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Archive for July, 2018

As I’ve said recently in previous posts it has been mostly sunny, hot and dry here so far this summer and now a large part of the state is once again in a moderate drought, for about the third year in a row. Small streams and wetlands are again drying up so last Saturday I decided to go and see how Beaver Brook in Keene was faring. I hadn’t done a post about the place since February so I thought it was time. I like to see the seasonal changes that take place in the various places I visit. It’s how I really get to know the places and the plants that grow in them. The trail through this particular place was once a road north out of Keene, but it was abandoned in the 1970s when a state highway crossed it. Now nature is in the process of reclaiming it.

The first flower I saw blooming on this day was the little lobelia called Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata.)

This lobelia gets its common name from its inflated seed pods, which are said to resemble the pouches that Native Americans carried their smoking materials in. It’s too early for those but there were plenty of the tiny blue flowers to see.

There is lots of poison ivy here (Toxicodendron radicans,) all along the left side of the old road as you walk up it, so it’s best to wear long pants, hiking boots and socks if you come here. That’s what I always wear anyway and, though I’ve heard you can get a rash just by getting the plant’s oils on your clothes, I’ve walked through knee high poison ivy plants hundreds of times with no ill effects. I tend to be somewhat immune to it though; if I get it on my hand it stays there and doesn’t spread.

Just in case you do start to itch, jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) grows along the right side of the road. If you crush the stems of jewelweed and rub the sap on poison ivy blisters it will stop the itch. It doesn’t cure the rash but it stops the itch as well as calamine lotion does. There are people out there who don’t believe this is true but I’ve used it many times and it works, so I’ll continue using it and the non-believers can scratch. With plants being used even in cancer and HIV treatments I’m not sure why some people have a hard time believing that a plant can stop a simple itch, but they do.

I was shocked to see that a huge portion of ledge had fallen; shocked because I used to kneel right where the stone pile is to get photos of the helleborine orchids that grew there. The stone is white (actually sort of pink) because it is feldspar, and the biggest piece lying at an angle behind the plants is as long as a car. It’s always risky to walk near ledges and this is why. Ledges line almost the entire road and so many years of water seeping between the layers of rock and freezing in winter has cracked them badly, so none of it is stable; it’s all very loose. The city should come in with an excavator and peel away all the loose stone but they don’t even cut brush correctly here, so I know that isn’t going to happen. I’ll be staying well back from the ledges from now on.

The reason the ledges are here at all is because this road was hacked out of the stone of the hillside back in the 1700s. This photo shows a hole in the feldspar made by a star drill. A star drill is a pointed, five sided, two foot long piece of steel. You can tell a star drill was used because you can see the star, as it shows in this photo. To use it one man holds the drill while another strikes it with a sledge hammer. After each hammer blow the drill is turned a quarter turn and then the hammer falls again and again the drill is turned, and so on until a hole is made. Once you have a hole you fill it with black powder, insert and light a fuse, and run as fast as you can. At least, that’s what you do if you happen to live in the 1700s. Feldspar is a softer stone but it was still a tremendous amount of work. After all, someone had to clean up all that blasted stone.

Stone isn’t the only thing falling here. Trees fall regularly and many get hung up on the electric lines that still run alongside the road.

In some places the ledges pull back away from the road as you can see there on the left, but in many places the ledges come right up to the road. You can also see how the trees lean over the electric wires on the right. It’s all about light and plants lean towards the light to get more of it, so this will never stop happening no matter how many trees fall or how many are cut. The hole in the canopy that lets in light is over the road.

The double yellow no passing lines still run down the center of the road even though there hasn’t been a car here for nearly 50 years.

The old guard posts still line the road but they are slowly rotting away.

I met an old timer up here once who told me that he had seen Beaver Brook flood badly enough to come up over the road and I believe it, because you can see where it’s eating away at the edge of the road all along it. This old concrete culvert finally gave up and slid into the brook.  You can also see the size of the boulders that the brook tosses around like pebbles when it rages. And it does rage; I’ve seen it roaring and angry enough to make me leave this place, but normally it just giggles and chuckles along beside you as you walk along.

On this day though, there was little chuckling and giggling to be heard, because the brook had all but dried up to a gurgle. I could walk from bank to bank in this spot without getting my feet wet, and that’s something I’ve never been able to do before. In a normal year I would have been in serious trouble if I had tried to stand in this spot, though it’s actually getting hard to remember what a normal year was like. It seems we’ve had extreme weather take over our thoughts for the past few years.

It’s time to say goodbye to thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) for another year. The seed head will grow on for a while longer and then the seeds will fall.

Purple trillium (Trillium erectum) was also busy making seeds. Trilliums are all about the number three and multiples of it, so the seed chamber has six parts. The fleshy seeds are prized by ants because they have a sweet, pulpy coating that they eat, so many of the trilliums we see have most likely been planted by ants. It takes about five years for a trillium to go from seed to flower.

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) grew on the end of a log. Though they look like bracket fungi oyster mushrooms have off center stems that attach to the log they grow on. Mushrooms are often eaten by tiny worms called nematodes that live on plant and fungal tissue, but not oyster mushrooms. Scientists discovered in 1986 that oyster mushrooms “exude extracellular toxins that stun worms, whereupon the mycelium enters its body through orifices.” What this means is that oyster mushrooms are actually carnivorous. They also consume bacteria in order to get nitrogen and protein. These examples looked like they had slug damage, so the mushroom apparently hasn’t evolved a defense against them.

I saw the most colorful tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius) that I’ve ever seen. It had bands of purple and orange and red and that’s unusual, because they’re normally gray, brown, and sometimes a little cream colored. I’ve also seen these tough, woody fungi with squirrel teeth marks all over them in the past but I didn’t see any on this example. I think the squirrels are after the algae that grow on the fungus. They do the same thing with certain lichens. I can’t explain the colors; it’s something I’ve never seen in person or in books.

I saw a very dark colored toad that looked black in person but looks dark green in the photo. It looks like it has somehow lost most of its left front foot. Or maybe it was making a fist. It seemed to hop just fine.

I made the treacherous climb down the steep gravel embankment that leads to Beaver Brook Falls and found what I expected; barely a trickle. The water usually falls with a roar heard from quite far away but on this day there was a little splashing going on that hardly echoed off the stone walls of the canyon. I’ve never seen the falls with so little water coming over them.

This is what the falls normally look like and they probably look much like this right now, because since I went there last weekend it hasn’t stopped raining. We’ve had rain and storms every day since, totaling up to about 4 inches of rain here. We’ve even had flash flood warnings, so I suppose we need to be careful what we wish for in this age of weather extremes. From drought to flood in one post.

The air is impressively warm and close, as thick as honey. ~Lucy Foley

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Asters in mid-July? I couldn’t believe my eyes when saw this aster blooming along a roadside. Asters will sometimes bloom in mid-August but most usually wait until the end of August and even into September. They can be hard to identify and this one had me scratching my head until I looked at the leaves. There is only one aster that I know of with big, hand size leaves and that is the big-leaved aster (Eurybia macrophylla.) But that aster has always had white flowers in my experience, so I had to hit the books to find out what was going on. According to what I read the big-leaved aster can indeed have purple flowers, but this is the first one I’ve seen wearing that color. You really do learn something new every day in nature.

