. For one thing, it is full of bitter compounds and therefore must be soaked and boiled in several washes of water to render it edible. What is often left is this rather slimy mass. Good for thickening broths. It can be roasted, or fried. Personally, I think I’d have to be pretty darn hungry to give it a try.

Let’s revisit the name once more, this time looking at the genus, Umbilicaria. If it looks familiar, it should – think of umbilical cord. See the similarity? Both are derived from the Latin word umbilicus, which means navel – the point at which the umbilical cord attaches. If one takes a close look at rock tripe, one sees that it has a navel, too – right about at its center. It is from this navel that the lichen attaches itself to its rocky home.

I love visiting our rock tripe colony at various times throughout the year, because as the weather changes, so does this lichen. When times are good and there is plenty of moisture, the lichen is soft and pliable, like a piece of good leather. In times of drought, it becomes quite brittle, shriveling up a bit and prone to damage. When it’s in this brittle state, it is somewhat less impressive to the casual visitor, but even so, it is worth checking out.

If you are checking it out on our glacial erratic, please do not pull it off the rock, for, like all plants and animals at the VIC, it is protected. But once you know what it looks like, you can head out and look for rock tripe on the rocks on your own property. And if you decide to sample it, stop on in and let me know what you thought – starvation food or culinary delight.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Viper’s Bugloss: An Adirondack Roadside Attraction

When summer is in full swing, it is to the meadows and fields that we must head to feast our eyes on the riotous colors of the season. Wildflowers fill the open spaces where sunlight reaches the ground. In many places within the Adirondack Park, however, the only open spaces are the shoulders of the roads. Fortunately, many plants colonize these precarious environs, their tastes turned to harsh soils and microclimates. Among summer’s roadside colonizers we find viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), a plant that brings a bit of the sky to earth.

Viper’s bugloss (aka: blueweed, snake flower and blue devil) is one of the more attractive flowers gracing our barren roadsides. Growing upwards of a meter in height, its stem is topped with a spire dotted with many blue-pink blossoms, which open sequentially throughout the season. When the flowers first open, they are a bright rosy pink; as they age, they turn a beautiful sky blue. The long stamens, which protrude beyond the flower’s petals, remain a deep pink, giving the blossom an eye-catching “sky-blue-pink” coloration.

Most wildflowers we find blooming along our roadways are non-natives, plants that either came over with early colonists as food or medicine and later escaped from their gardens, or plants that snuck in on the shoes, clothing and other belongings of settlers from across the sea. Viper’s bugloss (pronounced BEW-gloss, by the way) falls into the former category. Back in the “old country,” which in this case is most of Europe and much of Asia, it was revered as a cure for many poisons and snake bites. The logic behind this attribution harkens back to the Doctrine of Signatures, a philosophy that declared that if a plant had a part that resembled a part of the human body, then it must be a cure for ailments of said part. With the plant in question, the seeds apparently look like snake heads, and therefore the leap of logic was that it could be used to treat snake bites.

I have a better theory. If one takes a close look at this plant, one sees that it is covered with many small hairs. These hairs are not soft and cuddly; instead, they are sharp and prickly. If grabbed with a bare hand, the plant can “bite” back, impaling its antagonist with its irritating hairs. It is possible this could feel like one has been bitten, and what would be lurking around plants in dry, barren places but venomous vipers! If one’s going to jump to conclusions, at least this one makes (some) sense.

Modern day practitioners of herbal medicines make an infusion from the leaves of viper’s bugloss to treat inflammation and melancholy, as well as to reduce fevers and relieve coughs. However, the plant is known to contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids, chemicals that if consumed in enough quantity can cause liver failure. In fact, the ASPCA lists viper’s bugloss as a serious toxin for horses, which will eat it if nothing else is around (so much for the deterrent quality of the prickly hairs).

Nevertheless, the plant has some redeeming qualities. In Europe Echium is harvested as an oilseed crop (technically, it is E. platagineum, not E. vulgare, that is harvested for this oil, but let’s not quibble). Apparently the oil is full of omega fatty acids, specifically gamma linoliec acid (GLA) and stearidonic acid (SdA). These two fatty acids are essential to the human body, and yet the body does not produce them; they must be acquired from outside sources.

Bees and butterflies frequent the plants, seeking the nectar within each semi-tubular bloom. I’ve watched many a bee happily bumbling along from blossom to blossom, oblivious to my curious eyes. Not only does the plant appeal to bees, but a quick scan online turned up a couple sources that sell viper’s bugloss honey, claiming it is tasty with a chewy consistency.

A member of the borage family, viper’s bugloss shares many of the same qualities of borage, including the light blue flowers, and the rapidity in which it spreads (the plants readily reseed themselves). The flowers of both are also edible: it is not uncommon for them to be crystallized and tossed in salads.

For the hobbyist who likes to try her hand at natural dying, the root is known for producing a red dye for fabrics.

Still, we must remember that this plant is not native, and thanks to its reseeding capabilities, it can spread with relative ease. As such, viper’s bugloss is considered a noxious weed in many states and eradication programs are in place to eliminate the plant where it has taken hold. I’ve checked various invasive plant lists for New York, and viper’s bugloss is not listed on any of them. So, enjoy the plant when you see it along the roadside. Take some photographs, dig up a root or two and tie-dye a t-shirt, toss some flowers in your salad, but don’t plant it in your gardens at home. Leave it along the roadside, where it can wave at passersby with its cheerful blossoms.

For some truly stunning photographs of this roadside plant, visit: http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/indexmag.html?http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/artfeb04/bjbugloss.html