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Posts Tagged ‘Greater Celandine’

If you’re tempted to pass by what you think are violets you might want to take a closer look, because our beautiful little fringed polygalas (Polygala paucifolia) have just started blossoming. Their color and the fact that they sometimes grow beside violets has fooled me in the past. The small 3 inch tall by inch and a half wide plants usually bloom in pairs as can be seen in the photo above. Fringed polygalas are in the milkwort family and are also sometimes called flowering wintergreen and / or gaywings. The slightly hairy leaves were once used medicinally by some Native American tribes to heal sores.

Each blossom is made up of five sepals and two petals. The two petals form a tube and two of the sepals form the little wings. The little fringe at the end of the tube is part of the third sepal, which is mostly hidden. When a heavy enough insect lands on the fringe the third sepal, called the keel, drops down to create an entrance to the tube. Once the insect crawls in it finds the flower’s reproductive parts and gets dusted with pollen to carry off to another blossom. Surprisingly this little insect landed on the flower I was taking a photo of it and let me actually see how it works. I think it was a sweat bee.

In this shot the reproductive structures are exposed. That little bump or nub just under the tube formed by the petals makes up the reproductive structures and this is the first time I’ve ever seen them. Though I’ve searched high and low in books and online apparently little is known about how they function. I did read that the seeds are coated with a fatty tissue that ants like, so ants disperse them. I usually find this plant in shady, mossy places and I think it prefers moist ground. Some mistake the flowers for orchids and it’s easy to see why. They’re a beautiful and unusual flower that I always look for in May.

Heartleaf foamflowers (Tiarella cordifolia) have just started blossoming near shaded streams and on damp hillsides. They’re easy to spot because of their hairy, maple-like leaves and foot high flower stalks, and a colony as big as this one is a beautiful sight. Native plants have leaves that are bright green at first and then turn a darker green, sometimes mottled with maroon or brown. Many hybrids have been created and foam flowers are now popular in garden centers and are grown in gardens as much for their striking foliage as the flowers. They are an excellent, maintenance free choice for shady gardens that get only morning sun.

The small, numerous flowers of foamflower have 5 white petals, 5 white sepals, and 10 stamens. It is said that the long stamens are what give foamflowers their frothy appearance, along with their common name. Native Americans used the leaves and roots of foamflower medicinally as a mouthwash for mouth sores. The plant is also called “coolwort” because the leaves were also used on scalds and burns to relieve the pain.

Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) has just come into bloom, right on schedule. This plant was introduced from Europe in the 1600s but it doesn’t seem very invasive; the colonies that I know of hardly seem to spread at all, and that’s possibly because they are biennials. This plant is in the mustard family, Brassicaceae but is sometimes mistaken for phlox, which has 5 petals rather than the 4 petals seen on dame’s rocket. Phlox also has opposite leaves and those on dame’s rocket are alternate. The young leaves of dame’s rocket are rich in vitamin C and oil pressed from its seed is used in perfumes.

Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis.) has just started blooming and something has already chewed a hole through the side of one of them. I can remember bringing my grandmother, whose name was Lilly,  wilting bouquets of lily of the valley along with dandelions, violets and anything else I saw when I was just a young boy, so it’s a flower that comes with a lifetime of memories for me. The plant, originally from Europe and Asia, is quite toxic. It is actually in the asparagus, not the lily family.

Starflowers (Trientalis borealis) are another spring flower that have just started blooming. These flowers don’t produce nectar so they are pollinated by pollen eating insects like halictid and andrenid bees. There can be one or several flowers on each plant and I always try to find the one with the most flowers. My record is 4 but I’m always watching out for 5.

Books will tell you that starflowers have 7 petals but as this one shows, they can have as many as 9. They can also have as few as 6.

When you see big umbrella like leaves like these you should look under them, because that’s where the flowers of Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) hide. Mayapple is also called American mandrake, which is legendary among herbalists for the root that supposedly resembles a man. Native Americans boiled the root and used the water to cure stomach aches but this plant is toxic and should not be eaten.

Mayapple flowers are hard to get a decent photo of because they nod toward the ground under the plant’s leaves, but it can be done. I’ve read that once a mayapple produces flowers and fruit it reduces its chances of doing so in following years, but this colony seems to bloom well each year.

One of most beautiful spring flowering shrubs is the rhodora (Rhododendron canadense.) Henry David Thoreau once wrote “The splendid Rhodora now sets the swamps on fire with its masses of rich color,” and that’s what this little two foot tall shrub does each spring. The flowers appear just when the irises start to bloom and I often have to search for them because they aren’t common. Rhodora is a small, native rhododendron (actually an azalea) that loves swampy places. It is native to the northeastern U.S. and Canada and both its western and southern limits are reached in Pennsylvania. The flowers appear before the leaves, but only for a short time in spring. By mid-June they will have all vanished.

Because of their habit of growing in or very close to the water it can be hard to get close enough to get a shot of a single flower, but if you’ve ever seen an azalea blossom then you know what they look like. It’s the color of this one that sets it apart from other azaleas, in my opinion. This plant was brought from Canada to Paris in March 1756 and was introduced to England in 1791. It is said to have been a big hit, but it must have been difficult to grow in English gardens since it likes to grow in standing water and needs very cold winters.

My mother died before I was old enough to retain any memory of her but she planted a white lilac before she died, so now the flowers and their scent have become my memory of her. Whenever I see a white lilac she is there too. I know that long time readers are probably tired of hearing all these flower stories but there are new readers coming along all the time who haven’t, so I hope you’ll bear with me. When I see certain flowers I often think more of the connection it has in my memory to a certain person than I do the flower.

