Last Saturday we decided to make a stop at our friend and local young farmer Jack Leggett’s place to pick up some fresh eggs. Got myself a dozen beautiful brown speckled free range chicken eggs, and stayed for a bit to chat with Jack and his friends about our upcoming project, a half dozen piglets arriving in June.
As the guys stood there and debated the relative merits and disadvantages of various styles of sties (pigsties, that is), I was looking around, soaking up the bucolic environment. In other words, staring at my feet. Mid-stare, something caught my eye. Violets. There were violets everywhere! Parts of his sweeping front yard lawn were a carpet of the little purple flowers. » Continue Reading.
Mother’s Day is this Sunday, May 13th, and The Wild Center in Tupper Lake is giving everyone the chance to celebrate the women in their lives whether great-grandmother, grandmother or mother. This event is not just geared toward children, but to embrace the child within. Join in the festivities and enjoy a free opportunity to explore Mother Nature inside and outside the Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks (The Wild Center).
According to Director of Programs Jennifer Kretser, the annual spring event is an opportunity to showcase The Wild Center’s exhibits as a place for all ages to explore. » Continue Reading.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has announced that it is dedicating the month of April to sharing information about the threat that invasive plant pests, diseases and harmful weeds pose to America’s fruits, vegetables, trees, and other plants—and how the public can help prevent their spread. What are some actions that we can all take to help protect our Adirondack forests and waterways?
Be Plant Wise. Buy native plants and avoid using invasive plant species at all costs. Many invasive plants still commonly sold in New York have been banned in surrounding states such as Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and others for years. Nurseries may not be selling purple loosestrife or japanese knotweed anymore, but Burning Bush, Japanese Barberry, Norway Maple, and Yellow Iris are all still commonly sold – and are very invasive. » Continue Reading.
A war is raging in our wilderness areas, and the Adirondack Park is slowly becoming ground zero. Invaders from faraway lands are gaining a foothold in the Park’s interior, where the native inhabitants are woefully unprepared for the coming onslaught. Unfortunately, backcountry enthusiasts are the unwitting foot soldiers for these invaders.
Exotic invasive plants are sprouting up far away from their usual haunts on lawns and along roadsides. Exotic invasive species are non-native species, typically introduced to an area by humans, either purposely or accidently. These species exhibit traits allowing for fast growth, rapid reproduction, swift dispersal and tolerance of many different habitats. These traits facilitate colonization and eventual subjugation of much of the native vegetation. » Continue Reading.
After several days without a significant rain, an observant gardener pulling up clumps of weeds, or a perceptive hiker traveling through a pine forest or a meadow near a stand of conifers may notice a glob of saliva-like fluid attached to a wildflower stalk or the stem of a piece of grass.
Occasionally referred to by some people as snake spit, or frog spit, this common frothy deposit of whitish, watery liquid is neither associated with a snake or frog, nor is it produced by the salivary glands of any creature. The spit-like fluid seen on various plants during the early days of summer in the Adirondacks is a form of protective enclosure that surrounds a small insect known as the spittlebug. » Continue Reading.
If you find yourself walking through the woods in late summer/early autumn, and you come across what looks like a slender, branched twig stuck in the ground, take a closer look. It could be a stick, or it just might be a really nifty plant: beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana).
Now, I know what you are thinking. That can’t possibly be a plant, or, if it is, it is dead. The lack of “verdure” (or, as described in Gray’s New Lessons and Manual of Botany (1868), “herbs destitute of green foliage”) is an immediate indication that you are looking at a very special plant, a plant that is wholly dependent on others for food. Neltje Blanchan wrote in her 1917 book Wild Flowers Worth Knowing likened beechdrops to thieves:
Nearly related to the broom-rape is this less attractive pirate, a taller, brownish-purple plant, with a disagreeable odor, whose erect, branching stem without leaves is still furnished with brownish scales, the remains of what were once green leaves in virtuous ancestors, no doubt. But perhaps even these relics of honesty may one day disappear. Nature brands every sinner somehow; and the loss of green from a plant’s leaves may be taken as a certain indication that theft of another’s food stamps it with this outward and visible sign of guilt.
It’s beautiful writing, rather poetic, but sadly casts human traits onto nonhuman lives, in this case a poor hapless plant whose only fault is that it cannot make its own food.
