One of my favorite wildflowers is the tiny eastern forked blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum) and it has just started blooming. The plant barely reaches 6 inches tall and the flowers might make a half inch across on a good day, so it’s a challenging plant to photograph. One unusual thing about the flower, other than its unique beauty, is its four long, arching stamens that dust bees with pollen when they land on its lower lip. This plant is an annual that grows from seed each year. It seems to like sandy soil and I find it growing along river banks.
Nature must have been in a secret revealing mood as I drove down an old dirt road recently. This very beautiful rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium) grew just off the side of the road at the edge of a swamp. At least, I think it is rosebay willowherb; I’ve never seen it before and there seems to be some confusion among sources about the regions it grows in. According to the USDA it doesn’t grow in New England, but the University of Maine lists it in its database. Another name for the plant is fireweed and Henry David Thoreau mentions seeing great stands of it in 1857, so I’m wondering if the USDA map is be incorrect. If you live in New Hampshire and have seen this plant I’d love to hear from you.
Just look at those thorns. They felt the need to remind me how sharp they were when I was trying to take this photo. Bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) originally hails from Europe. It is thought to have been introduced in the colonial era and has spread throughout the United States, much to the dismay of farmers and cattle ranchers. It is also called spear thistle, with good reason. I wonder if it was imported intentionally or accidentally.
Another European import is the broad leaved helleborine orchid (Epipactis helleborine.) Imported as an ornamental in the 1800s, it escaped cultivation and found a new home. It could hardly be called invasive in this area though; I know of only two places where it grows and in one of those places there is just a single plant. It grows to about knee high in deep shade, making it a challenge to photograph.
The pencil eraser size flowers of broad leaved helleborine resemble our pink ladies slipper in shape but are mostly green with hints of purple. Some plants have flowers that are much more purple than others. Its leaves closely resemble those of false hellebore (Veratrum viride) but are much smaller.
Burdock (Arctium lappa) is a good example of a biennial plant. In the first year of life it grows leaves and in the second year it flowers, sets seeds, and dies. This is what biennials do, so we know that its tubular flowers with purple stamens and white styles signal that it is close to finishing its journey. There is no reason to grieve though, because the germination rate of its seeds is high and there will surely be burdocks for many years to come.
Burdock is said to have been introduced from Europe because it was noted in 1672 by self-styled naturalist John Josselyn, who wrote that it had “sprung up since the English Planted and kept Cattle in New-England.” He said the same thing about the dandelion, but fossil evidence proved him wrong. Native American tribes across the country had many uses for burdock, both as a medicine and food, so some form of the plant had to have been here long before European settlers arrived.
Many plants have had an extended bloom period this year and purple flowering raspberry (Rubus odoratus) is no exception. I’m still seeing its flowers here and there, even though the plant usually stops blooming a month after it starts in mid-June. I’ve always liked its two inch, rose like blossoms. If you’re looking for a shade tolerant flowering shrub this one is a good choice.
Purple flowering raspberry is closely related to thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) and gets its common name from its large, raspberry like fruit. I’ve never eaten one but some say that they’re close to tasteless and others say they taste like dried raspberries. The plant is unreliable as a source of berries though; I’ve seen many clusters with no fruit at all and others that had 5 or 6 flowers bearing only a single berry.
Goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace line the shores of a sea of purple loosestrife. This is a good example of how invasive purple loosestrife chokes out native plants and creates a monoculture. Not that long ago this area was full of native wildflowers but soon purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is all that will be seen here.
Though eastern purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a native wildflower I don’t often find it growing outside of gardens. Native American plains tribes used this plant to treat toothaches, coughs, colds, sore throats, and snake bite. Something interesting that I read recently said that Native Americans got the idea that coneflower could be used medicinally by watching sick and injured elk eat the plants. I’ve always wondered how natives came to know if a plant was poisonous or not and thought that they must have simply used trial and error. Pity the one who had to try an unknown plant for the first time.
I usually stay away from goldenrod identification because there are so many of them that even botanists get confused, but slender fragrant goldenrod (Solidago tenuifolia) is easy because of its long, slender leaves and its fragrance. The only other similar goldenrod is the lance leaved goldenrod (Solidago graminifolia) but its leaves are wider and have 3 to 5 veins as opposed to the single vein in a slender fragrant goldenrod leaf. Still, I always smell them just to be sure.
Invasive rabbit’s foot clover (Trifolium arvense) is short enough to be forced to grow right at the edge of the road if it wants to get any sunshine, so the roads look like they have been festooned with fuzzy pink ribbons for a while each summer. It’s an annual that grows new from seed each year and the seedlings must be tough, because they don’t seem to mind being occasionally run over, or the poor dry soil found along the road side. In fact they seem to thrive in it. I see more plants each year.
Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) has draped itself over the shrubs alongside our roads and its small white flowers are another reminder that fall is near. Another name for this vine is traveler’s joy, which it is. Native American used it medicinally but it is toxic and can cause severe mouth pain if any parts of it are eaten.
Twenty five years ago or so I was hiking along an old forgotten dirt road through a Massachusetts forest and came upon a single fringed gentian plant (Gentianopsis crinita.) That was the only gentian I had ever seen in my lifetime until just the other day, when I saw these bottle gentians (Gentiana andrewsii) growing alongside the same road that the rosebay willowherbs were on. It’s a good thing there was no traffic because I jammed on my brakes and jumped out to admire them. They are extremely rare in these parts and I was as excited to see them as I would have been to have seen a field full of orchids.
NOTE: I’ve just discovered that these are narrow leaved gentians (Gentiana linearis.) I’m sorry about the confusion.
Bottle gentians are often called closed bottle gentians because the flowers stay closed just as they are in the photo, even when they are ready to be pollinated. Few insects are strong enough to pry the flower parts open to get at the nectar and pollen, but bumblebees are usually successful. Their selective method of pollination and the fact that most of their seedlings die off before flowering might account for this plant’s rarity. Since its seeds are too small to interest birds and its foliage too bitter to interest herbivores, it is said that bottle gentians have very little ecological value. It’s almost as if they’re here simply to be admired by humans.
He who is born with a silver spoon in his mouth is generally considered a fortunate person, but his good fortune is small compared to that of the happy mortal who enters this world with a passion for flowers in his soul. ~Celia Thaxter
Thanks for coming by.