White lilacs hold my mother’s memories and tradescantia flowers hold my father’s. When I was just a young boy living with my father I decided that our yard needed a facelift. We had a beautiful cabbage rose hedge and a white lilac, and a Lorelai bearded iris that my mother planted before she died but I wanted more. I used to walk the Boston and Maine railroad tracks to get to my grandmother’s house and I’d see these beautiful blue flowers growing along the tracks, so one day I dug one up and planted it in the yard. My father was quiet until I had planted 3 or 4 of them, and then he finally asked me why I was bringing home those “dammed old weeds.” He also walked the tracks to get to work and back, so he saw the tradescantia (Tradescantia virginiana) plants just as often as I did. Though I thought they were lost and needed to be rescued, he thought somebody threw them away and he wished they’d have thrown them just a little farther, because now they were all ending up in his yard. Today every time I see these flowers I think of him. I hope your flowers come with such pleasant memories.

Common yellow wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta) is often confused with clover but clover has oval leaflets rather than the heart shaped ones. Yellow wood sorrel’s three leaflets close up flat at night and in bright sunshine, and for that reason it is also called sleeping beauty or sleeping molly. The flowers also close at night. The stricta part of the scientific name means “upright” and refers to the way the plant’s seedpods bend upwards from their stalks. This small grouping had the largest flowers I’ve seen; twice the size as they usually bear. I’m not sure what would cause that.

We have several invasive honeysuckle species here in New Hampshire and I’ve given up trying to identify them all. Most or all are banned from being sold but birds love their bright red berries and that makes the shrubs impossible to ever eradicate. Though most of their flowers are white you do see an occasional pink example. They can be very pretty and also very fragrant.

Greater celandine (Chelidonium majus ) takes quite a long time to bloom after the melting snow reveals  its cluster of basal leaves in  early spring. This commonly seen plant originally comes from Europe and Asia and is considered invasive.

Greater celandine’s yellow / orange colored sap that we used to call mustard when I was a boy has been used medicinally for thousands of years, even though it is considered toxic and can irritate the skin and eyes. It is said that it can also cause liver damage if used incorrectly. We might have called it mustard but as far as I know, nobody ever ate it.

Little blue toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis) is one of my favorite spring flowers and it has just started blooming. Toadflax flowers have an upper lip that is divided into 2 rounded lobes, and a lower lip which is divided into 3 lobes that are rounded and spreading. They also have a long spur in back, which can’t be seen well in this photo. Toadflax likes sandy soil and waste areas to grow in. The cheery blue flowers are always a welcome sight.

Red clover (Trifolium pretense) is a plant that quite literally helped me see the light. There was a time when all this plant meant to me was more hard work. I didn’t like having to weed them out of lawns and garden beds but they were so unsightly with their long, weak flower stems and sprawling, weedy habit. And then one evening a single ray of sunshine came through the clouds and fell directly on a red clover plant at the edge of a meadow, and when I knelt in front of it to take its photo for the first time I saw how beautiful it really was. I saw that it had an inner light; what I think of as the light of creation, shining brightly out at me. I’ve loved it ever since, and since that day I don’t think I’ve ever truly thought of another flower, no matter how lowly, as a weed.

Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty, if only we have the eyes to see them. ~John Ruskin

Thanks for coming by.

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I’m seeing more butterflies these days. This one, which I think is a comma (Polygonia c-album,) landed on the path just in front of me one day. They winter over in leaf litter and on the undersides of logs so it would make sense that they would be one of the first to appear. I’ve also seen a few small blue butterflies, maybe half the size of this one, but I’ve yet to get one of them inside the camera. I hope I can show them to you because they’re a beautiful shade of blue.

I was weeding around some lilacs one day and all of the sudden this was there. From what I’ve seen online it appears to be a wireworm, which is a click beetle grub.  Click beetles get their name from the way they click when they try to turn over if they land on their backs. There are about 60 species of click beetles but only five are plant pests. The grubs feed on plant roots but from what I’ve read they don’t do any real damage. In this photo the grubs head is the darker area in the upper left. Not seen are three pairs of legs, just behind the head.

I had to turn a picnic table over one day to clean it prior to painting it, and when I did I found this egg mass from an unknown insect.

A closer look showed that the tiny eggs looked like hen’s eggs, and most had already hatched. There must have been over a hundred of them and they were so small I could hardly tell what they were without looking at the camera screen replay.

There are still plenty of acorns left from last fall’s crop so squirrels are fat and happy. They had a mild winter, too.

All the rain we’ve had has made for some high water in streams and ponds, but one of the streams that run through the property where I work was abnormally high, so we walked its banks to see if anything was damming it up.

It was easy to see what the problem was; beavers, but what you see here is quite rare because this is an eastern hemlock tree and beavers don’t usually eat them. I’ve never seen them eat all the bark off a tree and its roots like this either, of any species.

We kept following the stream until we came to their dam and then we started taking it apart. This photo shows the dam after we had dismantled about half of it. To do the whole dam took all afternoon and it was hard work. The beavers had woven in logs and branches as big as my leg and getting them out of the dam took quite a lot of effort but it had to be done. Dammed up streams flood fields, forests and even roads. In this case this stream flows under a road, so you can’t just ignore the fact that it isn’t flowing. Depending on the size of the beaver family they can build a dam in a day or two, so we expect we’ll be visiting this spot again before long. They don’t give up easily.

All the rain water made taking wave photos at the Ashuelot River a lot of fun. If you didn’t mind the roar, that is.

There seems to be a lot of water in this post but I can’t help that; I just take photos of whatever nature shows me. At one time I thought something like this was an oil slick or some other form of pollution but several helpful readers have commented over the years that it can also be caused naturally, by decomposing vegetation and other natural phenomena.

It’s always very colorful.

White baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) is an extremely toxic plant but I love the movement that its new spring shoots have. Every time I see them I think how nice it would be to sit beside them and draw them, but I never seem to find the time. They make me think of someone contemplating a handful of pearls, which of course are actually its flower buds. Soon it will have a club shaped head of small white flowers. Native Americans brewed a tea from the roots of this plant and used it medicinally to treat pain and other ailments, but no part of it should ever be ingested. In late summer it will have bright white berries with a single black dot that give the plant its common name of doll’s eyes. The berries especially are very toxic.