Perhaps we should take another look at beechdrops. Neither thieves nor helpless, maybe we should consider them as opportunistic, perhaps even an advanced lifeform. Why waste energy making your own food when you can eat the food produced by others? HM…it sounds thoroughly American to me!
Over the eons it this plant has cast aside the need to have leaves (note the previously mentioned scales). Leaves exist to provide additional photosynthesizing surfaces. If one does not photosynthesize, one has no need for leaves.
Still, a plant has got to eat, and if it isn’t making its own food by mixing up sunlight with water and CO2, then it must find another food source. Beechdrops have a special structure on their roots called a haustorium. This structure grows out of the stem, root or hyphae of some parasitic plants, and on beechdrops it grows from the roots. The haustorium engulfs the root of the target plant (beechdrops are obligate parasites of beech trees) and taps the root for its life-giving sap.
Neltje mentioned beechdrops’ disagreeable odor. The plant is highly astringent, filled with compounds that make it beneficial medicinally, but not necessarily something one would want to add to a nosegay. Native Americans and settlers alike knew the benefits of beechdrops, which could help cure diarrhea and dysentery, heal wounds (antiseptic), work as a sedative, and even sooth aching eyes. At one point in time beechdrops were used as a folk medicine for cancer, although modern testing found it had no such virtue.
I came across a couple rather robust stands of beechdrops recently. What struck me as odd was that there wasn’t a beech tree to be seen! Because these plants are entirely dependent on beeches for survival, they shouldn’t have grown where I saw them. Admittedly, I was in a hurry, so I only did a quick scan of the forest; it is possible I overlooked the host plants. After all, it was a pocket of hardwoods, mostly sugar maples. Beech trees traditionally grow with birches and maples, so they should have been there. I’ll have to return and conduct a more thorough inventory.
If you find some beechdrops, you will want to have a seat and really look at them. They are quite beautiful, with small, striped, tubular flowers. Purple, red and brown are the colors they sport, and they wear them well.
You might think, as you gaze upon the plant, that the flowers on the lower end of the stem are just buds, waiting to open. In fact, they are fully fledged flowers in their own right, but they are cleistogamous. This means that they never open – there is no need for them to open because they are self-fertilized. The flowers closer to the top of the plant, the ones that form those delicate tubes, are chasmogamous and therefore require fertilization.
Why a plant would have both kinds of flowers? Some careful thought soon brings enlightenment. This is a plant that grows close to the ground (no more than a foot and a half tall, often less) in the woods. There is little wind near the ground (so much for wind-pollination), and there isn’t a whole lot of insect activity at this time of year in the woods. If a plant isn’t smelly and able to attract flies, it may not get a whole lot of action. So, some plants, like beechdrops, hedge their bets by producing a few flowers that require pollination, but also producing flowers that are completely self-contained, just in case. Based on the literature I’ve read, they’ve made the wise bet – it seems that the flowers that actually do get pollinated by visiting insects don’t produce fertile seeds, only the cleistogamous flowers are able to reproduce.
So, let’s not shun the parasitic plants. They have an otherworldly beauty about them and have merely tapped into a surplus foodsource not of their own making. It’s an entirely modern way of living, and since we as humans have embraced this lifestyle, I think it’s only right that we give a friendly nod to those plants that have done so as well, for they are, perhaps, kindred spirits.
Yesterday evening the dog decided to take our walk around behind the rescue squad building. A variety of wildlife no doubt travels this corridor, so it was not surprising that his nose led us in this general direction. My nose is not as sensitive as the dog’s, but my eyes are drawn to things that he probably thinks are dull – like a white flower blooming at the corner of the building.
White flowers that are not asters are not common at this time of year. In fact, the only white flowers that come to mind are the aforementioned asters and nodding ladies tresses. The plant that caught my eye was neither of these; it was heal-all (Prunella vulgaris). You all know heal-all (alternatively known as self-heal, heart-of-the-earth, carpenter weed, blue curls, sicklewort, and woundwort): it is the short, stocky plant that grows in your yard, sporting purple blossoms throughout the warm seasons. The key point here is that it normally has purple blossoms. The plant I encountered last night was white. There are rogues in every population.
Most people probably consider heal-all a weed. It disrupts the perfect lawn. Ah – how we have changed. Not all that long ago this was a plant sought by people from all walks of life, for it is edible and medicinal, making it highly desirable.
