The beauty and abundance of high summer are upon us here in southwestern New Hampshire and the meadows once again look like they’ve been painted by Monet himself.
Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium) has just started blooming and is a common late summer sight in the meadows. There are several species of this plant including hollow Joe-Pye-weed (E. fistulosum,) sweet Joe-Pye-weed (E. purpureum,) three-nerved Joe-Pye-weed (E. dubium,) and spotted Joe-Pye-weed (E. maculatum.) Hollow Joe-Pye weed is the most common species in this area.
Joe Pye is thought to have been a Native American healer who used this plant to treat early Massachusetts Bay Colony settlers suffering from typhoid fever, but the discussion over the origin of the name goes back and forth. For instance I just read that a Native word for the plant was “jopi,” which meant typhoid, and it is thought by some that jopi the plant name became Joe Pye the person name.
No matter how often I look at this flower I don’t see a smiling monkey face but whoever named the Allegheny monkey flower (Mimulus ringens) did. This plant has a square stem and that’s how it comes by another common name: square stemmed monkey flower. It gets about knee high and likes to grow in wet, sunny places, and isn’t all that common.
I’m still not seeing a monkey. All I see is a beautiful little flower that is whispering summer’s passing.
Tall thimbleweed’s (Anemone virginiana) white flower sepals don’t seem to last very long. Every time I see them they have either turned green or are in the process of doing so, like these appear to be. There are usually plenty of yellowish stamens surrounding a center head full of pistils though. The seed head continues growing after the sepals have fallen off and it becomes thimble shaped, which is where the common name comes from. These flowers are close to the diameter of a quarter; about an inch.
Thimbleweed’s thimble shaped seed head looks prickly but it isn’t. It will eventually turn into a mass of fluffy white seeds. There is another plant called thimble berry, but that is the purple flowering raspberry; a completely different plant.
The last time I did a flower post I showed an example of pale spike lobelia (Lobelia spicata) but here is another lobelia that blooms at the same time and is easy to confuse with it. This lobelia is called Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata.) There are several ways to tell the two plants apart but I just look for the inflated seedpods. This is the only lobelia with calyxes that inflate after the flowers have fallen.
Indian tobacco gets its name from the way its inflated seed pods resemble the smoking material pouches that Native Americans carried. The inflata part of its scientific name also comes from these inflated pods. The pods form so quickly that they can usually be found on the lower part of the stem while the upper part is still flowering. Though Native Americans used this and other lobelias to treat asthma and other breathing difficulties they knew how to use what we don’t, and today the plants are considered toxic. They can make you very sick and too much can kill.
I recently found the largest clump of broad leaved helleborine orchids (Epipactis helleborine) that I’ve seen. This orchid is originally from Europe and Asia and was first spotted in this country in Syracuse, New York in 1879. It has now spread to all but 19 of the lower 48 states and is considered an invasive weed. It doesn’t act very invasive here; I usually see only a few plants each year. Its leaves are deeply pleated like those of false hellebore and I wonder if that is how it comes by its common name.
Scientists have discovered that the nectar of broad leaved helleborine contains the strongest narcotic compounds found in nature; comparable to oxycodone, and when insects (wasps) sip it they get so stoned they want to stay around for a while. This increases their chances of picking up the orchid’s pollinia, which are sticky little sacks of pollen that orchids produce instead of the dust-like pollen produced by many other flowers. After the insect has staggered around for a while it will clumsily fly off, most likely oblivious to the pollen packets that it has stuck all over itself. By transporting its pollinia to another helleborine flower the insect will have repaid the orchid for giving it a good buzz.
I didn’t know what kind of trouble I was getting myself into when I started finding Goodyeara orchids. There are about 800 different species and telling them apart can be tricky because they cross pollinate and create natural hybrids. I think the example in the above photo is a checkered rattlesnake plantain (Goodyeara tesselata) because of its small size, dull blue gray leaf surface, faint leaf markings, and the way its flowers appear randomly arranged on the stalk. These leaves look fragile but they’ll remain green throughout winter.
If nothing else these tiny orchid flowers are teaching me a thing or two about flower photography. After trying and failing three or four times to get a useable shot of the flower spike I took a tip from my orchid books and tried propping a piece of black artist’s foam core board behind it. Much to my surprise it worked fairly well. But that’s another thing to carry into the woods and I don’t have any empty hands left, so I won’t be making a habit of it. This flower spike was about 6 inches tall.
The lip of a checkered rattlesnake plantain orchid flower is wider than that of other rattlesnake orchids and has a shorter tip that makes it look like the spout of a teapot according to orchid books, but they remind me more of short, fat turtlehead flowers (Chelone glabra.) Each flower is very hairy and small enough to hide behind a pea, and their petals and sepals spread outward. Checkered rattlesnake plantain is said to be a hybrid of giant rattlesnake plantain (Goodyeara oblongifolia,) and dwarf rattlesnake plantain (Goodyeara repens.)
I’ve noticed that there is a lot of erroneous information online regarding these orchids so if you find one and would like to identify it I’d advise using a good, reliable orchid identification guide. I list two that I use in the “Books I use” section of this blog.
Tiny little dwarf St. John’s wort (Hypericum mutilum) is still blooming. I tucked a quarter down into it to give some idea of just how small it is. I usually find this plant growing in the muddy soil at the edge of ponds but I just saw a few growing quite high and dry on the riverbank. Its flowers aren’t much bigger than a pencil eraser but there are usually a lot of them so it’s an easy plant to find.
Liatris (Liatris spicata) is a plant native to our prairies and you don’t find it outside of gardens that often here in New Hampshire. Every now and then you can find a stray plant in a meadow but it isn’t anywhere near as aggressive as black eyed Susans and some other prairie plants. It is also called blazing star and is grown commercially as a cut flower. I think that the closer you get to the tiny flowers, the more beautiful they become. It’s a very useful plant for attracting butterflies to the garden.
The pale yellow flowers of tall lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) are often tinted by red or pink on their edges. This native lettuce can reach 10 feet tall and has clusters of small, 1/4 inch flowers at the top of the stalks. The leaves of this plant can be highly variable in their shape, with even the leaves on the same plant looking different from each other. The milky white sap of this plant contains lactucarium and is still used in medicines today.
Tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) doesn’t get quite as tall as tall lettuce in this area but it has the same size flowers, which are ice blue instead of greenish yellow. Sometimes they can be quite dark and other times almost white and grow in a cluster at the very top of the plant. Tall blue lettuce is easily confused with tall lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) when it isn’t blossoming, but tall blue lettuce has hairy leaves and tall lettuce doesn’t. Native Americans had medicinal uses for both of these plants.
White rattlesnake root (Prenanthes alba) is also called white lettuce but, though it blossoms at the same time as wild lettuces and often right beside them, it really isn’t a lettuce. It’s in the aster family and is unusual because of its bell shaped, lily like flowers; most asters have ray and disc florets like the dandelion. The Prenanthes part of the scientific name comes from the Greek words “prenes,” meaning drooping and “anthos,” meaning blossom. Alba means white, and white drooping blossoms are exactly what we see. The plant was thought to be an antidote for rattlesnake bite to Native American Cherokee and Iroquois tribes and that’s how it comes by its common name.
There is so much beauty in the world, but you must allow yourself to see it. ~Tom Giaquinto
Thanks for coming by.