Hairy fiddleheads like these belong to either cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) or interrupted fern (Osmundastrum claytoniana.) Since I know these ferns I know they’re interrupted ferns but normally I wouldn’t be able to tell unless I saw the spore bearing fronds. Both are beautiful right up until fall, when they turn pumpkin orange.

Lady fern fiddleheads (Athyrium filix-femina) are also up. Lady fern is the only fern I know of with brown / black scales on its stalk. This fern likes to grow in moist, loamy areas along streams and rivers. They don’t like windy places, so if you find a shaded dell where a grove of lady fern grows it’s safe to assume that it doesn’t ever get very windy there.

Greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) leaves stay green under the snow all winter and they also shed water. The plant is native to Europe and Asia but early settlers brought it with them to use medicinally, and it has found its way into all but 19 states in the U.S. Soon 4 petaled yellow flowers will appear. When I was a boy we stained our hands with the plant’s yellow sap and called it mustard. Thankfully we never ate it, because all parts of it are toxic.

This strange color belonged to the buds of a bitternut hickory tree (Carya cordiformis,) which is on the rare side here. It is said that the nuts from this tree are so bitter that even squirrels won’t eat them.

Here is the same bud in full sun, looking electric yellow. The wood is very flexible and Native Americans used it to make bows. Early settlers used the oil from the nuts in their oil lamps and to help with rheumatism.

I’ve never seen false hellebore (Veratrum viride) plants grow like they are this year. This spot usually has a few but this year there are hundreds of them.

False hellebore is a pretty thing but it is also one of the most toxic plants in the forest and if you forage for edible plants, you should know it well. In 2010 five campers in Alaska nearly died from eating its roots. Thanks to being airlifted by helicopter to a hospital they survived. There is another account of an entire family being poisoned by cooking and eating the leaves.

It’s amazing what a little sunlight can do for a maple bud…

…and new maple leaves as well.

Tiny new oak leaves were an almost impossible shade of green.

If there is just one thing I hope this posts shows it’s how beauty is all around us, and not just in the form of flowers. I love seeing flowers as much as the next person but when I see something like this beech bud unfurling I have to just stand and admire it for a while. And then I take far too many photos of it, trying to let you see what I saw. Beech bud break in spring is one of nature’s small miracles that will happen each day for the next couple of weeks. I hope everyone gets to witness it.

Art, music, the beauty of a leaf or flower; all can invite us to step outside of ourselves; to lose ourselves and walk a higher path, at least for a time. Art and music may be hard to access at the moment, but nature is always right there. Indescribable, endless beauty and deep, immense joy. These are what nature offers to those willing to receive them, and all it costs is a little time.

But you can’t dawdle too long because once those buds break it’s all about making leaves and it can happen quite fast. If you can’t get into the woods why not take a look at the trees in your own yard or neighborhood? You could be very surprised by what you find.

I meant to do my work today, but a brown bird sang in the apple tree, and a butterfly flitted across the field, and all the leaves were calling. ~Richard le Gallienn

Thanks for stopping in. I’m hoping all of you moms out there have a very happy Mother’s Day tomorrow, and I hope you’ll have beautiful weather on your day.

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I thought I’d start this flower post where I left off in the last one and show you pink lady’s slippers (Cypripedium acaule) in full bloom. I’m so glad that this native orchid is making a comeback after being collected nearly into oblivion by people who didn’t know any better. The plant interacts with a Rhizoctonia fungus in the soil and this fungus must be present for it to reproduce.  If plants are dug up and placed in private gardens they will die if the fungus isn’t present so please, look at them, take a couple of photos, and let them be. They’re one of our most beautiful native orchids and everyone should have a chance to see them.

Botanically orchids are considered the most highly evolved of all flowering plants because of their unique reproductive strategy; they have both male and female reproductive structures fused into a single structure. Many different insects pollinate orchids but in lady’s slippers bees do the job. They enter the flower through the center slit in the pouch, which can be seen here. Once inside they discover that they’re trapped and can’t get out the way they came in.

There is only one way out for a bee trapped in a lady’s slipper blossom; guide hairs inside the flower point the way to the top of the pouch or slipper, and once the bee reaches the top it finds two holes big enough to fit through. Just above each hole the flower has positioned a pollen packet so once the bee crawls through the hole it is dusted with pollen. The flower’s stigma is also located above the exit holes and if the bee carries pollen from another lady’s slipper it will be deposited on the sticky stigma as it escapes the pouch, and fertilization will have been successful. Isn’t evolution amazing?

At a glance the leaves of blue bead lilies (Clintonia borealis) are often mistaken for those of lady’s slippers, but lady’s slipper leaves are deeply pleated and blue bead lily leaves are not, they’re smooth like those seen here. The two plants like the same conditions and often grow side by side.

It’s easy to see that blue bead lilies are in the lily family; they look just like small Canada lilies. I like seeing both the flowers and the blue berries that follow them. It’s been described as porcelain blue but it’s hard to put a name to it. I call it electric blue and I really can’t think of another blue to compare it to, but it’s beautiful.

For years I’ve heard of a very special place up in the woods of Westmoreland where endangered orchids, squawroot, hepatica, Dutchman’s breeches, maiden hair fern and other plants that love a lot of lime in the soil grow, so over Memorial day my daughter and I decided to pay this special place a visit. The terrain was rough, with climbs so steep you had to use ropes tied to trees to pull yourself along, but we made it through and didn’t see a single plant that was supposed to grow there. I did see a hepatica leaf, but that was about it. My daughter found this beautiful long spurred violet in bloom (Viola rostrata); the first example I’ve seen, but it isn’t even mentioned in the list of plants that are supposed to grow here.

This is a pretty little violet but I doubt I’d go through what we went through to see it again.

We also found a yellow violet just opening. This was only the second time I had ever seen one. I think it was a round leaved yellow violet (Viola rotundifolia) which likes to grow in rich woods. It might have also been a downy yellow violet (Viola pubescens,) which likes the same conditions.

