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Posts Tagged ‘Marsh Mallow’

Tall garden phlox (Phlox paniculata,) another sign of summer’s passing, have come into bloom. Some of these flowers can be extremely fragrant and they’re a valuable addition to any garden. A walk along a garden border full of fragrant phlox on a summer evening is something you probably won’t ever forget. Many people think of English gardens when they think of phlox but this is actually a native plant with a range from New York to Mississippi.

Another sign of summer’s passing comes in the form of eastern forked blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum) but many people miss seeing these ankle tall plants full of tiny but very beautiful blue flowers. They bloom in the morning and each flower only blooms for one day before falling off the plant. Its common name comes from its four long, arching stamens that dust bees with pollen when they land on the flower’s lower lip. It’s one of our prettiest mid summer natives and is worth getting down on your hands and knees to see. It likes poor, sandy soil like that found along roadsides, and that’s where I found this one.

One of the oddest plants you’ll meet at the end of July is the broad leaved helleborine orchid (Epipactis helleborine.) Odd because it was introduced from Europe and of course almost immediately escaped gardens and is now considered an invasive orchid; the only one I’ve ever heard of. According to the USDA it was first found in the wild in North America near Syracuse, New York, in 1878 and has now spread to 31 states. I see only a few plants each year and they’re usually growing in shade but in some areas they come up in lawns. They stand about knee high, but they can get taller with more light. The leaves, though smaller, closely resemble those found on false hellebore and the name helleborine in Latin means “like hellebore.” That’s another oddity about this plant; neither false hellebore leaves nor the leaves of this orchid look at all like hellebore leaves.

A third oddity about broad leaved helleborine orchids is how two plants growing side by side (it is said from the same bulbous root) can have different color flowers. The flowers, maybe slightly bigger than a pencil eraser, can be green with a hint of purple, or purple with a hint of green, as these examples were. In fact, this year the flowers have more purple in them than I’ve seen.  

The fourth and oddest oddity about this plant in my opinion, is how scientists have discovered that its nectar contains the strongest narcotic compounds found in nature; comparable to oxycodone, and when insects (wasps) sip it they 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. Once the insect flies off it will most likely be oblivious to the pollen packets that it has stuck all over itself. By transporting one flower’s pollinia to another helleborine flower the insect will have repaid the intoxicating orchid for the buzz.

Ping pong ball size buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) flower heads look like frilly pincushions with their long yellow tipped, white styles sticking out of the tubular flowers the way they do. This native shrub is almost always seen near water and I found this one on the banks of the Ashuelot River. Once the flowers go by (as this example was) a red seed head will form which will turn brown as the seeds ripen. Waterfowl of all kinds love the seeds which, since buttonbush grows near water, are easy for them to get to.

Here is a fresh buttonbush flower head. Each small white flower is relatively long and trumpet shaped, with 4 short stamens and a single, long white style that is longer than the flower’s corolla, and that’s what makes them look like pincushions. Buttonbush is said to be poisonous to animals but beavers have been seen taking the wood. Whether for food or for the construction of their dams and lodges isn’t known.

One of the things that surprises me most about burdock (Arctium minus) is how, even though it grew everywhere when I was a boy and we used to throw the burs at each other, I never saw the flowers until I became an adult. I suppose my priorities changed; back then there was nothing more fun than covering your friends in the sticky burs. Burdock’s tubular purple flowers are densely packed into round prickly flower heads, but though many are familiar with the flower heads few seem to ever notice the flowers. When fully open long white styles grow from the often darker purple anthers, which form a type of sheath around it. Burdock must have come to this country very early, probably tangled in a horse or cow’s tail, because it was noted as being widespread in 1663. In fact, it was so common then that some who came later wrote that it was native. Its spread across the country from New England to the Pacific took about 270 years, because the Native Americans of western Washington State said it had been recently introduced there in the 1930s.

Dewdrop (Dalibarda repens) is also called false violet because of its leaves, and I think the resemblance might be part of why a lot of people never see it. Its small white flowers dot the forest floor like so many other small white flowers, and that also makes it easy to pass by with just a glance. Though I know of two colonies of them they are rare here, and are endangered or threatened in many other states.

Dewdrops have a secret; they produce flowers other than the ones we see. The hidden flowers don’t open but still produce seeds. They are called cleistogamous flowers and grow down beneath the leaves. The showy flowers like the ones in the photo are mostly sterile. In plants like hobblebush these bigger, showier, sterile flowers are used to attract insects to the smaller, less showy fertile flowers but I doubt that it works that way on dewdrops, because cleistogamous flowers are self fertile and don’t need insects to pollinate them. So why are the bigger, showier flowers even there? Maybe they’re just another way that nature expresses itself. Maybe all of creation rejoices when they come into bloom. Maybe that’s true of all flowers. Maybe it’s true of all life.

Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) gets its common name from the way the chopped and boiled leaves produce a soapy lather that is particularly good at removing grease. This plant is a native of Europe and is thought to have been brought over by colonists to be used as a soap substitute. Another common name for this plant is bouncing Bet. I’ve heard several stories about how this name came about but I like the one that claims that the curved petals catch the breeze and make the plant bounce back and forth in the wind. The flowers are very fragrant.

Bee balm (Monarda) is a native plant that is seen more in gardens than in the wild in this region. It is also called Oswego tea and bergamot. Many Native American tribes used this plant medicinally and a tea made from it can still be found in many stores. Bee balm will stand afternoon shade and is a no fuss plant that prefers to be left alone. When summers are humid it will occasionally get a case of powdery mildew. It isn’t doing well here this year. The plants I’ve seen this year don’t have mildew but still seem weak and the flowers are small.

There are more than 43 different species of liatris so I’m never sure which one I’m seeing but I do know that though it is a native plant I’ve only found it outside of a garden just once in this area.  It’s a very useful plant for attracting butterflies and bees to the garden. I think it would be more striking planted in drifts rather than the one or two plants spotted here and there that I see. Native Americans baked and ate the roots of the plant; they are said to taste like carrots. Other parts of the plant were used medicinally to treat heart ailments.

When you take a close look at the flowers the plant’s other common name, blazing star, comes to mind. It is grown commercially as a cut flower, so you might have seen it in an arrangement.

The beautiful blue of balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus) is hard to match in a garden. I and my color finding software see blue but some call it purple so if you see purple that’s fine. The plant is an Asian native with a common name that comes from its buds, which look like small, air filled balloons. In nature it grows on hillsides and in meadows. It is also called the Chinese bellflower and is in the campanula family. 5 white anthers surround a central stye that becomes 5 lobed as the flower ages. This example hadn’t been open long.

Bristly sarsaparilla (Aralia hispida) is in the ginseng family but its flowers are hard to mistake for those of ginseng. In fact, the entire plant isn’t easily confused with any other natives because of its bristly lower stems and foul odor. The plant can reach 3 feet tall but its weak stems give it a sprawling habit in the shade.  I almost always find it growing in dry gravel under pine trees at forest edges. Medicinally, the dried bark can be used in place of sarsaparilla. This plant is also called dwarf elder, wild elder, or angelica tree. Its leaves look nothing like those of wild sarsaparilla. Its fruit changes from green to dark blue and finally to black.

Bristly sarsaparilla is listed by the USDA as endangered in many states. The stems are covered in short, sharp, bristly hairs and that’s where its common name comes from. The lower part of its stem is woody and persists throughout winter, so technically it is considered a shrub. Each small, 1/8-inch flower sits at the end of a long stalk. They have 5 white petals that almost always curl back away from the center. 5 white stamens surround a central shorter style. I almost always see black ants swarming all over the flower heads of this plant but on this day there were only one or two.

Though when I was a boy hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium) flowers were always pure white, I’m having a harder time finding white ones these days. Now most of them seem to be bicolor pink and white and I’m not sure why, other than natural selection. It could be that insects are more attracted to the bicolor flowers, which means that they have a higher probability of pollination and seed production. I took this photo because the flowers looked white to me but then when I saw them in a photo I thought I could see a blush of pale pink here and there.

I found a garden variety yarrow (Achillea) that I haven’t seen before. Its color was eye catching. Many tiny flowers packed together make up a yarrow flowerhead and this plant showed that off beautifully.

NOTE: A reader wrote in to say they were quite sure this plant is a cultivar called ‘New Vintage Violet’. Thank you!

I knew this plant was a hydrangea but it didn’t look like any hydrangea I had ever seen. It was like a lacecap, but not entirely. The colors were unusual and seemed to be several different shades all at once. Then I realized that I had been out of the professional gardening game for quite a long time. This was the tea of heaven hydrangea (Hydrangea serrata,) also called sawtooth hydrangea or blood on snow. It is a hybrid and I haven’t kept up with newer developments; my subscriptions to garden catalogs and horticultural magazines ran out long ago. But none of that matters; its beauty is what caught my eye and I thought it might catch yours as well. By the way, the leaves contain a natural sweetener called Phyllodulcin and they are used to make tea in some Asian countries. That’s where the name tea of heaven comes from. As for the name blood on snow, we’ll leave that for another post.

Marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis) had me going around in circles for a while because the USDA said it didn’t grow here, but what I wasn’t picking up on for some reason on was that this plant grows in a garden here, and not in nature. It was obviously in the mallow family like hollyhocks but the small, quarter size flowers were unusual in my experience. Then the helpers came to the rescue, and that’s why I’m adding this plant to this post; I should never forget to thank the many people who write in to help with identifications. They do it quietly, often in the background unknown by readers, but they are an important part of this blog and I’m very fortunate to have them there, waiting for me to get tangled up. So thank you, one and all. I do appreciate your help.

I’ll end this post with this peachy daylily, for no other reason than the fact that it is extremely beautiful.

Flowers don’t worry about how they’re going to bloom. They just open up and turn toward the light and that makes them beautiful.  ~Jim Carrey

Thanks for coming by.

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