Our aquatic plants have started blooming here in the southwestern part of New Hampshire and queen among them, at least in my opinion, is the fragrant white waterlily (Nymphaea odorata.) I happened to be with someone recently who crawled out on a fallen tree to smell one of these beauties. When I told him that people said they smelled like honeydew melons he agreed. Sort of-it was a hard fragrance to describe, he said, but a pleasant one. I’m happy just seeing them; I like the golden fire that burns in their center.
Pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata) is another aquatic that has small purple, tubular flowers on spikey flower heads that produce a fruit with a single seed. Ducks and muskrats love the seeds and deer, geese and muskrats eat the leaves. If you see pickerel weed you can almost always expect the water it grows in to be relatively shallow and placid, though I’ve heard that plants occasionally grow in water that’s 6 feet deep. It’s a plant that often forms large colonies.
A small sampling of what was a very large colony of pickerel weed. Native Americans washed and boiled the young leaves and shoots and used them as pot herbs. They also ground the seeds into grain. The plant gets its name from the pickerel fish, which is thought to hide among its underwater stems.
One of my favorite aquatics is American burr reed (Sparganium americanum,) more for its quirky appearance than for any other reason. Its round, spiky female flowers grow at the bottom of the stem and the male flowers with yellow stamens above them. Burr reed usually grows right at the edge of ponds and rivers in waterlogged soil but it will sometimes grow in still water. Ducks and other waterfowl love the seeds.
Purple loosestrife is an invasive that came over from Europe in the ballast of a cargo ship in the 1800s. The beach sand ballast, loaded with purple loosestrife seeds, was originally dumped on Long Island, New York. The seeds grew, the plant spread and now it covers most of Canada and all but 5 of the lower Untied States. It likes wet, sunny meadows.
Purple loosestrife chokes out native plants and forms monocultures. These colonies can be so large that finding a single plant like the one pictured above is becoming very difficult. I read of an experiment going on in Dublin, a town east of here, in which the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture is releasing European beetles to feed on purple loosestrife. The thought is that the beetles will control the plant but my question is, suppose they do control the plant and suppose one day there isn’t any more purple loosestrife. What will the beetles feed on then, native plants? Will we be any better off? I think we need to be very careful what we wish for.
Though it is much hated you can’t deny the beauty of purple loosestrife. I’ve worked for nurseries and have had people come in wanting to buy “that beautiful purple flower that grows in wet areas.”
Mad dog skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) gets its common name from the way that the calyx at the base of the flowers look a bit like a medieval helmet, called a skull cap, and how the plant was once thought to cure rabies because of its anti-spasmodic properties. Another skullcap, marsh skullcap (Scutellaria galericulata,) looks very similar and the two are difficult to tell apart. Both grow in full sun on grassy hummocks at the water’s edge.
There is powerful medicine in both mad dog or marsh skullcap and when Native Americans wanted to go on a spirit walk or vision quest this was one of the plants they chose. The small blue and white flowers always grow in pairs in the leaf axils. Those of mad dog skullcap are slightly smaller.
Meadowsweet (Spiraea Ulmaria) is another plant that I look for at the water’s edge, though it doesn’t usually grow close enough to get its feet wet. It grows in the form of a small shrub and is in the spirea family, which its flowers clearly show with their many fuzzy stamens. The flowers are fragrant and have a sort of almond-like scent. This plant was one of three considered most sacred by the Druids and has been used medicinally for many thousands of years. Here in America it is an introduced invasive, but little is heard about it and nobody seems to mind.
NOTE: The scientific name I meant to use for this plants is Spirea alba.
I find soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) growing along river banks. The plant gets its common name from the way the chopped and boiled leaves produce a soapy lather that is particularly good at removing grease. This plant is a native of Europe and is thought to have been brought over by colonists to be used as a soap substitute. It is said to be especially useful for waterproofing wool, and museum conservators use it for cleaning delicate fabrics that can be harmed by modern soaps.
Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) is just coming into bloom and I like its dusty rose pink color with the beautiful blue of vervain. I found them on the rocky banks of the Ashuelot River.
Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) isn’t covered with sharp spines like the larger bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) that most of us have tangled with. Though it does have spines along the leaf margins and stem, they are quite small. Despite its common name the plant is actually a native of Europe but has spread to virtually every country in the northern hemisphere. It has a deep and extensive creeping root system and is nearly impossible to eradicate once it gains a foothold. For that reason it is considered a noxious weed in many states.
Along with lilacs and peonies, the common orange daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) is a plant you’ll find growing near old stone cellar holes out in the middle of nowhere and along old New England roads. It is also found in cemeteries often planted beside the oldest graves. It is one of those plants that were passed from neighbor to neighbor and spread quickly because of it. It is also very tough; my brother used to mow his when they finished blooming and they still came back and bloomed year after year. It is both loved for being so easy to grow and hated for being so common.
This plant was introduced into the United States from Asia in the late 1800s as an ornamental and plant breeders have now registered over 40,000 cultivars, all of which have “ditch lily” genes and all of which have the potential to spread just like the original has. If you find yourself doing battle with a particularly weedy daylily, no matter the color, there’s a very good chance that the common orange is one of its parents.
Phlox whispered that fall is on the way but I didn’t want to hear it. It seems like just yesterday that I was taking photos of spring beauties.
Herb Robert is a geranium that has never appeared on this blog because I’ve never found it in the wild until just recently on the banks of the Ashuelot River in Surry, which is north of Keene. My question, once I had identified it, was: Robert who? As it turns out Robert was a French monk who lived in 1000 AD and cured many people’s diseases using this plant, and that leads to another common name: Saint Robert’s Herb. If you crush its leaves they are said to smell like burning tires, so yet another common name is stinky Bob.
A very curious fact about this plant is how many people, scientists included, have discovered that it grows most abundantly in areas that have high levels of radiation. It is thought to absorb the radiation from the soil, break it down and disperse it. If I had a Geiger counter I’d go back and check the bedrock outcrop that I found it growing on.
Friends let their radishes go to seed this year and among the rows of plain white flowers was a beautiful pink one. Since Henry David Thoreau instilled a spirit of nonconformity in me when I read his words as a boy, I was happy to see this plant breaking ranks and doing its own thing. Many of the plants found in nurseries are those that have done the same.
It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. ~Henry David Thoreau
Thanks for stopping in.