The modern lawn is often a barren wasteland, botanically speaking. Chemically controlled to prevent all but a very few plant species from growing, not to mention to keep out all sorts of insects, it may look like a lovely plush green carpet, but it’s lacking in character and life. Once upon a time, the lawn was a veritable salad bowl, chocked full of all sorts of edible plants, not the least of which is/was heal-all. Highly nutritious, if bitter, it used to find its way into salads, soups and stews. It could even be boiled and used as a pot herb. Considering the amount of heal-all in my lawn, I could open a U-Pick stand if it was still popular!
As important as this plant was to supplement the human diet, it was as a medicinal herb that it found its niche. At one point in time, it was considered to be a panacea. Have a sty in your eye? Use a rinse made from Prunella. Have a fever? Prunella will save the day. Stomach ailment? Diarrhea? Internal bleeding? Wounds that won’t heal? Prunella to the rescue!
As it turns out, this humble herb, which is mostly Eurasian in origin (although recent studies have turned up a native variety, Prunella vulgaris elongata), contains many compounds that are truly beneficial in the field of medicine, not the least of which is a strong anti-bacterial property. This quality alone would explain why the plant was so often sought to help heal wounds in the days before germs were common knowledge.
Modern medicine is now studying the effects of heal-all as a treatment for herpes, AIDS, cancer and diabetes.
If food and medicine aren’t enough to convince you to keep heal-all in your yard, then consider this: it is an important nectar source for a large variety of native pollinators (bees and butterflies), not to mention that its leaves are a food source for the larval form of the gray marvel moth.
While I’ve taken the time to look at heal-all in the past, it wasn’t until this white form grabbed my attention last night that I decided to take another look. There’s a moral here: it’s often pays to look twice at those things which we take for granted. There might be a hidden quality that we’ve missed in our assumption of the common.
Every summer when I was little, my sister and I would spend two weeks at my grandparents’ house in Gloversville, where we would visit with cousins, run through sprinklers, ride our bicycles past beautiful old Victorian houses, feed the birds and squirrels, slide down banisters, and generally have the kind of summer vacation that creates the best memories. One of the evening events that sticks out in my mind, besides making and eating banana splits, was The Watching of the Primrose. My grandparents’ house (in which my great-grandparents also lived) was surrounded by gardens. All around the foundation, and along the edge of their property, flowers (and tomatoes) blossomed. Bleeding hearts, four o’clocks and foxgloves stand out in my memory, and there, next to the back corner, stood one tall stalk – an evening primrose. As the sun crept toward the horizon and the day came to a close, we’d go outside and stand around this stalk, which was nearly as tall as I, and watch.
Slowly, ever so slowly and then with gathering speed, pop! the bud would open and the yellow petals, all folded inside like a mini floral umbrella, would unfurl. It was a stop-motion film but there in real life. Today’s kids might not be held spellbound by this wonder of nature, but back in the ‘70s, it was still magic.
Do we wonder today why this flower would open when the sun goes down? Flowers exist to bring in pollinators, and in this part of the world most of those pollinators are insects or birds, and most of these pollinators are diurnal – they only come out during the day. What would be out at night to pollinate the primrose? Bats? If we lived in the Southwest, bats might be a consideration, but up here our bats are all insect-eaters. Birds? But the only nocturnal birds around here are owls, and they, being strict carnivores, shun plants except as perches and nest sites.
This leaves insects. Anyone who has been outside in the evening knows that there are some insects that love the night, like mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes, like owls, are seeking something warm-blooded for a meal (well, at least the females are). But if you are like me, and you sit up at night reading in bed with the glow of your lamp shining through the open windows, your reading is likely disturbed by the soft thuds of insects bouncing into the window screens as they attempt to reach that light. Moths.
Indeed, it is a moth that is responsible for the reproductive success of the evening primrose. In fact, there are many plants that depend on moths for night-time pollination, and they all have something in common: pale petals. Flowers with white or yellow petals show up pretty well at night, especially when the moon comes out. The creative gardener might plant a bed with naught but night-blooming flowers – what a delight to visit when sleep is held at bay by a restless mind.
The moth that visits the evening primrose is Schinia florida, the evening primrose moth. This moth has pink and white wings, and a furry white body. The reason for this pink coloration is not readily apparent. During the day the moth snoozes within the now-closed primrose flower. As the flower ages (each flower “lives” only a short time), its petals turn from yellow to pink, creating the perfect hideout for its pollinator.