Like most of the white spring flowering trees, chokecherries (Prunus) and chokeberries (Aronia) grow on the edge of the forest. Though they look alike from a distance, chokeberries and chokecherries are only distantly related in the rose family. The common name is the giveaway here: A cherry is a stone fruit with one seed, so the chokecherry will have one seed. A berry will have multiple seeds; in the case of the chokeberry 5 or fewer. Chokeberry flower clusters are smaller than chokecherry and kind of flat on top. Chokecherry flower clusters are usually long and cylindrical like a bottle brush. Positive identification between these two is important because chokecherry leaves and seeds contain prussic acid which can convert to cyanide under the right conditions, so it wouldn’t be good to eat too many seeds. The simplest way to be sure is by counting the seeds in a piece of fruit before picking and eating from the tree.

A close look at a chokecherry blossom.

Tiny new eastern larch flowers (Larix laricina) are beautiful and always worth looking for. They appear in mid to late May and are quite small. Their color helps me see them and a macro lens shows why I bother looking for them. They’re very beautiful so I hope you’ll take a look at any larch trees you might know of.

From above the flowers of eastern larch look like a rose, but at less than the diameter of a pea they are far less showy. Each beautiful little flower will become a small brown cone.

The waxy shine on the petals of a buttercup (Ranunculus) is caused by a layer of mirror flat cells that have an air gap just below them, and just below the air gap is a smooth layer of brilliant white starch. These layers act together to reflect yellow light, while blue green light is absorbed. Though the shine is easy to see it’s quite hard to capture with a camera. I’ve been trying since they started opening and I’d bet I had to try 10-20 times before getting it right.

Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) is an introduced plant that came from Europe in the 1600s but it doesn’t seem very invasive; the few colonies that I know of hardly seem to spread at all, and that’s possibly because they are biennials. This plant is in the mustard family, Brassicaceae. The young leaves of dame’s rocket are rich in vitamin C and oil pressed from its seed is used in perfumes.

Dame’s rocket flowers are sometimes mistaken for phlox, but phlox has 5 petals rather than the 4 petals seen on dame’s rocket. Phlox also has opposite leaves and those on dame’s rocket are alternate. The flowers are very fragrant in the evening and are said to smell like a mixture of cloves and violets.

There just happens to be a phlox plant or two growing near the dame’s rocket and I thought it was good chance to show how phlox blossoms have 5 petals. I’m not sure if these plants were wild phlox or garden escapees but I’m guessing they probably came from a nearby garden.

The yellow flowers seen in the first photo of Dame’s rocket are those of greater celandine (Chelidonium majus.) Pliny the Elder said chewing the root of greater celandine would relieve a toothache, but modern science has found that every part of it contains a range of isoquinoline alkaloids that makes it toxic if used in large amounts. When used in the correct dosage the plant’s yellow sap can be used against warts and moles. If used at all, all of the latex sap should be washed from the hands because it can cause irritation if rubbed into the eyes. Greater celandine is native to Europe and Asia but early settlers brought it with them to use medicinally, and it has found its way into all but 19 states in the U.S.

All the books will tell you that the flowers of greater celandine have four yellow petals but I’ve seen them with 5. When I was a boy we stained our hands with the plant’s yellow sap and called it mustard. Thankfully we never ate it.

Friends of mine grow this beautiful clematis in their garden. This is the first blossom of the summer, just opening when I took its photo.

Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) has leaves that grow in a whorl, much like an Indian cucumber root. This is a low growing summer wildflower with 4 petaled white flowers that seems to prefer the shade at the edges of forests. It makes an excellent old fashioned ground cover which, if given plenty of water, will spread quickly. The odoratum part of the scientific name comes from the pleasant, very strong fragrance of its dried leaves. The dried leaves are often used in potpourris because the fragrance lasts for years. It is also called sweet scented bedstraw and is a native of Europe. I don’t see it often and I’d call it rare in this area.

Wild geraniums (Geranium maculatum) have just started blooming. Other common names include alum root, old maid’s nightcap and shameface. In Europe it is called cranesbill because the seed pod resembles a crane’s bill. The Native American Mesquakie tribe brewed a root tea for toothache from wild geranium, but I’m not sure if it’s toxic. Much Native knowledge was lost and we can’t always use plants as they did. Somehow they knew how to remove, weaken or withstand the toxicity of many plants that we now find too toxic for our use.

In June, as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them. ~Aldo Leopold

Thanks for stopping in.

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I’d like to take you for a little walk through December in New Hampshire so those who’ve never been here might know what it’s like. I’m going to start on December 9th, when I was taking photos of Johnny jump ups (Viola tricolor.) As any gardener knows these pretty little flowers don’t mind a little cold but still, seeing them blooming in December is rare here.

Even rarer than Johnny jump ups blooming in December is forsythia blooming at any time beyond June, but I found one shrub blooming happily in the warm sunshine on the same day I saw the Johnny jump ups. And it wasn’t just a single blossom; this bush probably had 30-40 flowers on it. Whether or not it will bloom again in the spring like it should is anyone’s guess.

Flowers weren’t the only thing happily carrying on in the warmth; bright yellow lemon drop fungi (Bisporella citrina) decorated the end of a log. They look like tiny drops of sunshine sprinkled over logs and stumps, and are fairly common. Lemon drops are in the sac fungus family, which refers to their microscopic reproductive structures that resemble wineskins. There are over 64,000 different sac fungi, including ear and cup fungi, jelly babies, and the morel and false morel mushrooms.

Lemon drops start life as a tiny yellow disc and look as if they lie flat on the log, but they actually hover just above the surface on a short stalk. As they age each disc will become cup shaped. The citrina part of the scientific name comes from the Latin citrin, and means “lemon yellow.” They are very small; the smallest in this photo would be barely the size of a period made by a pencil on paper, so a hand or macro lens comes in handy.

Greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) is a tease and always reminds me of spring, but it just lies under the snow all winter staying almost as green as it is here. Greater celandine was purposely introduced from Europe and is now considered an invasive plant but nobody really seems to mind it. When I was a boy we called it mustard because of the yellow sap that stained your hands, but it is in the poppy family and has nothing to do with mustard. The sap was once used to remove warts but science has found that it is toxic and can be extremely irritating, especially to the eyes and skin, so its use isn’t recommended.

Sweet little bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) is the smallest member of the dogwood family that I know of here in New Hampshire. It gets its name from the bunches of red berries that appear after the flowers are pollinated, and I hoped to get some photos of them for you this year but they are apparently popular with the critters because they disappeared quickly. Instead all I can show is its pretty fall leaves. Bunchberry was an important plant to Native Americans. They made tea from it to treat colds and also dried the leaves for smoking. Ashes from the burned plants were used to treat sores and insect bites and the roots were ground and used to treat colic in infants. The plant has strong antiseptic, antibiotic, and anti-inflammatory properties but I love it for its beautiful pure white, dogwood like blossoms.

I wish I could tell you what this is but I don’t know myself. I found several of them growing in damp, sandy soil in full sun and it says liverwort to me, but I can’t be sure. It is a low growing, flat on the ground plant. When I went back to look a little closer they had all curled up and died from the cold. At least I think so.  If you’ve seen them and know what they are I’d love to hear from you.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is our latest blooming shrub, even blooming as late as January in a warm winter, so I wasn’t that surprised to see these blossoms in December. What the real surprise concerning witch hazels was this year was their lack of blossoms. Most of the shrubs that I know of didn’t bloom at all this year, and that’s very strange. In fact I only saw two or three shrubs out of hundreds blooming and I can’t guess what is holding them back, unless it was the unusually cool weather in August. Some Native American tribes steamed witch hazel twigs over hot stones in their sweat lodges to soothe aching muscles and others made tea from it to treat coughs. As is often the case Natives had a use for virtually every part of the plant and witch hazel is still in use today. It can be found as a lotion in almost any drugstore.

Since I was in the neighborhood I had to stop in to see the only plantain leaved sedge (Carex plantaginea) that I know of. It grows in an old stone wall and I like to see its crinkly, foot long evergreen leaves. Each leaf has a prominent midrib and a vein running on either side of it, and this makes identification very easy. I often come to see it in mid spring when it blooms. I wish I’d see more of them but so far in my experience this plant is quite rare here.

Heartleaf foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) blooms in May and seems like a delicate little thing, but in reality it’s a very tough plant that stays green under the snow all winter. Some foamflower plants have leaves that turn pink and maroon but these examples stayed green. Like many plants that hold their leaves through winter, this year’s foliage will only brown and die back in spring, when new ones will appear. It is thought that some plants stay green in winter so they can get a jump on their competitors by photosynthesizing just a short time earlier. Foamflowers form dense mats of foliage and there is usually nothing else seen growing among them.

American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens,) another of our native evergreens, goes by many other names but to me it will always be the checkerberry. Thanks to my grandmother, who had trouble getting up after keeling and so had me crawl around through the forest looking for its bright red berries, it was the first plant I learned to identify. We loved the minty, spicy flavor of the berries but coming up with only a handful was often difficult. The name checkerberry comes from the chequer tree, which is a mountain ash tree native to Europe and which is thought to have similar berries. From what I’ve seen though the only similarity is the color of the fruit. Oil of wintergreen can be distilled from the leaves of American wintergreen, and they also make a pleasant, minty tea. Native Americans would take a handful of the leaves with them on a hunt and nibble on them to help them breathe easier while running or carrying heavy game.

With a name like evergreen Christmas fern you probably wouldn’t be surprised to see this fern’s green leaves in winter, but these leaves did surprise me because they weren’t the deep green color that they usually have. They were a much paler, blanched green and this is something I’ve never seen before. I can’t even guess what would have caused this nearly indestructible fern to lose its color. Early colonials used to bring the fronds of this fern indoors in the winter, presumably to brighten what must have been a long, cold, dark period for them. If you look closely you can see that each leaf has a tiny “toe,” which makes it look like a Christmas stocking.

You would expect it to get cold in December and we weren’t too deep into the month when I started finding mushrooms like these brown ones frozen absolutely solid, but the cold that froze them was nothing compared to what was to come.

If you want to strike fear into the heart of even the crustiest New Englander just say the words “Ice storm.”  An ice storm coats absolutely everything in ice and as the ice builds up layer after layer on tree branches the branches and sometimes the whole tree will fall, and when they fall they usually take the already weighed down power lines with them. This leaves entire regions; sometimes millions of people, without electricity. Of course it is cold outside as well, and when you don’t have electricity to power your furnace, unless you have a woodstove or fireplace you have only two choices: move or freeze. I have no backup heat source, and all of these thoughts crossed my mind as I walked through the landscape on the morning of Christmas Eve day, right after an ice storm.

An ice storm can be both beautiful and terrible at the same time, but thankfully only a few thousand people lost their power this time and it was restored rather quickly. I’ve known people who have lost their power for close to a month after an ice storm and returned home only to find their house nearly destroyed by frozen and burst water pipes. I don’t think there is any weather event that we fear more.

The ice looked thick on all the trees but in reality was probably only about a quarter inch thick, which isn’t usually enough to cause much damage, thankfully.  Anything above that can mean trouble.

After the ice came about 5 inches of snow on Christmas morning, and this weighed the branches down even more because most of the ice was still on them. Still, though the Christmas tree lights blinked once or twice our power stayed on and I was able to cook our Christmas ham.

After the snow of Christmas day came the cold, and I do mean cold. Record breaking, dangerous cold settled in and hasn’t left yet, nearly a week later. As I write this I’m hoping I don’t wake to -16 °F again tomorrow as I did this morning, because you don’t go outside in that kind of cold, and it’s hard to chronicle what is happening in nature if you can’t get outside. In nearly eight years of writing this blog the weather has never stopped it, but this year could be different. I waited until it warmed to +14 ° and went out to take some photos, but an hour of that was all I could take. I must be getting old or maybe just tired of the cold; when I started this blog I could stay out most of the day if it was above 10 degrees but on this day it was more like work than fun.