This is an example of the big leaf found on the big-leaved aster. They grow at the base of the stem at ground level, and get smaller higher up on the stem. Big leaf asters are one of the first to bloom in this area.

Our native purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) have just started blooming. This plant is well known for its medicinal qualities as well as its beauty. According to the USDA the plant was used by many Native American tribes throughout North America to treat a variety of ailments. It was used as a pain reliever, anti-inflammatory, as a treatment for toothaches, coughs, colds, and sore throats. It was also used as an antidote for various forms of poisonings, including snake bite. Portions of it were also used to dress wounds and treat infections. Modern medicine has found it useful to combat bacterial and viral infections and as an immune system booster. I grow it because butterflies and bees like its nectar, birds like the seeds, and I like to admire its beauty.

This is only the second time Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis) has appeared on this blog because it is rare here. I first found the 6 inch high plant last year and I was surprised by how small it was. The single plant had a single flower that I thought it would be as big as a tradescantia blossom but it was only half that size. It is an introduced plant from China and Japan but it could hardly be called invasive because I’ve seen exactly two of them in 60+ years. I’d like to see more of them; I love that shade of blue.

Brittle stem hemp nettle (Galeopsis tetrahit) is originally from Europe and Asia and is considered highly invasive in some areas, but it is hard to find here. It is an annual, growing new from seed each year. Its small purple flowers grow in whorls near the top of the plant, which is often branched.

Brittle stem hemp nettle flowers have a large 3 part lower lip where insects land. From there insects can follow dark purple stripes into the blossom. Once inside they’ll pick up some pollen from the 4 stamens that arc along the inside of the upper lip and hopefully pass it on to another flower. This example had lots of pollen to share. The 3/4 inch long flowers have long white hairs on their upper lip and the square stems are also covered in hairs. When you run your fingers over any part of the plant you can feel its stiff, bristly hairs but they don’t embed themselves in you, thankfully

When I was a boy all I ever saw were pure white bindweed flowers but then all of the sudden they became pink and white bicolor bindweed flowers. Now it has gotten difficult to find a white example but I saw this one and many more with it in a field recently. It reminded me of playing in milkweed scented fields with grass up to my shoulders watching big black and yellow garden spiders weaving their nests. I never see them anymore either.

Soapwort’s (Saponaria officinalis) leaves contain a natural soap called sapronin. When the leaves are crushed and scrubbed together in water a soapy lather forms. In the past this plant was used for washing clothes and making soap. It hails from Europe and though it is used medicinally it is considered toxic and some people have violent toxic reactions to it. I’ve heard that soapwort is also called bouncing bet because of the way the unusual recurved petals bounce the flowers in a breeze, but I’ve also heard that bouncing bet was a name once used for a laundry woman. It grows to about knee high on a good day but I’ve also seen it sprawl along the ground. It was originally introduced as a garden plant and promptly escaped.

Soapwort flowers can be pink or lavender in full sun and whiter in shade. They usually have 10 stamens and always seem to have quite narrow petals when compared to the more rounded petals of a plant like phlox. The more curved the petals it is said, the older the flower.

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) is a European native that has been cultivated for centuries. The flat flower heads are made up of many button like disc flowers; almost like a daisy without the white ray flowers that we call petals. Tansy is a natural insect repellent and was used as such in colonial times. Dried tansy added to the straw in mattresses was said to keep bedbugs away. Most tansy plants are seen in gardens but it had naturalized itself in New England by 1785 and can still be occasionally found growing along roadsides. It’s a good plant to use in vegetable gardens for pest control. The ancient Greeks grew tansy for medicinal use but modern science has found it to be toxic.

I saw a beautiful flower on the side of the road and stopped to see something I had never seen. I loved the color of it.

A closer look told me it was a campanula and after some research I think it might be a clustered bellflower (Campanula glomerata,) which is a garden escapee. It is said to be a “vigorous rhizomatous perennial” originally from Europe and Japan. This is the first time I’ve seen it but I wonder how long it will take before it is a common sight along our roadsides, like the highly invasive purple loosestrife. There were several plants in this spot.

There are a few orchids blooming now and one is the broad leaved helleborine orchid (Epipactis helleborine.) These orchids are originally from Europe and Asia and were first spotted in this country in Syracuse, New York in 1879. The plant 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 and every time I see them they’re growing in deep shade. I’ve never been able to find out how the plant comes by its common name. It seems a bit odd because it doesn’t seem to resemble either hellebore or false hellebore, though the pleated leaves are close to those of false hellebore.

As I was taking photos of the tiny flowers an even tinier insect showed up. Scientists have discovered that the flowers of the broad leaved helleborine orchids have a secret; their nectar contains the strongest narcotic compounds found in nature; comparable to oxycodone they say, and when insects sip it they get quite a buzz and tend to stagger 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. I’m sorry this photo is so poor but these orchids grow in the shade and this is an extreme close up.

Once the insect flies off it will most likely be stoned enough to be 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 its intoxicating nectar. But it doesn’t happen quickly; this insect crawled right into the cup and decided to stay for a while. Maybe it was too tipsy to fly.

Arrowleaf tearthumb (Polygonum sagittatum) is in the smartweed family, which gets its common name from the way your tongue will smart if you eat its peppery parts. Though the flower buds in this family of plants seem like they never open they do, sort of. They look like they only open about halfway though and I find the buds as pretty as the blossoms. This plant is a kind of rambler / sprawler that winds its way over nearby plants so it can get as much sunshine as possible. It often grows in deep shade but it will also grow in full sun, so it has covered all the bases.

Tearthumb got that name because it will indeed tear your thumb or any other body part that comes into contact with it. Many a gardener has regretted trying to pull it up without gloves on, because when the small but sharp barbs (prickles, botanically) along its stems slip through your hand they act like a saw and make you sorry that you ever touched it. The plant uses these prickles for support when it climbs over other plants, and they work well. Sometimes the stems and prickles are red but in this example they were green. Tearthumb is considered a wetland indicator because it likes to grow in very moist to wet soil. I almost always find it near water, often blooming quite late into summer.

I remembered a spot where last year I saw what I thought were the only examples of panicled tick trefoil (Desmodium paniculatum) I had ever seen. When I returned this year I was very happy to see that there were even more plants but I have done more research and discovered that I misidentified them. Though the long thin shape of its flower head is correct the flowers are not.

After quite a lot of searching I’m not finding this one in my guide books or online under trefoil or Desmodium so now I’m wondering if it even is a trefoil. It’s definitely in the pea / bean family but that’s as far as I can go. It’s quite pretty and grows along a roadside in full sun. Each plant is probably about 3 feet tall but they lean on surrounding plants and each other so they’re all in a jumble. If you happen to know its name I’d love for you to let me know.

The pale yellow flowers of tall lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) are often tinted by red or pink on their edges. This is a native lettuce that can reach 10 feet tall with 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 leaves on the same plant looking different from each other.  Native Americans used this plant medicinally. The milky white sap contains lactucarium, a sedative and analgesic. It is still used in medicines today.

