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Posts Tagged ‘Elderberry’

Did everyone see fireworks on the 4th? I did, but not in the traditional sense. Mine came in the form of tall meadow rue flowers (Thalictrum pubescens,) which always bloom close to the 4th of July and which 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 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 is the only way I could have gotten this view 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.

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is not a native plant so I’m always surprised to see it growing along the edge of the forest like these examples do. I don’t see it in the wild often but it seems to escape gardens and find places that suit its temperament and there it stays, sometimes forming small colonies. There were maybe a dozen plants in this group and they were beautiful.

I like to try to get a bee’s eye view of foxglove blossoms. The blossom in the foreground shows whiter spots than the younger blossom on the right. They apparently start life with yellow spots which turn to white as they age. The lower lip protrudes a bit to give bees a landing pad, and from there they follow the spots, which are nectar guides, up to the top of the blossom where they find the nectar. While the bee is busy with the nectar the anthers above it rub on its back and deposit the flower’s pollen, which will then be taken to another blossom.  If successfully pollinated a foxglove plant can produce from one to two million seeds.

Humble little narrow-leaf cow wheat (Melampyrum lineare) seems like a shy little thing but it has a secret; it is 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. This little plant wants it all.

Narrow-leaf cow wheat’s long white, tubular flowers tipped with yellow-green are very small, and usually form in pairs where the leaves meet the stem (axils). I usually find this plant growing in old, undisturbed forests but I’ve also seen it recently on roadsides. It is quite common, but so small that few seem to notice it. The tiny flowers bloom at about shoe top height.

The small, furry, white to light purple flowers of motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) are easy to miss. At a glance this plant might resemble one of the nettle family but the square stems show it to be in the mint family. The tiny flowers grow in a whorl around the stem in the leaf axils. This plant, originally from Asia, is considered an invasive weed but I don’t see it that often and I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than 2 or 3 plants growing together.  It was brought to this country because of its long history of medicinal use in Europe and Asia. It is found along roads and in fields.

The tiny flowers of motherwort are very hairy and look like a microscopic orchid. They’re very hard to get a good shot of because of both their size and color and I don’t think I’ve ever been really happy with any photo I’ve taken of them. The ancient Greeks and Romans used motherwort medicinally and it is still used today to decrease nervous irritability and quiet the nervous system. There is supposed to be no better herb for strengthening and gladdening the heart, and it is sold in powdered and liquid form.

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.

The unusual, hairy twin flowers of partridge berry (Mitchella repens) fuse at the base and share one ovary. They will become a single small red berry that has two dimples that show where the flowers used to be. Partridgeberry is one of the lowest growing evergreen plants on the forest floor, hardly growing more than 3 or 4 inches high. Plants have a vining habit but don’t climb. Instead they form dense mats by spreading their trailing stems out to about a foot from the crown. Roots will often form at leaf nodes along the stems and start new plants.

Here is a better view of how partridge berry flowers are joined at the base to form a single ovary and a single berry. The berries are rather tasteless but ruffed grouse, quail, turkeys, skunks, and white footed mice eat them. Native American women made a tea from the leaves of partridge berry to promote easy delivery in childbirth. Tea made from the berries is said to have a sedative effect on the nervous system.

Our native whorled loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) has just started blooming in the tall grass along roadsides. This plant’s leaves and flowers grow in a whorl around the stem and that’s how it comes by its common name. A whorl, in botanical terms for those who don’t know, is made up of at least three elements of a plant (leaves, flowers, etc.) that radiate from a single point and surround the stem.

Both the leaves and flowers grow in a whorl on whorled loosestrife, because where each leaf meets the stem (axils) a five petaled, star shaped yellow flower appears at the end of a long stalk. Many plants grow flowers in the axils of the leaves, but most do not grow in whorls. Almost all species of loosestrife with yellow flowers often have a lot of red in them as this example had.

A view looking down on a whorled loosestrife shows how the leaves and flowers are arranged in whorls around the stem. The leaves in each whorl can number from 3 to 7. This example seems to have had 4. According to Pliny the young leaves of whorled loosestrife will stop bleeding when they are tied to a wound.

There are a few lobelias that look similar but I think this one might be pale spike lobelia (Lobelia spicata,) which gets its common name from its small, pale blue to almost white flowers. Every now and then you can find a plant with deeper blue flowers, as I was lucky enough to do on this day. 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.

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.

Spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) is toxic to both dogs and humans, but insects love it. It’s closely related to milkweeds and has milky sap like they do. Monarch butterflies drink the nectar but I rarely see one on them. Though it is an herbaceous perennial its growth habit makes it look like a 3 foot tall shrub. The Apocynum part of its scientific name means “away from dog.” Not only dogs but most other animals avoid it because of its toxic sap.

Native Americans used spreading dogbane medicinally and used its strong fibers to make thread and cord. The plant’s milky white sap is very sticky and I wonder how they removed it from the thread they made.

Spreading dogbane’s bell shaped flowers are very fragrant and I love to smell then when I can find one without an insect in it. They’re also very pretty, with faint pink stripes on the inside. They remind me of lily of the valley flowers but are quite a lot larger. The ant traveled from blossom to blossom as if trying to make up its mind which was best.

St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) gets its common name from the way that it flowers near June 24th, which is St. Johns day, but it has been well known since ancient times. The Roman military doctor Proscurides used it to treat patients as early as the 1st century AD, and it was used by the ancient Greeks before that. The brown / black dots on its 5 yellow petals make this flower very easy to identify. Originally from Europe, it can be found in meadows and along riverbanks and roadsides growing in full sun.

I should like to enjoy this summer flower by flower, as if it were to be the last one for me.~ Andre Gide

Thanks for coming by.