But the cold can’t last forever; the earth will continue tilting toward the sun and spring will come once again. Meanwhile I’ll get outside when I can and if I can’t I might have to do a re-blog, which is something I’ve never done and don’t have the slightest idea how to do. It can’t be that hard.

If you’re wondering why I’m showing a photo of an old rock, it isn’t the rock I’m trying to show; it’s the skirt of ice it’s wearing. This stone is in the Ashuelot River and the river has frozen over from bank to bank in places. All I need to see is the river frozen over like that and I don’t need a thermometer to know it has been cold.

I see feathers all the time, but this is the first partridge feather I’ve ever seen. The partridge is an old world game bird that was introduced into the U.S. sometime around 1790. From what I’ve read it hasn’t been very successful here but it can do well on northern prairies and open farmland.  They forage in tall grass and whole flocks of them can often be very close but remain unseen, so that might help explain why I’ve never seen one. I hope they and all the other birds and animals survive this terrible cold. How they do so, I don’t know.

So that’s our look at December in New Hampshire. Maybe January will be warmer so we can all go outside once again.

Ice burns, and it is hard for the warm-skinned to distinguish one sensation, fire, from the other, frost. ~A.S. Byatt

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I saw this view along one of our roads recently. Lupines and Ox eye daisies seemed to go on forever. There were a few white lupines but most were blue / purple. It’s a hint of what will come; soon our meadows will explode with color.

Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) is an introduced plant that came from Europe in the 1600s but it doesn’t seem very invasive; the few colonies that I know of hardly seem to spread at all, and that’s possibly because they are biennials. This plant is in the mustard family, Brassicaceae. The young leaves of dame’s rocket are rich in vitamin C and oil pressed from its seed is used in perfumes.

Dame’s rocket flowers are sometimes mistaken for phlox, but phlox has 5 petals rather than the 4 petals seen on dame’s rocket. Phlox also has opposite leaves and those on dame’s rocket are alternate. The flowers are very fragrant in the evening and are said to smell like a mixture of cloves and violets.

When I was growing up we had a hedge of rugosa roses and I’ll never forget their wonderful scent. This rose reminded me of them because it too had that same scent. I think it was in the rugosa rose family but it wasn’t the exact one we had. The Latin word “rugosa” means “wrinkled,” as in the wrinkled petals  this one had.  They are a shrub rose that come along just after lilacs so if you’re looking for an extended period of fragrance in the garden I can’t think of anything better to extend it with. Rosa rugosa has been cultivated in Japan and China for about a thousand years but it has only been in this country since 1845. After its introduction it immediately escaped cultivation and can now be found just about anywhere on the coast of New England.

Pliny the Elder said chewing the root of greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) would relieve a toothache, but modern science has found that every part of it contains a range of isoquinoline alkaloids that makes it toxic if used in large amounts. When used in the correct dosage the plant’s yellow sap can be used against warts and moles.  If used at all, all of the latex sap should be washed from the hands because it can cause irritation if rubbed into the eyes. Greater celandine is native to Europe and Asia but early settlers brought it with them to use medicinally, and it has found its way into all but 19 states in the U.S.

All the books will tell you that the flowers of greater celandine have four yellow petals but nature doesn’t know the words always and never, so you have to use a little common sense when identifying plants. Things like leaf shape, where it grows, flower size and color, and the yellow sap all have to be considered when identifying this one.

I love the beautiful colors and shapes found in the perennial bachelor’s button blossom(Centaurea). They make excellent low maintenance, almost indestructible additions to the perennial garden. I found this one growing in a friend’s garden.

Each strap shaped, yellow “petal” on a yellow hawkweed flower head (Hieracium caespitosum) is actually a single, complete flower and each forms its own seed. The buds, stem, and leaves of the plant are all very hairy and the rosette of oval, overlapping leaves at the base of the stem often turn deep purple in winter. The Ancient Greeks believed that hawks drank the sap of this plant to keep their eyesight sharp and so they named it hierax, which means hawk. It is an introduced invasive and names like “yellow devil” and “devil’s paintbrush” show what ranchers think of it.

This beautiful clematis was spotted in the garden of friends of mine. Its blossoms are large, probably 6 inches across. I think its name is “Nelly Moser.” Though we do have native clematis most clematis cultivars have a Chinese or Japanese lineage. According to Wikipedia the wild clematis species native to China made their way into Japanese gardens by the 17th century, and in the 18th century Japanese garden selections were the first exotic clematises to reach European gardens. From there came our first “exotic” clematis, an old favorite called Jackmanii, which is still grown today.

Fringe trees (Chionanthus virginicus) might look like another exotic import from China or Japan but they’re native to the east coast of the U.S. It’s a beautiful and fragrant tree that you rarely see anywhere, and I wonder why it’s so under used. It is said to be tougher than dogwood, more dependable than saucer magnolia, longer-lived than cherry, and smells better than Bradford pears. So why don’t more of us use it?

When seen alone the fringe tree’s blossoms don’t seem like much to get excited about but when they get together in lacy, drooping clusters at the ends of the branches they are quite beautiful. Fringe trees are one of the last to show new leaves in spring and they can look dead until the leaves and flowers appear.

I’m guessing that there’s a good chance that most people have never seen the pipe shaped flowers of a Dutchman’s pipe vine (Aristolochia durior) because you have to move the vine’s large leaves aside and peek into the center of the plant to see them. Dutchman’s pipe is native to some south eastern hardwood forests and has been cultivated in other parts of the country and Canada since the 1700s.

The old fashioned Dutchman’s pipe vine has very large, heart shaped leaves and has historically been used as a privacy screen or for shade on porches and arbors. You can still see it used that way today, but most don’t see these small flowers. They’re mottled yellowish-green and brownish purple with a long yellow tube, and are visited by the pipevine swallowtail butterfly and other insects. The plant contains a compound called aristolochic acid which can cause permanent kidney failure, so it should never be taken internally.