Away from the tumult of motor and mill
I want to be care-free; I want to be still!
I’m weary of doing things; weary of words
I want to be one with the blossoms and birds.
~Edgar A. Guest

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It was another of those hot, humid July days last Sunday so I decided to see if the air conditioner was running up in the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland. It was, and the relief was immediate. This man-made canyon creates its own breeze and the air blowing over the moist canyon walls usually runs about 10 degrees cooler than it is “out there” in the world. It was wonderful to stand there and be cooled but taking photos was a chore because it was very dark due to all the overhanging trees. I had to use the flash to get this photo, which is the mediocre best of a poor lot. But it does show you what I’m talking about and I guess that’s the point.

The railroad used a lot of the stone they blasted out of the bedrock in the previous photo to build walls, and as a dry stone wall builder myself I can say that they’re impressive. This example is a massive retaining wall, built to keep the hillside from flowing onto the rail bed. You can’t tell from the photo but it tilts back into the hillside at about 10 degrees, just as any good retaining wall should. It’s probably also much thicker at the base than at the top. Not quite Mayan joints but close enough for me; these walls have stood without losing a stone for over 150 years.

I stopped to look at what I thought were intermediate wood ferns (Dryopteris intermedia.)

A look at the back of the leaf confirmed that they were indeed intermediate wood ferns. The tiny spore bearing sori are part way between the central vein and the outer edges of the pinnules. A pinnule in botanical terms is a secondary division of a pinnate leaf, but I usually just think of them as leaflets and in my own mind don’t pay much attention to the fancy (but correct) terminology. It just doesn’t seem as important as it once did. The beauty of it all is enough these days.

And I saw plenty of beauty here, like these fern like leaves of wild chervil, which grows along the trail. Wild chervil is thought to have come over from Europe in wildflower seed mixes. It has been growing in this area since the early 1900s and is considered a noxious weed in places. Wild chervil contains chemical compounds which have been shown to have anti-tumor and anti-viral properties. It isn’t the same plant as cultivated chervil used to flavor soups though, so it shouldn’t be eaten.

Daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus) had a visitor so I didn’t want to intrude. There are an amazing amount of insects here.

What I think was a cabbage white moth rested on a leaf in a shaft of sunlight. Ancient superstition said that a white moth embodied the soul of a loved one. This came from the ancient belief that the night is a dwelling place for souls and it is also the realm of the moth.

In winter this place is like a frozen Arctic wasteland but in summer it becomes a lush paradise with an incredible variety of species growing on every square inch of ground.

Plants, mosses, liverworts, fungi, and algae all grow on the stone walls of the canyon and add to the lushness. In summer this place reminds me of the Shangri-La described by James Hilton in his novel Lost Horizon. For someone who dreamed of exploring the Amazon Jungle as a boy, it’s the next best thing.

One of the most unusual things growing here are these green algae, called Trentepohlia aurea. Though it is called green algae a carotenoid pigment in the algal cells called hematochrome or beta-carotene color the algae orange by hiding their green chlorophyll.  It is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange color.

The algae are surprisingly hairy and in some cases can produce enough spores to color the rain. When you hear of a red, black, or green rain falling algae spores are almost always the reason why. I’ve never seen these examples producing spores but then I wonder if I’d even know that they were doing so. The spores must be microscopic. Everything you see here would fit on a penny with room to spare.

Much of the growth along the side of the trail is spotted jewelweed (Impatiens capensis.) Jewelweed doesn’t mind shade and many thousands of plants grow here.

Out of all the many thousands of jewelweed plants I saw just one with a flower, and this is it. The white pollen at the top of the opening tells us that this is a male flower. Soon there will be many thousands of flowers, both male and female.

There are also many flowering raspberry plants growing here and many were still blooming. Purple flowering raspberry (Rubus odoratus) is in the rose family and it isn’t hard to tell by the flowers, but the big light gathering leaves look more like a maple than a rose. The big leaves give it a certain tolerance for low light, and that’s how it can grow here so well. The fruit looks like a giant raspberry, about the size of the tip of your thumb. I’ve heard that it is close to tasteless but some say if you put a berry on the very tip of your tongue it will be delicious. I keep forgetting to try it.

Other berries found here include those of false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum.) These berries turn bright red but before they do they are speckled red and green for a time. The plant is also called treacle berry because the berries taste like treacle or bitter molasses. They’re rich in vitamins and have been used to prevent scurvy, but large quantities of uncooked berries are said to act like a laxative so moderation is called for. Native Americans inhaled the fumes from burning roots to treat headache and body pain. They also used the leaves and roots in medicinal teas.

The railroad dug drainage ditches on either side of the rail bed and because the groundwater constantly seeps through the stone the ditches always have water in them, no matter how hot or dry it has been. I always wear rubber boots when I come here so I can walk in them and get closer to the canyon walls when I need to. I have to be quick though because stones of all sizes fall from the walls. For the first time I actually heard one fall on this day. It must have been small because it made a clacking sound. Thankfully it didn’t fall near me.

One of the reasons I like to walk in the drainage ditches is because greater scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) grow on the stone and I like to see them up close. Two winters ago I saw an alarming amount of them turn an ashy gray and they appeared to have died, but since then the many colonies seem to have bounced back. Scientists say that liverworts are like “a canary in a coal mine” because they are very vulnerable to environmental changes and will be one of the first organisms to show the effects of climate change. On this day most of them looked good and healthy.

This is one of the most beautiful liverworts in my opinion because of its reptilian appearance, which is caused by the way its pores and air chambers are outlined on its surface. It is the only liverwort with this feature so it is very easy to identify. And, if you squeeze a small piece and smell it you’ll immediately smell one of the cleanest scents found in nature that I know of. In general liverworts are a sign of very clean water, so that says a lot about the quality of the groundwater in this place.

In this photo you can see how wet the stones are from the ever dripping groundwater. All that water means that many plants with tap roots or extensive root systems like dandelions and even shrubs and trees can grow in the thin soil that is found on horizontal surfaces. This photo shows a Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) that has grown on the stone and fallen over. Though it’s growing on stone it’s perfectly healthy and even has produced berries. Jack in the pulpits have corms for roots. A corm is a kind of flattened bulb and other plants like crocus and gladiolus grow from them.

I saw many Jack in the pulpits here and most had berries that hadn’t ripened yet. When ripe these berries will be bright red and shiny like they’ve been lacquered. Deer love them and will chomp off the entire stalk of berries when they can. That’s why it’s so hard to show you a photo of ripe Jack in the pulpit berries.

I finally reached my turn around spot, which is the old lineman’s shack at one end of the deep cut canyon. I usually dawdle here for a while, marveling at how a building that has so many missing pieces can still stand. So many boards have been taken from it there isn’t much left, but so far it still makes it through our snowy winters. It fits the very definition of well built, but that’s how they did things in those days.

This is where the planks from the lineman’s shack end up; as bridges across the drainage ditches. They do come in handy but I’d still rather see them on the lineman’s shack.