I don’t know that I’ve never seen this moth, but I will certainly keep my eyes open for it now. I know where there are a few evening primroses, and it’s been many years since I’ve enjoyed their show. I think I will take some time over the next week or two to seek them out. Not only will I marvel as they open to greet the night, but I will perhaps peek inside the dying blooms during the day to see if anyone is sleeping inside.
I know what you’re thinking: Prohibition, rum runners, Uncle Frank and the still out back. In this case, however, Moonshine is merely another name for one of our late summer wildflowers: pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea).
A member of the aster family, as many of our late summer flowers seem to be, pearly everlasting can be found gracing the dry, sunny margins of our roads. Unlike the asters with which most of us are familiar, with their many-petaled flowers that resemble a wheel with many spokes, pearly everlasting looks more like it has small knobs at the ends of its stems. This is because the flowers are much more compact, almost button-like. Up close, they look like strawflowers, those perennial favorites of many a dried flower arrangement, and in fact, like strawflowers, they can be dried and used in decorations, lasting five months or more without any preservatives; hence the name everlasting. One of this plant’s traits that make it stand out among the roadside greenery is its lovely silvery coloration. Not only are the flowers a lovely white, with a yellow center developing as they mature, but the plant itself is nearly white. The long, slender leaves are pale green above, while below they are covered with small white hairs, which give the leaves a somewhat wooly look and feel. Maybe it is for this reason that people used to stuff this plant in mattresses and pillows. Or perhaps it was for the plant’s mild aroma.
Historically, pearly everlasting was an important part of the household pharmacopeia. Many Native American people used it to treat a variety of bumps, bruises, cuts, colds, and asthma. Since the plant is also found naturally in northeastern Asia, we can probably surmise that the ancestors of the inhabitants of those lands also made use of the astringent, pectoral, pain-killing and anti-inflammatory properties of pearly everlasting.
Because pearly everlasting is one of our native wildflowers, it has developed a close relationship with many native insects. One that comes to mind is the American lady butterfly, for whose larvae this plant is a host. Other butterflies make use of this plant, too, as a source for nectar.
For folks who are interested in creating native wildflower gardens, this is a great plant to add to the collection. Not only can it withstand some marginal soils and dry conditions, but it adds visual interest while also attracting butterflies and other insects. To top it all off, it can be harvested for autumnal decorations, provide some emergency medical care, and help one drift to sleep on a pillow in which it is stuffed. And when the sun goes down, it will shine in the moonlight, making your garden (or roadside) still attractive when all other lights have gone out.
Late summer is lobelia season, and the Adirondacks are a great place to find these beautiful flowers, the most stunning of which is the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Most lobelias, however, are not red; they are various shades of blue. Here in New York we have seven species of lobelia (including cardinal flower), and today I want to introduce you to Lobelia inflata, commonly known as Indian tobacco.
I encountered Indian tobacco for the first time this summer. I was busy photographing some ladies tresses when I saw this lovely pale blue flower blooming nearby. I took a couple photos to identify later, and promptly returned to the orchids. When I looked at the photos the next day, I knew I had a lobelia, but was unsure which kind. As soon as I knew which species it was, I decided I needed to learn more. After all, a plant with the name “Indian tobacco” must surely have an interesting history. Into herbals and books on ethnobotany I delved. As it turns out, Indian tobacco has a rather long and well-documented history of medicinal uses among many of our native peoples. The most common uses involved remedies for a variety of respiratory ailments, such as asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia and coughs. I was surprised to learn that the plant was smoked to treat asthma. Coltsfoot is another plant that has traditionally been smoked for asthma and other bronchial disturbances. Is it just me, or does this seem counterintuitive? I mean, if one is having difficulty breathing, does it make sense to inhale smoke for a treatment? This is another example of “things that make you say ‘hm’.”
The plant was probably named “tobacco” because when broken it produces a scent similar to tobacco, and apparently it tastes like tobacco, too. Not having ever used tobacco, or sampled this lobelia, I can neither confirm nor deny these statements. However, the active chemical ingredient in the plant is lobeline, which has similar effects on the body as nicotine. In fact, some folks believed Indian tobacco could be used to help people quit smoking. Several products containing lobeline used to be available for just this purpose, but in 1993 the FDA determined that they were ineffective (the products, not the FDA) and prohibited their sale.