The round white flower heads of wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) hide beneath its leaves and quite often you can’t see them from above.  Compared to the ping pong ball size flower heads the leaves are huge and act like an umbrella, which might keep rain from washing away their pollen. Each sarsaparilla flower is very small but as a group they’re easy to see. Dark purple berries will replace the flowers if pollination is successful, and it’s usually very successful. This is one of the most common wildflowers I know of and I see them virtually everywhere I go, including in my own yard. The roots of the plant were once used to make root beer but the drink that was called sarsaparilla contained no part of the plant. It was made from birch oil and sassafras root.

Our locust trees are blooming. The one shown here is a black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) loaded with white, very fragrant blooms. One way to identify the tree is by the pair of short spines at the base of each leaf. Like many other legumes its leaflets fold together at night and when it rains. Its hanging flower heads remind me of wisteria.

Locusts are in the same family as peas and beans and the flowers show the connection. Black locusts were prized by colonial Americans for their tough, rot resistant wood. In 1610 colonists found black locust trees planted beside Native American dwellings and thought the Natives were using the tree as an ornamental, so they decided to use it that way as well. They also used the wood for ship building, forts and fence posts while the Natives used it to make bows and blow darts. It was once said to be the toughest wood in all the world and was one of the first North American trees exported to Europe.

Bristly locust (Robinia hispida) is more shrub than tree, but it can reach 8 feet. The beautiful pinkish purple flowers are very fragrant and bees really love them. Every time I find one in bloom it is absolutely covered with bees, which makes getting photos a challenge. What sets this locust apart from others are the bristly purple-brown hairs that cover its stems. Even its seedpods are covered by hairs. Bristly locust is native to the southeastern United States but has spread to all but 7 of the lower 48 states, with a lot of help from nurseries selling it for ornamental use.

The beautiful little flowers of red sandspurry (Spergularia rubra) are hard for me to see because they’re so small, so I take photos of them so I can see them better. This plant was originally introduced from Europe in the 1800s and it has reached many states on the east and west coasts but doesn’t appear in any state along the Mississippi river except Minnesota. It must have been introduced on both coasts rather than first appearing in New England and then crossing the country like so many other invasive plants have.  I find them growing in dry, sandy waste areas. I’m not sure what the web or plant fibers surrounding this flower were all about.

I was bending down the stem of a sandspurry with one hand and taking its photo with the other so the penny is out of focus, but at least you can see how tiny this beautiful little flower really is, and that’s what’s important. I think you could fit about 8-10 of them on a penny.

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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Here are a few more spring wildflowers that I’ve seen recently. It’s hard to believe that summer is just around the corner.

1. Autumn Olive aka Elaeagnus umbellataAutumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellate) is a terribly invasive shrub from eastern Asia that has a heavenly scent. It is blooming now along with Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) which is so invasive that it is banned in New Hampshire. But it also has a heavenly scent, and when you combine the two invasive shrubs with our native lilacs, also blooming now and also extremely fragrant, I think you might have an idea of what heaven must smell like. Autumn olive is often confused with Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia.)

2. Bird's Foot Trefoil aka Lotus corniculatus 2

Bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) has just started blooming. This is another invasive plant that forms dense mats that choke out native plants. This plant was originally imported from Eurasia for use as a forage plant. The plant gets its common name from the way the clusters of seed pods are often shaped like a bird’s foot. Many butterflies, Canada geese and deer love this plant.

 3. Golden Ragwort aka Senecio smallii

Native golden ragwort (Packera aurea) likes wet places in full sunlight, but it will tolerate some shade. It’s not a common plant in this part of the state, but it can be found here and there. Golden ragwort is in the aster family and is considered our earliest blooming aster. The plant is toxic enough so most animals (including deer) will not eat it, but Native Americans used it medicinally to treat a wide variety of ailments.

4. Greater CelandineGreater celandine (Chelidonium majus) is another introduced invasive plant that is seen everywhere. It is a member of the poppy family that was originally introduced from Europe and Asia. Another celandine, lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria,) belongs to the buttercup family. Greater celandine has a yellow- orange latex sap that stains hands, as every schoolchild in the country quickly finds out. Another common plant used in gardens, celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum,) isn’t related to greater celandine.

5. Pheasant Eye Daffodil aka Narcissus poeticus

Another invasive that has naturalized here is the pheasant eye narcissus (Narcissus poeticus,) also called the poet’s daffodil. This plant is very old-ancient in fact-and is said to be the flower that is the basis of the Greek legend of Narcissus. It can be found in botanical texts from as early as 371 BC. The flower is very fragrant and easily recognized by the white petals and red edge on its yellow cup. It is said that its fragrance is so powerful that a few cut flowers in a closed room can cause headaches. I often see it in un- mown fields and pastures.

 6. Solomon's Seal Flowers 3

Native Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum canaliculatum) is blossoming throughout our forests now.  There are several plants that look very similar, but I believe the plant in the photo is Great Solomon’s seal.  Hairy Solomon’s seal has small hairs on the underside of the leaves and the flowers are smaller. Rose twisted stalk has similar leaves but a twisted, zig zag stem like the name implies. The rose / purple/ pink flowers are bell shaped.

7. False Solomon's Seal 2

False Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum  or Smilacina racemosa) has small white, star shaped  flowers in a branching cluster (raceme) at the end of its stem. The way to tell this plant from true Solomon’s seal when there are no flowers is by the zig zagging stem. The stem on Solomon’s seal is straight.

8. Start Flowered False Solomon's Seal aka Smilacina stellata

Star flowered Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum stellatum  or Smilacina stellata) also blossoms in a cluster at the end of its stalk, but the flower cluster isn’t branched like that of false Solomon’s seal. The white flowers are larger and usually fewer than those of false Solomon’s seal. This plant likes to grow in the same habitat as true and false Solomon’s seals and can often be found growing right beside them.

