Posts Tagged ‘wildflowers’

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Adirondack Herbs: Heal-All

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.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Adirondack Wildflowers: Primrose Watching

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.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wildflowers: Adirondack Moonshine

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.


Saturday, August 14, 2010

Wildflowers: Adirondack Lobelia Varieties

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.


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


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Let’s Eat: Adirondack Ginseng

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).


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, 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.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

New Book: Adirondack Wildflower Portraits

A post script to our series on wildflower bloom dates: we’ve received a copy of a new book by Chestertown-based photographer Curtiss M. Austin called Adirondack Wildflower Portraits. Last year, over the course of a single spring-to-fall season, he photographed flowers within a mile of his home and organized 60 of them chronologically, by the date he found them in bloom.

The book is more album and almanac than field guide, though Austin provides Latin names and a few facts about each species. It won’t help you key out a flower but it might surprise you. The photographer pays as much attention to the diminutive and ignored blooms of plants like common mullein, cow vetch and curly dock as he does to blue flag irises and day lilies. “Many wildflowers are very small, but close-up they are just as interesting and beautiful as larger flowers,” he writes.

The 130-page 8″ x 8″ paperback will be available soon at Amazon.com and at Austin’s website for $19.95.

Photograph of crooked-stemmed aster taken September 22, 2008 by Curtiss M. Austin, from Adirondack Wildflower Portraits


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Adirondack Bloom Index Part IV: August and September

Ed Miller, an enthusiastic naturalist from Rexford, likes to say he has a special fondness for late bloomers, being a bit of one himself. After retiring from work as an engineer at GE, he threw himself into another life, of paddling, botanizing and exploring.

Now that August is in full swelter Adirondack late bloomers are showing their colors. Following are Adirondack Upland Flora’s median bloom dates for 2,000-foot elevations in August and September (The book, by then Paul Smith’s College professor Dr. Michael Kudish, was published in 1992.)

August 1 Green woodland orchid
August 3 Meadowsweet, pickerel weed, elliptical St. Johnswort
August 4 Sundews and pondweed
August 5 Skullcap and water lobelia
August 12 Swamp loosestrife and steeplebush
August 15 Bog goldenrod
August 17 Closed gentian
August 18 Eel grass and bugleweed
August 22 Large-leaved goldenrod, jointweed, claspingleaf pondweed
August 23 Water milfoil
August 25 Rough bedstraw and northern willow herb
August 26 Joe pye weed; red maple leave turning red on dying branches and stressed trees
August 29 Marsh bellflower
August 30 Water smartweed, mint and swamp beggars-ticks
September 1 Most goldenrods and asters
September 4 Clearstem
September 11 Panicled aster
September 14 Autumn ladies’ tresses

Not many people have seen it, but early August is when the rare Prenanthes bootii (alpine rattlesnakeroot) blooms on a few high Adirondack summits. Mid-August is the time to look on mountaintops for flowering mountain sandwort, three-toothed cinquefoil, closed (or maybe narrow-leaved) gentian and sheep laurel; those species that also grow at lower elevations bloom later on the cold summits.

Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson noted these flowers around Saranac Lake August 5-12, 1922: Rattlesnake plantain, white avens, agrimony, purslane, ladies thumb, common mallow, climbing false buckwheat, husk tomato, chamomile, Oswego tea, large purple-fringed orchis, hog peanut, climbing bittersweet, waxwork, tall coneflower, mayapple, boneset, peppermint, burdock, teasel, bergamot, cardinal flower, fringed loosestrife, sow thistle, milkwort, thimble weed, Indian tobacco, butterfly weed, English plantain.

This concludes our series on bloom dates for this season, sadly. (Past bloom posts can be seen here, here and here.)


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Adirondack Gardening: Habitat Close to Home

When the editors of Adirondack Almanack asked me to take over Ellen Rathbone’s garden columns while Ellen is on vacation, I couldn’t help thinking, they have got to be kidding! Me, write a garden column? I guess they don’t know that I’m more of an anti-gardener. Not anti in the sense of “against” (I love other people’s gardens), but in the sense of “antithesis of.” In short, I’m a weed-loving wildflower nerd who will risk drowning and broken bones and heart attacks and Lyme disease pursuing additions to my wildflower “life list,” but I faint at the thought of cultivating the plot behind my house. » Continue Reading.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Baseball and Botany Go Together in Saranac Lake

Baseball and blooms are both in full season, so we’ll let Christy Mathewson field the July wildflower date observations (May and June lists here and here).

The following notes are verbatim from a hand-written list compiled by the pitcher in 1922, when the charter Hall-of-Famer was in Saranac Lake trying to recover from tuberculosis. He died there in 1925.