To look at any thing,
If you would know that thing,
You must look at it long.
~John Moffitt

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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Despite the heat and dryness many flowers continue to appear. Daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus) started blooming a while ago. This plant has a very long blooming period; I see them in early June blooming profusely and then sporadically through the following months, even into November. I usually find more of them in waste places but I see them just about everywhere I go. It is considered a pioneer species, meaning it is one of the first plants to grow in unused pastures, or cleared or burned areas. Woodchucks and rabbits will eat the leaves and stems. Native Americans made a tea from the plant which was used as medicine for digestive ailments. Fleabanes get their name from the way the dried plants repel fleas.

Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is one of my favorite summer flowers because of its large, easy to see flowers and beautiful blue color. It also comes with a message of summer’s passing because summer is just about half over when it blooms, and it is a reunion that is both happy and wistful for me each year. Unfortunately it likes to grow in places that get mowed regularly, like along our roadsides. I’m always dismayed when I see such beautiful flowers being cut down but I have seen normal size flowers blooming on a plant no more than three inches tall, so though the plants may get mowed they aren’t being killed.

Another plant that comes with a message of summer’s passing is the black eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta,) and that message came earlier each year for a while. I think I saw it blooming in early June last year but this year it waited until July, and that’s more to my liking because I have always thought of it as a fall flower. It has a very long blooming period; often well into November, so I guess that’s why it says fall to me.

I don’t know what to say about this flower. It came as a surprise when it came up in a gravel parking lot where I work. I can say that it’s obviously in the same family as black eyed Susans (Rudbeckia,) but its flower is 4 times bigger with a lot of red on it. It’s quite pretty for a “weed.”

I have trouble seeing red against green due to colorblindness and that’s why you don’t see much red in these posts, but bee balm blossoms always stand high enough above the surrounding foliage to be clearly visible. The name bee balm comes from the way the juice from its crushed leaves will soothe a bee sting. Our native scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma) is also called Oswego tea, because the leaves were used to make tea by the Native American Oswego tribe of New York. Early settlers also used the plant for tea when they ran out of the real thing. It’s a beautiful flower that I’m always happy to see. Hummingbirds and butterflies love it too and will come from all over to sip its nectar.

Blue, bell shaped flowers all on one side of the stem can mean only one thing; creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides.) The pretty flowered plant was introduced as an ornamental from Europe and has escaped gardens to live in dry places that get full sun. It is a late bloomer but is usually finished by the time the goldenrods have their biggest flush of bloom. It is considered an invasive plant in some places because it is hard to get rid of once it has become established. It can choke out weaker native plants if it is left alone. It isn’t considered invasive here in New Hampshire though, and in fact I usually have to look for quite a while to find it. When I do it is usually growing on forest edges.

The flowers of creeping bellflower are obviously in the campanula family, if you’re familiar with that family of plants.

Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) blooms in the tall grass of unmown meadows, and this one was blooming in what is a large colony near a pond. This plant isn’t covered with sharp spines like the larger bull thistle but it does have small spines along the leaf margins and stem. 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.

I’m seeing a lot of pale spike lobelia (Lobelia spicata) this year. The plant gets its common name from its small flowers, which are usually a pale blue to almost white, but I’ve seen many that are darker like these examples. There is also a purple variant but I’ve never seen it.

Native Americans had many medicinal uses for lobelia and one of them was as a treatment for asthma. The plant must have worked well because early explorers took it back across the Atlantic where it is still used medicinally today. It has to be used with great care by those who know how to use it though, because too much of it can kill.

This shy little Deptford pink (Dianthus armeria) peeked out of the tall grass from under a tree. They don’t always grow in the same large clumps as their cousins the maiden pinks (Dianthus deltoids) do, but I saw a few this day. They also don’t have the same bold, jagged, deep maroon ring near their center as maiden pinks do, and that’s a good means of identification. Both plants are originally from Europe and have escaped cultivation. Maiden pinks seem to prefer open lawns and meadows while Deptford pinks hide their beautiful little faces in the sunny edges of the forest.

No matter how many times I see the Allegheny monkey flower (Mimulus ringens) I don’t see a monkey, but whoever named it obviously did. This plant gets about knee high and likes to grow in wet, sunny places, and isn’t all that common. I usually have a hard time finding it. This year I’ve seen exactly one plant and I hope nobody picks it so it will get pollinated and go to seed.

Allegheny monkey flowers have square stems and are also called square stemmed monkey flowers. The throat of this flower is partially closed and bumblebees are one of the few insects strong enough to pry it open to get at the nectar. Native Americans and early settlers sometimes used the leaves as an edible green.

Showy tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense) is a legume in the bean family. This plant gets part of its common name from the little barbed hairs that cover the seed pods and make them stick to clothing like ticks, much like enchanter’s nightshade. The “showy” part of its common name comes from the way that so many of its small pink flowers bloom at once. As the plant sets seeds its erect stems bend lower to the ground so the barbed seed pods can catch in the fur of passing animals. I saw these examples in an unmown meadow.

Showy tick trefoil has pretty flowers that are obviously in the pea / bean family. It is also called Canada trefoil. One odd fact about this plant is that there are no known uses of it by Native Americans or colonials. From my experience that’s rare among native plants in this area. Maybe they just picked the beautiful flowers and used them to decorate their homes.

I know a place where the wild thyme grows sounds like something out of Shakespeare but I do know such a place and the thyme is blooming. Bees love thyme so I’m sure they are just ecstatic.

If you want to drive yourself crazy for a while try getting a shot of a single thyme blossom. Ancient Egyptians used thyme for embalming and the ancient Greeks used it in their baths and burnt it as incense in their temples, believing it was a source of courage, so it has been with us for a very long time.

Vervain (Verbena hastata) is described as having reddish blue or violet flowers but I see a beautiful blue color. Somebody else must have seen the same thing, because they named the plant blue vervain. Vervain can get quite tall and has erect, terminal flower clusters. The plant likes wet places and I find it near ponds and ditches.

Vervain flowers are quite small but there are usually so many blooming that they’re easy to spot. The bitter roots of this plant were used medicinally by Native Americans to relieve gastric irritation, as an expectorant, and to induce sweating. The seeds were roasted and ground into a flour or meal by some tribes, and the flowers were dried and used as snuff to treat nose bleeds. Natives introduced the plant to the European settlers and they used it in much the same ways.

There are enough goldenrods (over 100) that look enough alike to make me absolutely sure that I don’t want to invest much time in trying to identify them all, but some are easy. Gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) is one of those. It’s one of the earliest to bloom and always looks as if a strong wind has blown all of the flowers over to one side of the stem. Even though it is one of the earliest to bloom this year it’s blooming even earlier than usual. Goldenrod blooming alongside purple loosestrife is a beautiful scene that I look forward to seeing all summer.

Almost every person, from childhood, has been touched by the untamed beauty of wildflowers. ~Lady Bird Johnson

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Our hot dry weather continues, and the more visible stones there are in the Ashuelot River the lower the water. This is normal in the in late July and August, but it has been this way since May, and that isn’t normal. Or maybe it’s the new normal.