More recent studies, however, suggest that lobeline might be helpful in the treatment of persons with drug addictions. Medicinally, this is a plant to watch.
Many lobelias grow in damp, if not down right wet, conditions, but not Indian tobacco. This species prefers dry sites and is often found growing along roadsides. It’s actually a fairly common plant, most likely overlooked because its small flowers (one-quarter inch long) are not all that showy at a distance. Up close, however, they are quite attractive, with three petals pointing downward, and two sticking up, kind of like little blue ears above a wide blue beard.
When the seedpods develop, the reason for the species name inflata becomes apparent: they look like inflated bladders. In fact, for novice botanists this might be one of the best identifying traits to look for when trying to ID this plant.
As the summer draws out and the cicadas sing, it’s time to seek out the lobelias. Walk along roadsides, walk along lake shores. Look for pale blue or bright red flowers, with three petals hanging downward, and two pointing up. They are funny-looking flowers, but delightful to find.
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.
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), a perennial herb, once proliferated along the eastern seaboard from Maine to Alabama. It is similar to Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), and was one of the first herbs to be harvested and sold commercially. The name “ginseng” comes from the Chinese word “jen-shen” which means “in the image of a man,” a reference to the shape of the mature root, which resembles the human body.
Wild ginseng in China and Korea has been relatively rare for centuries, a result of over harvesting. It was discovered in central New York in 1751. By the late 18th century, Albany, New York had become a center of trade in ginseng. Most Adirondack ginseng was exported to China where it was (and is) used as a popular remedy. By the middle of the 19th century, wild American ginseng was in danger of being eradicated by “shang” hunters, who dug up the brittle roots for sale to wholesale enterprises. Horticulture experts and private citizens alike experimented with cultivating the herb.
The September 5, 1906 issue of the Malone Farmer featured a front-page ad: “Wanted—People to grow Ginseng…Any one can do it and grow hundreds of dollars worth in the garden. Requires little ground.” F.B. Mills, of Rose Hill, NY, provided seeds and instructions (at cost) and a promise to buy the mature roots at $8.00 per pound.
Ginseng farming takes patience. It grows in cool, shady areas, in acidic soils such as are found in hardwood forests. The larger and older the root—which can live 100 years or more—the more it is worth. Ginseng is relatively easy to cultivate, but one must wait for the plants to mature over the course of 5-10 years before seeing a return on investment.
Nevertheless, by the turn of the 20th century, ginseng farming was common, and held the promise of great profit. The July 16, 1908 edition of the Fort Covington Sun ran a headline proclaiming “PUT GREAT FAITH IN GINSENG. Chinese Willing to Pay Fabulous Prices for Roots.” In 1904 a Plattsburgh paper reported that L.A. Childs of Chazy “will make an extensive exhibit of this product at the coming Clinton county fair, and this will be the first public exhibit of it ever made in Northern New York.” Three years later Miss Melissa Smith of St. Johnsville, “probably the only woman in America who grows ginseng for a living,” was reported to have roots valued at more than $10,000.
The actual medical benefits of ginseng have been disputed in Western medicine for centuries. The September 19, 1900 issue of the Malone Farmer expressed the opinion that “The ginseng trade is the most extraordinary in the world. American doctors believe it to be practically valueless as a medicine, or at the most about as potent as licorice.” Users claim it increases energy, prolongs life, and induces a feeling of wellbeing.
The Adirondack Museum’s permanent collection includes this ginseng root harvester, used in Franklin County during the late 19th century. Ginseng is never pulled from the ground. Whole, unbroken roots have the greatest value. This tool was used to dig the soil around the plant, some six inches away from the stem. Once the soil around the root was removed, the shang hunter could lift the root out and carefully brush away the dirt.
The market value of ginseng has risen and fallen over the centuries, but it remains an important forest crop. In 1977, the US Fish and Wildlife Service imposed restrictions on the sale of ginseng under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. New York State, as well as most states in the Northeast, tightly regulates the sale and harvest of ginseng. No wild ginseng may be harvested on state lands.
Photo: Ginseng Root Harvester Found in Tupper Lake, NY ca. 1850-1890. Courtesy the Adirondack Museum (2001.38.2).
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.
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.
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.
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