July 2
Water Avens
Yarrow or Sneezewort (White Rays, also Pink Rays!!!!!)
Common Milkweed
Indian Poke or False Hellebore
Purple Flowering Raspberry
Fireweed; Great Willow Herb
July 4
Cow Parsnip
July 5
Common Elder
Yellow Avens or Field Avens
July 12
Great Mullein
Meadowsweet
St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum)
Bull Thistle
Common Parsnip yellow
July 15
Day Lily (H. fulva)
July 16
Water Lily: Water Nymph
Maiden Pink (D. Deltoides)
Yellow Loosestrife (Lysmachia terrictris)
July 17
Canada Thistle
Early Goldenrod (S. juncea)
Loosestrife (in swamp) (Lysimachia stricta?)
Broad-leaved Arrow Head
Joe Pye Weed
Shinleaf
Daisy Fleabane?
Lance-leaved Goldenrod
Hardhack: Steeple Bush (S. tomentosa)
Chicory?
Asparagus
July 20
Catnip
Blue Vervain
Bellflower (C. rapunculoides, Linn)
Tansy, Bitter Buttons
Elecampane
Bouncing Bet
July 22
Pickerel Weed (P. cordata)
Narrow-leaved Arrow Head
Ladies Tresses
Jewel-weed: Spotted Touch-me-not
Monkey Flower
July 22
Blue Aster (A. sagittifolius?)
Potato (Irish)
Lettuce (L. interfrifolia? purplish)
Turtlehead (C. glebra)
July 24
Water parsnip
Golden Ragwort – Squaweed
Smaller Purple-fringed Orchis
Monkey Flower (M. Ringens)
Ladies Tresses (S. ceruns)
July 26
Dalibarda (D. repens)
Fetid Currant
Pipsissewa or Princess Pine
Common Evening Primrose (Oe. biennis?)
July 31
Bedstraw (Galium triflorum)
Mad-dog Skullcap (S. lateriflora)
White Aster (A. acummatus and umbelatus)
August 1
Bedstraw (G. asprillum)
Bottle Gentian
Wild Cucumber, Wild Balsam Apple
August 3
Skullcap (S. galericulata)
Bladderwort (U. vulgaris)
August 4
Climbing false buckwheat

Some of the common plant names Mathewson noted have faded from use in this region (hardhack, sneezwort, wild balsam apple). My posthumous crush on this guy deepens every time I look at his list. His excitement over pink rays in the yarrow (!!!!!) and uncertainty over a species of primrose (?) are endearing. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary pro athlete taking such careful notice of the natural world.

Photo: Christy Mathewson attends a town league game in Saranac Lake, 1920s. Courtesy of Historic Saranac Lake.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Bloom Index, Part II

It’s a fresh new month and time for an update to our bloom-dates table. But first, my friend Gerry Rising, Nature Watch columnist for the Buffalo News, reports that phenologists are asking regular jamokes to share their observations of trees and wildflowers. You can become a citizen scientist by noticing when chokecherries or even dandelions bloom in your back yard.

Two Web sites collect this information: the National Phenology Network and Cornell University’s Project Budbreak. Plant and animal life cycles can be susceptible to climate variations, so phenologists (the people who study seasonal patterns) are interested in your observations.

Following are median bloom dates for June from Mike Kudish’s Adirondack Upland Flora. Mike says the dates are most accurate for 1,500-to-2,000-foot elevations (the “Adirondack upland”).

June 1: Jack-in-the-pulpit, chokecherry, Solomon’s plumes
June 2: Low sweet blueberry
June 3: Wild sarsaparilla
June 5: Clintonia, bog rosemary
June 6: Bunchberry and white baneberry
June 7: Canada mayflower and bog laurel
June 9: Starflower and black chokeberry
June 10: Fringed polygala, three-leaved false Solomon’s seal, nannyberry
June 12: Labrador tea, Indian cucumber, small cranberry
June 13: Pink lady’s slipper
June 14: Hooked buttercup (Earliest sunrise, 5:13 a.m.)
June 15: Blue-eyed grass
June 17: Wild raisin, common cinquefoil
June 20: Sheep laurel
(June 20-23: Longest days of the year, 15 hours, 41 minutes)
June 26: Bush honeysuckle and tall meadow rue
June 27: Wild iris
June 29: Wood sorrel

The late naturalist Greenleaf Chase made a list for the Nature Conservancy of rare blooms on some of its Adirondack protection sites. On alpine summits he found Lapland rosebay aflower in early June, Diapensia, Labrador tea, bog laurel and mountain sandwort in late June. Greenie would visit the Clintonville pine barrens in early June to see Ceanothus herbacea (prairie redroot). Viola novae-angliae (New England blue violet) also flowers in early June on the Hudson River ice meadows near North Creek; Listera auriculata (a native orchid called auricled twayblade) blooms there in late June.

Lastly is a list of plants that amateur botanist and hall-of-fame pitcher Christy Mathewson identified around Saranac Lake in June 1922: wild carrot, bunchberry, mountain laurel?, sheep laurel, wintergreen, trailing arbutus, labrador tea, star flower, moss pink, forget-me-not, heal-all, ground ivy, bluets, ox-eye daisy, dandelion, hawkweed, Canada hawkweed, spring beauty, yellow pond lily, live-for-ever, horsetails, blueberry, twin flower, red berry elderberry, hop clover, harebell, yellow wood sorrel, sundrop, dewberry, wild red raspberry.

Boys, take note: being good at sports is nice. Being good at sports and knowing your wildflowers? That’s hot. Special thanks to Adirondack Daily Enterprise columnist Howard Riley for finding Mathewson’s handwritten list in the Saranac Lake Free Library archives and sending me a copy.


Monday, May 25, 2009

Must-do Nature Events for Summer 2009

Summer. The word conjures up images of the outdoors: sunshine, trees, beaches, birds, flowers. It is THE time to go beyond your door and explore the natural world. There are so many options that, as Calvin noted in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, “The days are just packed.” Here are three summer activities on my “to-do” list this year.

1. Orchid Hunting. Orchids are wonderfully strange wildflowers that hide out in many Adirondack wetlands. Some are in bogs (Ferd’s Bog, near Inlet, is famous for its white-fringed orchids), some are in roadside ditches (like the smaller purple fringed orchids I found last year near home and the green wood orchid I tracked down along the road to Tahawus). But I’ve also found ladies tresses on a dry roadside bank! The best time to go orchid hunting (and this is visual “hunting” – orchids are all protected by law, so do not collect or pick them) is mid-July through early August. Visit a wetland or roadside ditch near you, or go for a drive to a public wetland, like the Boreal Life Trail at the Paul Smiths VIC (white fringed orchids, rose pogonia, and grass pinks await you there, although the latter two are at their best late June into early July). I recommend taking along Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide to help you identify your discoveries. » Continue Reading.



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