Despite the low water levels I’m seeing a lot of dragonflies, like this 12 spotted skimmer.  Males are sometimes called 10 spotted skimmers, but apparently it depends on whether you count the white spots or brown spots. Only males have white spots between the brown. I’ve read that mature males seldom perch, but this one returned to its twig again and again.

I’m not sure about the identity of this dragonfly, but it might be a dusky club tail. There is a similar dragonfly called the ashy club tail though, and I’ve read that care needs to be taken in identification of the two. Since I have no field guides that are very helpful for dragonflies I’ll leave it up to those more knowledgeable than I to make an identification, if they care to. Males of both species have blue gray eyes and very similar markings and colorblindness keeps me from seeing any obvious differences.

The widow skimmer is another common dragonfly with brown and white wing patches, but only males have the white markings. One day it seemed like hundreds of them flew at a local pond and that is a good thing, because they eat mosquitoes.

I’m not sure what was going on here; either an ant and a spider were fighting or an ant was carrying a big striped egg. Whatever was going on it was all taking place on a Queen Anne’s lace flower head.

There have been times when butterflies literally landed at my feet on various trails but so far this year I can’t get near them. This one did sit still for more than a few seconds though, so I was able to get a poor shot of it. I think it’s a white admiral.

I saw these strange little pencil eraser size brown things on a log recently. They were small enough so I had to use my camera to see the details and when I did I realized they were the chocolate tube slime mold (Stemenitis) that I had been hoping to see for a very long time.

Chocolate tube slime molds get their common name from their long brown sporangia, which stand at the top of thin black, horsehair like stalks. They typically grow in clusters on rotting wood and are found on every continent on earth except Antarctica. They are also called “pipe cleaner slime molds” or “tree hair.” There are thought to be about 18 species which can only be accurately identified with a microscope. Some can be quite long and look like sea anemones, but these examples were short; about a half inch long. They start life as a white plasmodial mass before becoming a cluster of small yellow bumps, and they in turn grow into what you see here.

Once its spores have been released the chocolate tube slime mold kind of melts away, and this is what is left.

I saw a good example of scrambled egg slime mold (Fuligo septica) on another log. This common slime mold grows in full sun on logs, wood mulch or wood chips and is easily seen because it can get quite large. It also produces the largest spore producing structure of any known slime mold. At the stage shown the slime mold has formed a crust and before long it will darken in color and begin to release its spores.

Porcupine sedge (Carex hystericina) is blossoming. This common sedge is also called bottlebrush sedge and I usually find it on the shores of ponds or in wet ditches.

The flowers of porcupine sedge are so small they are almost microscopic, but you can see them here. They are the whitish wisps that appear at the ends of the spiky protrusions, which are called perigynia. Waterfowl and other birds love its seeds.

Another sedge that was flowering recently was this bladder sedge (Carex intumescens.) The wispy white flowers look like those on porcupine sedge but these are larger and easier to see. This is another sedge I find on pond edges and wet places.  I thinks it’s one of the prettier sedges.

I think anyone who has spent much time on a riverbank or pond shore has seen brown wooly sedge (Scirpus cyperinus,) but I can’t remember ever seeing it flowering before like it’s doing here. It is also called cotton grass bulrush, I’d guess because of the cottony look of its many white flowers. This is a big, clumping sedge with three foot tall flower spikes but the flowers are so small I couldn’t even get a useable photo of them. In time these tiny flowers become even fuzzier and look more cottony than they do in this photo.

I hope everyone takes the time to look at grasses because some can be quite beautiful when they flower. The latest one I saw blossoming was this Timothy grass (Phleum pretense.) This well-known grass was brought to North America by early settlers and was first found in New Hampshire in 1711 by John Hurd. A farmer named Timothy Hanson began promoting cultivation of it as a hay crop about 1720 and the grass has carried his name ever since.

Timothy grass flowers from June until September and is noted for its cold and drought resistance. It’s an excellent hay crop for horses. Each tall flower head is filled with tiny florets, each one with three purple stamens and two wispy white stigmas. The flower heads often look purple when they are flowering.

An oak tree came up in deep shade and decided it didn’t need to photosynthesize, since it never saw any sunshine. It might grow on but I doubt it will last long unless an older tree falls and opens up a hole in the canopy.

You see lots of photos of the fuzzy red berries of staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) but you never see the flowers that the berries come from, so I like to show them now and then. The big green flower heads were just coming into bloom when I took this photo.

The small, yellow-green, five petaled, fuzzy flowers will never win any prizes at a flower show but they’re interesting and always remind me of poison ivy flowers, even though they aren’t poisonous.

Many people forage for and eat (or drink) the fuzzy red berries of staghorn sumac just as Native Americans did. This year there will be plenty because, as this photo shows, the birds have hardly touched them. I’ve read that the berries “yield a fine claret colored spice that is deliciously tart and clean tasting.” I’ve heard they taste like lemon, and I know that a drink that could easily pass for lemonade can be made with them. They are said to be very high in vitamins C and A. In Europe a different sumac, Rhus coriraria, is used in much the same way. Why the birds don’t eat the berries like they do in other parts of the country is a mystery to me.

Sarsaparilla plants are interesting at all times of year. In spring their leaves appear in threes at the top of  thin stalks and quickly turn to shiny bronze. In summer they display patterns made by leaf miners, and in late summer when I don’t want to think about fall yet they are among the first leaves in the understory to turn yellow. I have a hard time imagining  an insect so small it can eat its way between the top and bottom surfaces of a leaf but the patterns they make can be interesting.

I was mowing one afternoon quite far from any shelter when these clouds decided that a 20 minute, torrential downpour would be fun. Luckily I found a place where I could stay relatively dry and when the storm broke mare’s tail clouds formed as I watched. Mare’s tails are a type of cirrus cloud known as cirrus uncinus, which means “curly hooks” in Latin. When they appear with altocumulus clouds they often mean that a storm is brewing. I should have been paying attention to their message before the rainstorm.

It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. ~Henry David Thoreau

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A lot of our aquatics and pond side plants bloom at this time of year and one of the prettiest is meadow sweet (Spirea alba.) This plant likes moist ground and I have found it near water more often than not but lately I’ve been seeing it in drier spots as well. Its flowers have long stamens that always make them look kind of fuzzy. Some people confuse this plant, which is a shrub, with steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa), which is also a shrub, but steeplebush has pink flowers and the undersides of its leaves are silvery-white, while the undersides of meadowsweet leaves are green.

Aquatic common arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia) grows just off shore and is also called broadleaf arrowhead and duck potato, because ducks eat its small, potato like roots and seeds. All arrowheads that I’ve seen always have three pure white petals, but I’ve heard that some can be tinged with pink. Flowers are about an inch across. In late fall or early spring, disturbing the mud in which they grow will cause arrowhead’s small tuberous roots to float to the surface. They are said to have the texture of potatoes but taste more like chestnuts. They were an important food for Native Americans, who sliced the roots thinly and dried them and then ground them into a powder that was used much like flour. Ducks, beavers, muskrats and other birds and animals eat the seeds, roots, and leaves.