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It wasn’t all that long ago that I was spending most of my wildflower hunting time deep in the woods, peeking around trees and under bushes. Now all of the sudden fields and roadsides are bursting with color. This certainly makes a plant hunter’s job easier and also means there are even more flowers to show you. If you, when you saw this picture, wondered if it wasn’t a little early for Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) to be blooming the answer is yes it is, but then everything is blooming early this year.  Still, I was surprised when I found what I usually don’t see until July. Black Eyed Susan is a native plant whose seeds are an important winter food source for birds. That’s why when they are grown in gardens they shouldn’t be cut back in the fall. The small, furry, light purple flowers of motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) are easy to miss. At a glance this plant might resemble one of the nettle family but the square stems show it to be in the mint family. The tiny flowers grow in a whorl around the stem in the leaf axils. This plant, originally from Asia, is considered an invasive weed.  It was brought to this country because of its long history of medicinal use in Europe and Asia. It is common along roads and in fields. This is another flower that it is easy to walk right by, because it grows at about ankle height. The small, white, tubular blossoms of the native narrow leaf cow wheat plant (Melampyrum lineare ) have a yellow lower lip which also helps make them a little more visible. The flowers always seem to grow in pairs and the plants usually form a colony, which also makes them a little easier to find. I found this plant growing alongside a shaded path in a forest of mostly pine and tamarack trees. It always grows close to shrubs and trees because it is partially root parasitic. There is another plant called Small Cow wheat (Melampyrum sylvaticum) with lemon yellow flowers, and another called common cow wheat (Melampyrum pretense) that doesn’t have the two sharply pointed lobes at the base of the leaf like those seen on the narrow leaf cow wheat.  A calyx (at the base of the flower) that curls upward like an eyelash is a good clue to the identity of this plant. This one is a real stinker, and I’m not exaggerating. This is the female blossom cluster of the smooth carrion flower (Smilax herbacea.) One of its pollinators (the fly) was kind enough to stop in for our photo session. These female pistillate flowers with their stubby, three-lobed stigmas are much shorter than the male staminate flowers, which are shown below.  The plants carry only male or female flowers, so they can usually be found growing quite close together. This is the male flower cluster of the smooth carrion flower (Smilax herbacea.) Male blossoms have six white stamens. Each of these flower clusters, both male and female, are the size of a golf ball. Personally, I thought that the male flowers were much more malodorous than the female flowers.  This plant is a vine that can reach 8 feet long. Later on the female blossoms become globular clusters of dark blue fruit that will appear like Christmas ornaments all along the vine’s length.  The fruit is said to be edible, but you won’t catch me eating it! Crown vetch (Securigera varia) is very different in both appearance and color than cow vetch (Vicia cracca L. ssp. tenuifolia ) or hairy vetch (Vicia villosa) but the three plants are continually mistaken for one another.  Another vetch is bird vetch (Vicia cracca L.,) which cow vetch is nearly identical to. Hairy vetch, crown vetch and bird vetch all grow in New Hampshire but according to the U.S.D.A., cow vetch does not. Crown vetch is in the pea family and was imported from Europe and Asia for soil erosion control. As is usually the case, it has escaped and the long, wiry vines can now be found along roadsides and in fields. This plant is toxic and has killed horses. I can’t say if our native striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) is rare but I can say that, other than on this one occasion I have never seen it, and I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in the woods. Unfortunately I missed its white, nodding blossoms and got there just after it had formed the seed pods seen in the photo. This was on June 4th and the plant isn’t supposed to bloom until late-July. This plant is also called spotted wintergreen, striped pipsissewa, and prince’s pine. According to the U.S.D.A. it is endangered in Canada, Illinois, and Maine, and is considered vulnerable in New York. It seems strange to me that there are so few of these plants found in an area that has huge colonies of its close relative, pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellate,) which is called umbellate wintergreen.I was being eaten alive by hoards of hungry mosquitoes when I took this picture so it isn’t the best one I’ve ever taken. This is the nodding, cup shaped flower of the shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica.) Unlike striped wintergreen, this plant is plentiful in pine woods and grows near trailing arbutus and pipsissewa.  The greenish white petals look waxy and sometimes will have greenish veins running through them. These plants were always thought to be closely related to the wintergreens because their leaves stay green all winter, but DNA testing now puts them in the heath (Ericaceae) family. Shinleaf foliage looks a lot like that of trailing arbutus, but the leaves are shorter.  A better photo of it can be seen by clicking here. The plant’s crushed leaves were applied to bruises in the form of a paste or salve and the aspirin-like compounds in the leaves would ease pain. Such pastes were called “shin plasters,” and that’s how the plant got its strange common name. The tiny flowers of Heal All (Prunella vulgaris) appear together on a club-like, squarish stem in enough numbers to make them noticeable. This plant is native to Europe but is found all over the world. Heal all  is also called self-heal and heart of the earth and has been used medicinally for centuries. It is edible and is one of those plants that most certainly would have appeared in medieval cottage gardens. Heal all tea was used by Native Americans, which makes me believe that it is native to North America as well as Europe.Even smaller than the flowers of heal all are those of Rabbit-foot Clover (Trifolium arvense.) If you look closely you can see 2 or 3 of the almost microscopic white flowers poking out of the feathery, grayish- pink sepals. These feathery sepals are much larger than the petals and make up most of the flower head. This plant is in the pea family and is used to improve soil quality. It is originally from Europe and Asia and is considered an invasive weed. It gets its name from the fuzzy flower heads, which are said to look like a rabbit’s foot.  I found a few plants growing on a river bank. This is another clover called golden clover (Trifolium aureum.) The 1/2 inch long yellow flower head is made up of tiny yellow flowers that resemble pea flowers. The flowers have 5 petals and are said to be decumbent, which means “lying along a surface, with the extremity curving upward.” As the photo shows, they overlap much like roof shingles.  These individual flowers turn brown as they age, and some think they look like hops when they are in that stage. This gives the plant one of its common names; large yellow hop clover. Like other clovers it has three leaves. These plants are common in waste areas and along roadsides. This one was growing near our local airport.Native Lance Leaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) is liable to be found in the garden or the meadow. Coreopsis is a large family of plants that includes many natives and hybrids that come in yellows, oranges, pinks and maroons. This plant was in a meadow with many others which were all being swarmed by bees. A common name for this plant is tickseed because the seeds are said to resemble ticks. They are one of the easiest plants to grow and will virtually grow in any soil that gets plenty of sunshine. I’ve even seen them thrive in almost pure sand.The native Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) blossoms have finally opened and are seen along almost every road at the edges of forests. If you aren’t colorblind the red stems make this plant easy to identify, otherwise counting the 4 petals (bracts) will be the clue to its being a dogwood. The flowers are fragrant and bees and butterflies love them.  By the end of summer the flowers will turn into clusters of light blue berries that birds and deer feed on. These shrubs get quite large, sometimes reaching 15 feet tall and twice that across. Red osier dogwood is an excellent choice for large shrub borders because their red branches stand out against the snow in winter. Growing right alongside the red osier dogwoods in many instances are native elderberry (Sambucus) shrubs.  Though they like the same growing conditions, elderberry leaves are quite different than those of dogwoods and the small flowers have 5 petals instead of 4 bracts. Elderberry flower clusters are usually much larger than those of dogwoods and the stamens aren’t as long.  Elderberry flowers become small, dark blue, almost black, berries. These berries are edible if they are cooked but can cause severe stomach distress if eaten raw. The leaves, stems and roots contain cyanide-causing gliconides and are toxic. When I was a boy we lived across the street from an Italian family who made elderberry wine from bushes that grew along the river but since I wasn’t old enough, I never got to taste it.

In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous ~ Aristotle

That’s some of what’s blooming right now here in New Hampshire. Thanks for visiting.

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