 9. Fleabane

Native common fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus) always surprises me by seeming to appear over night, but in reality I just don’t see them until they bloom. That’s because most that I see grow in lawns or fields where I don’t hike. This is a much loved flower, and you can tell that by the way people mow around it when they mow their lawns and fields. There is always a large patch of tall grass full of lavender flowers left standing. The flower pictured had just a hint of lavender on the ray petals, but some of them can be quite darkly colored.

 10. Comfrey Blossoms

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is in the same family as borage and is considered an herb, but I love the bell shaped blue flowers so I would rather use it as an ornamental. This is a strange plant that can be used as a fertilizer. Comfrey plants root very deeply and take up many nutrients from the soil, and that makes them as valuable to organic gardeners as manure. Quite often large plots of it will be grown to be cut and used as a fertilizer or in compost heaps. Comfrey is native to Europe.

 11. Gaywings

Fringed Polygala, also called gaywings (Polygala paucifolia,) are still blooming. I’m suddenly finding these plants everywhere. They seem to like to grow in the same places that lady’s slippers do. I love their color but it’s easy for me to mistake them for violets, so every time I see what I think are violets I stop to see if they are really gaywings. The blossom on the left seems to have lost its wings.

 12. Forget Me Nots

I see forget me nots (Myosotis) on riverbanks and along trails-almost everywhere I go.  There are many species of forget me nots and in some cases the differences are nearly microscopic, so I leave all the sorting to botanists and just enjoy the flowers.

 13. Painted Trillium

Painted trillium (Trillium undulatum ) have much smaller flowers than those of red trillium (Trillium erectum.) This plant likes very acid soil and doesn’t seem to be as easy to find here as the red trillium. The undulatum part of the scientific name comes from the wavy (undulating) petals. The painted part of its common name comes from the purple splotches on the petals. Painted trillium is native to the east coast.

14. Pink Lady's Slippers

I went for a short hike on a recent drizzly day and saw lots of pink lady’s slippers (Cypripedium acaule.) This native orchid is making a comeback after being collected nearly into oblivion by people who didn’t know any better. The plant interacts with a Rhizoctonia fungus in the soil and this fungus must be present for it to reproduce.  If plants are dug up and placed in private gardens they will eventually die out if the fungus isn’t present so please, look at them, take a couple of pictures, and let them be.

15. Pink Lady's Slipper

Pink lady’s slipper’s color can go from white, which are very rare, to deep pink. Those that are lighter pink often show interesting darker pink veins like the example in the above photo.

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.  ~Albert Einstein

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Last Saturday (for those of you who may have missed it) Punxsutawney Phil, King of the Groundhogs, didn’t see his shadow when he was removed from his burrow. Some might think that this simply meant that Phil woke under a cloudy sky, but it meant far more than that to The King; he immediately declared that we would see an early spring.  So, bolstered by Phil’s decree, I went off in search of spring.

1. Ashuelot River on 2-2-13

My first stop was at the Ashuelot River, which certainly had a spring like look. I was amazed that two days of above freezing temperatures and two inches of rain had removed almost all traces of ice.

 2. River Rapids

Downstream the river was on full boil and the white water was frothing. It’s a scene that always reminds me of spring. When the river gets like this you can hear the deep and slightly eerie sounds of boulders being rolled along the bottom. Large, heavy objects that roll along the bottom are called the bed load of a river. The amount of solid load that a river carries is measured in metric tons per day, passing any given point.

 3. Riverside Ice

This scene certainly didn’t speak of an early spring. I decided to leave the river and look for spring elsewhere.

 4. Greater Celandine

Greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) was nice and green and looking spring like, but it has been this way all winter.

5. Brachythecium moss

Brachythecium moss (Brachythecium rivulare) is often bright green, golden or yellow-green. I found it growing on a rotting log. The color reminded me of spring perennial growth, which is often a light shade of green or even yellow, in some cases.

6. White Ice

This white ice also reminded me of spring and when I used to ride my bike through puddles full of it as a boy. I used to love the sound it made when I broke it. It’s amazing how such simple things often come with such powerful memories. I can’t think of anything else that sounds quite like this kind of ice breaking, so it’s impossible for me to come up with comparisons for those of you who have never heard it.

 7. Mud

Yes, that’s mud and mud always reminds me of spring. People who don’t live in New England may not have heard about our fifth season, known as mud season. It’s when our dirt roads suddenly liquefy and turn into vehicle swallowing quagmires. Cars and trucks buried up to their axles are a common sight. Mud season happens in spring when the water from the thawed upper layers of soil can’t seep down through the still frozen lower layers. What you end up with is a giant, dirt filled mud puddle that looks like a solid road. Until you try to drive over it.

 8. Red Maple Buds

These red maple (Acer rubrum ) flower buds didn’t fail to bring thoughts of spring either, but it will be a while yet before they break fully.

9. Magnolia Bud

Magnolias set their furry buds in the summer, so these buds have nothing to do with spring until they open. Some magnolias bloom early enough to be true heralds of spring.

10. Poplar Buds

Poplar trees (Populus) are in the willow family and their buds remind me of spring pussy willows. North American poplars are divided into three main groups: the cottonwoods, the aspens, and the balsam poplars. If the buds aren’t sticky then the tree belongs in the aspen group. These weren’t. Aspen buds begin to swell during the first warm period in spring, when minimum temperatures are still below freezing. Air temperature rather than day length determines when their buds will break, so it can vary from year to year.

 11. Daffodil Buds

Daffodil buds are much like aspens in the way that they will simply refuse to grow until it is warm enough, even though they can break ground very early if we have a warm day or two. Seeing them certainly reminded me of spring.

In the end I didn’t find spring and I didn’t see a groundhog either, but I found many signs that told me that nature is stirring, and that spring isn’t too far off. I’d be willing to bet that it’ll be here by the last week of March. By the way, Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction of an early spring just happens to agree with the National Climatic Data Center and the National Weather Service.

Spring is when you feel like whistling, even with a shoe full of slush.  ~Doug Larson

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