We have many different varieties of St. Johnswort and the one above I first thought was  dwarf St. Johnswort (Hypericum mutilum,) but the flowers were too big. Dwarf St. Johnswort flowers are about the size of a pencil eraser and these are nearly the size of common St. Johnswort. So then I thought it might be pale St. Johnswort (Hypericum ellipticum) but the flowers aren’t pale yellow, they’re bright lemon yellow.  Note how big the leaves are; much bigger than common St. Johnswort.

Dwarf St. Johnswort, pale St. Johnswort, and this St. Johnswort all grow in the wet mud at pond edges.
I’ve had trouble sorting it out with plant guides but if you know I’d welcome your thoughts. It’s a very pretty flower and obviously a St. Johnswort.

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.

Native Americans washed and boiled young pickerel weed’s 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.

Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) is a geranium that grows 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.

This is the first time white avens (Geum canadense) has appeared here, mostly because I’ve always been too late to get a photo of it. I know of only one place where it grows and thimbleweed also grows there. With its bigger, showier flowers thimbleweed has always stolen the show and I’ve forgotten about white avens. Each flowers is about a half inch across with 5 white petals and many anthers. The anthers start out white and then turn brown and you usually find both on each flower. Each flower becomes a seed head with hooked seeds that will stick to hair or clothing.

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, and you can just see a hint of green on two or three of these. That means if you see them in bloom that’s the time to get a photo. There are usually plenty of yellowish stamens surrounding a center head full of pistils, even after the flowers turn green. These flowers are close to the diameter of a quarter; about an inch.

Thimble weed’s seed head continues growing after the sepals have fallen off and it becomes thimble shaped, which is where the common name comes from. Though the plant is poisonous Native Americans used the root to ease whooping cough and the smoke from the seeds was used to treat breathing difficulties.

Last year I found a small colony of long leaf speedwell (Veronica longifolia.) I’m happy to say it looks bigger this year. I’ve never seen it growing in the wild before then. It’s a pretty plant that is native to Europe and China and grows on steppes, grassy mountain slopes, meadows at forest edges and birch forests. Here in the U.S. it is commonly found in gardens but it has obviously escaped. It certainly doesn’t seem to be aggressive or invasive. I love its showy blue flower spikes.

Each tiny long leaf speedwell blossom is purple–blue or occasionally white, about a quarter inch across and 4 lobed with quite a long tube. Each has 2 stamens and a single pistil.

I like both single and double roses. This beautiful example of a single rose had enough scent for both.

Perennial pea (Lathyrus latifolius) is a beautiful little flower that I’ve never seen before. Originally from Europe it has been grown in gardens here in the U.S. since the 1700s. Of course it has escaped gardens and now can be found along roadsides and in waste areas. I found these plants growing along a small stream and I was surprised that I had never seen them before. It is a vining plant that I’ve read can reach 9 feet, but these weren’t more than a foot tall, so maybe they’re young plants. It is also called wild sweet pea, everlasting pea, and hardy sweet pea. The pods and seeds are toxic and shouldn’t be eaten.

Crown vetch (Securigera varia) has just come into bloom and I’m happy to see it because I think it’s a beautiful flower. It’s one of those that seem to glow with their own inner light and I enjoy just looking at it for a time. Crown vetch has seed pods look that like axe heads and English botanist John Gerard called the plant axewort and axeseed in 1633. It is thought that its seeds somehow ended up in other imported plant material because the plant was found in New York in 1869. By 1872 it had become naturalized in New York and now it is in every state in the country except Alaska.

Humble little narrow-leaf cow wheat (Melampyrum lineare) seems like a shy little thing but it is actually a thief that steals nutrients from surrounding plants. A plant that can photosynthesize and create its own food but is still a parasite on surrounding plants is known as a hemiparasite. Its long white, tubular flowers tipped with yellow-green are very small, and usually form in pairs where the leaves meet the stem (axils). I find this plant growing in old, undisturbed forests. It is quite common, but so small that few seem to notice it. The tiny flowers bloom at about shoe top height.

I like a challenge and each year at this time my greatest challenge comes from the tiny flowers of enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana canadensis.) This woodland plant is a shade lover and I notice it along trails only when it blooms in July. It gets its scientific name Circaea from Circe, an enchantress in Homer’s Odyssey with a fondness for turning men into swine. There are similar plants native to Europe and Asia.

Each tiny 1/8 inch wide enchanter’s nightshade flower consists of 2 white petals that are split deeply enough to look like 4, 2 green sepals, 2 stamens, and a tiny central style. I’m guessing that I must have tried 50 times or more for this one photo and it still isn’t as good as I hoped it would be. It should be sharper.

At the base of each flower there is a 2 celled ovary that is green and covered with stiff hooked hairs, and this becomes the plant’s bur like seed pod, which sticks to just about anything. When a plant’s seed pods have evolved to be spread about by sticking to the feathers and fur of birds and animals the process is called epizoochory. The burs on burdock plants are probably the best known examples of epizoochory.

When our native yellow loosestrifes have all bloomed then it’s time for purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) to start in and despite the belief that they need wet places to grow in I found these plants at the edge of a dry cornfield. 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. Purple loosestrife chokes out native plants and forms monocultures. These colonies can be so large that finding a single plant is becoming very difficult.

Though it is much hated you can’t deny the beauty of purple loosestrife. I’ve worked for nurseries in the past and have had people come in wanting to buy “that beautiful purple flower that grows in wet areas.” In New Hampshire I could be heavily fined for selling or planting it.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is one of those flowers that take me out of myself. In my opinion it’s the most beautiful of all the milkweeds and is one of those flowers that I most look forward to seeing each summer. How could you not look forward to seeing something so beautiful? I could look at it all day. Swamp milkweed is somewhat rare here. I know of only two places it grows.

Maybe, beauty, true beauty, is so overwhelming it goes straight to our hearts. Maybe it makes us feel emotions that are locked away inside. ~James Patterson

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We had a single day of rain on Thursday the 29th so this past Sunday I thought I’d hike around Goose Pond in Keene. It’s a great place to find fungi and slime molds at this time of year and I thought the rain would have brought them out for sure. The trouble was the weather people were warning about dangerous heat, but I thought if I went early enough I’d miss the worst of it so at 9:00 am off I went. The sun was bright and hot in some places but this tall meadow rue (Thalictrum pubescens) wasn’t bothered by it.

Most of the trail around the pond is shaded so though it was warm and humid it didn’t seem too bad. Back in the old days people would either climb a mountain or find a lake or pond to escape the heat so I thought I would do the same. I have an old black and white photo somewhere that shows a woman dressed in 1800s garb walking along the shore of this pond.

Some of my favorite woodland scenery lies near Goose Pond. This fern filled glen is a special treat.

This is another favorite spot. I often see salamanders here. This spot says wild to me and the Goose Pond natural area is indeed a wilderness; a 500 acre wilderness. The vast forest tract has been left virtually untouched since the mid-1800s. The pond itself was once used as a water supply for the city of Keene and in 1865 it was enlarged to 42 acres. It takes a while to walk around it.

White pine trees have roots that lie just under the soil surface and when people walk on that soil it tends to disappear, and this is what happens. Much of the trail has exposed roots like these and where there aren’t roots there are stones and / or mud, so it’s best to wear good sturdy hiking shoes if you come here. I actually saw one lady wearing flip flops! I’m guessing that she’s never been here before. She had to stop every few feet and fix them, so I’m also guessing that she learned an awful lesson.

A century or more of people walking on tree roots can sand them down and even polish them, and I’ve seen some that were so beautiful I wished I had a saw so I could carry them home with me. They were like living sculptures. I thought this one was very pretty but it would have been even better with bark still on it.

Pipewort is an aquatic plant that grows in the mud just offshore. As the photo shows the stems have a twist and 7 ridges, and for those reasons it is called seven angle pipewort (Eriocaulon aquaticum.) The quarter inch flower heads are made up of tiny white, cottony flowers. Another common name for them is “hat pins.” I think this is the best shot I’ve ever gotten of one. They can be a tough subject.

American bur reed (Sparganium americanum) also  likes to grow just off shore and that’s where this one was, just beginning to flower. There are two types of flowers on these plants; the smaller and fuzzier male staminate flowers bloom at the top of the stem and the larger pistillate female flowers blossom lower down. After pollination the female flowers become a bur like cluster of beaked fruits that ducks and other waterfowl love. These plants, though native, act like invasive aliens and can fill small ponds quickly.

What I think were creeping spike rush plants (Eleocharis macrostachya) were flowering just off shore. Though it has the word rush in its name this plant is actually a sedge, and it’s a small one. The cream colored oval parts are its male parts and the white, wispy parts are its female flowers. There are several sedges in this family that look almost identical so I could easily be wrong about the identification, but it is a sedge and it was flowering.

Fringed sedge (Carex crinita) is one sedge that’s so easy to identify it can be done from just a silhouette. This sedge is a water lover and I usually find it on the edges of ponds and streams. It is quite large for a sedge and is sometimes grown in gardens. This plant looks a lot like pendulous sedge (Carex pendula) but that plant grows in Europe.

I took several photos of the pond and the island but it was so hazy and humid this was the only one that came out. There were people out on the island on this day, swimming. They had kayaks that they must have dragged up here, because you can’t drive to the pond. It seemed a little hot to be dragging kayaks up hills, but to each his own.

I saw slime molds almost everywhere I looked but instead of the yellow, red and blue ones I hoped to see all I saw were white ones.

I think this one was white fingered slime (Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa, variety fruticulosa.) Slime molds can be very beautiful things and I hope everyone will get to see some for themselves this summer. They aren’t slimy and they aren’t molds. In fact science doesn’t really know what they are, but they have enough intelligence to navigate a maze to get to food. Look for them in shady places like the side of a log away from direct sunlight. They usually appear on hot humid days a day or two after a good rain, along with many mushrooms. Unfortunately on this day I saw only one sad little brown mushroom, shriveling from the heat.

An eastern tiger swallowtail finally decided to sit still for more than a few seconds. It was getting a drink from a wet spot on a piece of concrete at the pond’s outflow. Even the butterflies were parched. I was certainly glad I had something to drink with me.

The swallowtail even turned so we could see the outside of its wing. It held steady but I couldn’t; my sweaty hands were shaky from the heat, hence the poor quality of these photos.

A garter snake hoped I wouldn’t see it.

Maleberry shrubs (Lyonia ligustrina) line the shore of the pond along with blueberries, and sometimes it can be hard to tell the two apart. The flowers of maleberrry, though nearly the same shape and color, are about half the size of a blueberry flower and the shrub blooms about a month later. There are often berries on the blueberries before maleberrry blossoms.

Maleberry blossoms become small, hard brown 5 part seed capsules that persist on the plant, often for over a year. They make maleberrry very easy to identify, especially in spring; just look for the seed capsules and you’ll know it isn’t a blueberry.

The strangest thing I saw on this hike was a bee or wasp stinging a moth over and over again. I heard a buzzing that sounded like a bee swarm and when I followed the sound I saw a moth rolling in the leaves, beating its wings furiously. And then I saw a smaller insect attacking it. You can just see the striped body of the bee or wasp under the moth’s left wing in this blurry photo. It knew enough to sting the moth’s body and the poor moth must have been stung 12-15 times while I watched. Finally the moth crawled into a pile of leaves and the bee / wasp flew into a hole in the ground. Because it’s so dry many bees and yellow jackets are nesting in the ground this year and I think the moth must have blundered onto the entrance to an underground nesting site. I mowed over the entrance to a ground nest once and was stung 5 or 6 times by yellow jackets. I was wearing shorts at the time and it’s something I’ve never forgotten.

And then I started to feel strange; a bit dizzy and my legs felt heavy, and I began to wonder if I’d make it out of there without help. The heat was unbelievable and the sweat pouring from me was causing the insect repellant I was wearing to run into my eyes and all but blind me, so I sat down in the shade to rest and I let my thoughts go. I let them swim in the cooling water of the pond, and thought of nothing but an old tree stump for a time. After a while what the heat had taken from me my thoughts, cooled by the water of the pond, replenished and I was able to go on until I reached my car. Never was an air conditioner appreciated more than it was that day. Just before sunset that evening the thermometer here reached 101 degrees F., the hottest I’ve seen in nearly thirty years I’ve lived here.

Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time. ~John Lubbock

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Tall meadow rue flowers (Thalictrum pubescens) always bloom close to the 4th of July and always remind me of “bombs bursting in air.” These are the plant’s male flowers; starbursts of petal-less dark yellow tipped stamens.

I don’t see tall meadow rue in meadows unless the meadow is very wet. I usually find it growing at the edge of streams or in ditches as the example in the above photo was. In fact this one sat just where a ditch met a stream. It was down an embankment, which was a good thing because it often grows 7-8 feet tall and towers over me. Getting above it is usually next to impossible without a ladder. Native Americans are said to have given lethargic horses ground meadow rue leaves and flowers to increase their vigor and to renew their spirit and endurance. In spring the plant’s young leaves fool many into thinking they’ve found wild columbine.

Goat’s beard (Aruncus dioicus) also reminds me of fireworks. This one grows in my garden and also reminds me of the friend who gave it to me several years ago. Hers grew to towering heights but this one usually stays at about three feet.

This beautiful hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium) blossomed after the rain we finally got last Thursday. It wasn’t enough but it helped. Though for many years all I ever saw were white flowered hedge bindweeds it has gotten to the point where all I see now are these bicolor ones. Bindweeds are perennial and morning glories are annuals and one good way to tell them apart is by their leaves; morning glory (Ipomoea) has heart shaped leaves and bindweed has narrower arrowhead shaped, triangular leaves.

As I was admiring the hedge bindweed blossoms I happened to glance over to where one of our most beautiful wildflowers bloomed. Canada lilies (Lilium canadense) are blooming about two weeks early this year. These plants are sometimes very tall and can tower over a person of average height but this one came only to my chin, and I’m not tall.

The flowers of Canada lilies are as big and as beautiful as the garden lilies I think we’re all familiar with and they come in red and orange as well as yellow. Their habit of nodding towards the ground can make getting a photo difficult, but I (very gently) tilt the stem back with one hand while I take the photos with the other. It’s not the ideal set up but it lets me show you the brownish purple spots on the inside throat of the trumpet and the huge red anthers. Speaking of anthers; many have found out the hard way that the pollen from those and other lily anthers will stain a white tablecloth permanently. The flower buds and roots were gathered and eaten by Native Americans. The scaly bulbs were cooked and eaten with other foods, such as venison and fish. They were also cooked and saved for winter use. They are said to have a very peppery flavor.

The common orange daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) doesn’t have Lilium in its scientific name because daylilies aren’t a true lily. It’s 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 often called the ditch lily, because that’s where it grows. 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. These days it is one of those plants that new homeowners go out and dig up when they can’t afford to buy plants for their gardens. 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.

Our native common elderberry bushes (Sambucus nigra canadensis) have just come into bloom and can be seen dotted around the landscape, especially near brooks and streams. Its mounded shape and flattish, off white flower heads make it very easy to identify, even from a distance.

Common elderberry flower clusters look similar to Queen Anne’s lace. Each flower is tiny at only 1/4 inch across, and has 5 white petals or lobes, 5 yellow tipped stamens and 3 very small styles that fall off early after blooming. Each flower will be replaced by a single black (dark purple) drupe. A drupe is a fleshy fruit with a single seed like a peach or cherry. Native Americans dried the fruit for winter use and soaked the berry stems in water to make a black dye for basketry.

If you see a flat topped flower cluster on a native dogwood it’s either a silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) or red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea.) If the flower cluster is slightly mounded it is most likely a gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa,) as is the one in the above photo. All three shrubs bloom at about the same time and have similar leaves and individual white, four petaled flowers in a cluster and it’s very easy to mix them up. Sometimes silky dogwood will have red stems like red osier, which can make dogwood identification even more difficult. Both gray and red osier dogwoods have white berries. Silky Dogwood  has berries that start out blue and white and then turn fully blue.

Native dogwoods are also sometimes confused with viburnums, but viburnum flowers have five petals and dogwoods have four. Most of our native dogwoods like soil that is constantly moist and they can be found along the edges of ponds, rivers, and streams.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) has just started blooming here but I haven’t seen any monarch butterflies in the area yet. I keep hoping they’ll make a comeback and we’ll once again see them in the numbers we did when I was a boy. I’ve only seen a handful each year for the past several years but last year they seemed a little more plentiful.

Several times over the years I’ve meant to write about how complicated milkweed flowers are to pollinate but the process is so complicated the task always ends up in my too hard basket. Instead I’ll just ask that you trust me when I say that it’s nearly a miracle that these flowers get pollinated at all. I’ll enjoy their beauty and their wonderful scent while trusting that nature will see to it that they’re pollinated, just as they have been for millennia.

Native swamp candles (Lysimachia terrestris) are another yellow loosestrife that blooms at about the same time as the whorled loosestrife. Not surprisingly, they like to have their feet wet most of the time and are common along the edges of ponds and wetlands at this time of year. I’ve even seen them growing in standing water. These plants stand about 1-2 feet tall and have a club shaped flower head (raceme) made up of 5 petaled yellow flowers. With darker vegetation behind them swamp candles really live up to their name.

Each yellow petal of a swamp candle flower has two red dots at its base that help form a ring of ten red dots around the five long stamens in the center of the flower. The petals are streaked with red and the flowers are about half the size as those of whorled loosestrife. The red dots on these petals seem to have run a bit and blended together. This is the first time I’ve seen this.

Pretty fringed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata) is the last of the native yellow loosestrifes to bloom in this area. It’s also the tallest and biggest flowered of the three yellow loosestrifes we have. Great colonies of the knee high plant can be found along roadsides and wood edges, and along waterways. It might be confused with whorled loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) if the two plants bloomed at the same time, but in this area fringed loosestrife usually blooms later. Like the lilies, this year it’s about two weeks early. The flowers on fringed loosestrife are about the size of a quarter and nod to face the ground. On whorled loosestrife they face outward. The leaf arrangements on the two plants are also very different.

Fringed loosestrife gets its common name from the fringe of hairs on its leafstalks, but sometimes the flower petals are also fringed. It’s a cheery, pretty plant that often gets overlooked because there is just so much in bloom at this time of year. The flowers of fringed loosestrife are unusual because of the way they offer oils instead of nectar to insects. The oils are called elaiosomes and are fleshy structures that are attached to the seeds of many plant species. They are rich in lipids and proteins. Many plants have elaiosomes that attract ants, which take the seed to their nest and feed them to their larvae. Trout lily is another plant with elaiosomes.

Many years ago a friend gave me a piece of her Japanese iris. I don’t know its name but it’s a beautiful thing that is blooming now. It has very big flowers; they must be 2 or 3 times as big as a bearded iris blossom.

Black Swallowwort (Cynanchum louiseae) has purplish-brown to nearly black star shaped flowers that are about 1/4 inch across. They have five-petals and are fragrant, but not in a good way. It has a hard to describe their odor but I’ve seen it described as a rotting fruit odor, which I’m not sure I agree with. I think it’s worse than that; it’s a very sharp, almost acrid odor and on a hot summer day your nose will tell you that you’re near this plant long before you see it.

Black swallowwort is a vining plant native to Europe that twines over native shrubs and plants at the edges of forests and shades or strangles them out. It is believed to have come to North America from Ukraine in the 1800s.  Colonies of this plant have been found that covered several acres of land and it is said to be able to completely replace a field of native goldenrod. It is nearly impossible to eradicate from a garden because its roots mingle with those of other plants and if you pull the stem it just breaks off at ground level. In Canada it is called the dog strangling vine and Canadians are testing the use of Hypena opulenta moth caterpillars as a means of biological control. So far they say, the results look promising. The caterpillars come from Ukraine and are a natural enemy of the plant. This plant illustrates the biggest danger of importing plants; the animals and insects that control them are left behind in their native lands, and once they arrive in their new home they are able to grow unchecked.

Two years ago I followed a trail through a swamp and was astonished to see a two foot tall greater purple fringed bog orchid (Platanthera grandiflora) growing right there beside the trail. This year once again I’ve been following its progress off and on for months, watching it grow and produce buds, hoping all the while that nobody would pick it or a deer wouldn’t eat it. Finally it bloomed at exactly the same time it had last year and the year before.

This is easily one of the most beautiful flowers that I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of flowers.  It is something I’d happily walk many miles to see because such a sight is so very rare; truly a once in a lifetime find in these parts. It grows in black, very wet swamp mud where for part of the spring there is standing water, so it obviously likes wet feet. I’ve read that the flowers are pollinated by large butterflies and moths, but I’ve never seen an insect near them. I do hope they get pollinated and produce plenty of seeds. The Native American Iroquois tribe actually dug this orchid up for its roots and  made tea from them to protect them from ghosts. Ghosts or not, I’d have a very hard time digging up something so beautiful.

My relationship to plants becomes closer and closer. They make me quiet; I like to be in their company. ~Peter Zumthor

Thanks for coming by.

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