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Posts Tagged ‘Prickly Sow Thistle’

The longer I do blog posting the more I’m amazed more by what I don’t see than what I do, and here is a perfect example of that; pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea.) I’ve told readers before that they’d never see pearly everlasting on this blog because it didn’t grow here but what I should have said was I had never seen it. Now I’ve found it twice in two days in two different places.  According to the USDA the plant gets its common name from the “pearl-white involucre bracts that surround the yellow disk flowers.” You can just see one of those disk flowers beginning to show in the center of this flower head. Native Americans used pearly everlasting for treatment of sores and rheumatism, and they also smoked it to treat colds and as a tobacco substitute. What I see far more of is sweet everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium,) and they used that plant in much the same way.

But it is that time of year when some of our smallest and most beautiful wildflowers show themselves and field milkwort (Polygala sanguinea) is one of those. Its flowers are beautiful and unusual enough to make you want to sit beside them for a while and study them, and that’s just what I usually do. Milkworts get their name from the ancient Greeks, who thought they increased milk production in nursing mothers. The polygala part of the scientific name comes from the Greek polugalon or “much milk.”

On field milkwort flowers what look like petals arranged on a central stem are actually individual flowers packed into a raceme no bigger than the end of an average index finger. Each tiny overlapping flower has two large sepals, three small sepals, and three small petals that form a narrow tube. Several different kinds of bees help pollinate this plant, including bumblebees. Its flowers can be white, purple, pink, or green and I’ve noticed that the color can vary considerably from plant to plant.

This shot from a few years ago gives you a sense of the size of a field milkwort flowerhead. Still, as small August flowers go, it’s among the biggest.

The flowers of mullein (Verbascum thapsus) grow in a great long spike and they bloom from the bottom to the top. Once the blossoms reach the very top of the flower spike the plant is done. Native Americans used tea made from its large, gray green furry leaves to treat asthma and other respiratory ailments. It is also said to be useful as a relaxant and sleep aid.

Mullein is a biennial so like burdock and many other plants it flowers and dies in its second year of growth. It is considered a weed but if all of its flowers opened at once along its tall flower stalk I think it would be a prized garden specimen.

This photo is more about the red seed pods than the yellow flowers of Canada St. John’s wort (Hypericum canadense) because some St. John’s wort plants have red buds and others have red seed pods, and it can get very confusing.

This photo is all about the flower of Canada St. John’s wort; the smallest of all the St. John’s wort flowers. Each blossom wouldn’t even hide Lincoln’s head on a penny. In fact you could pick a bouquet of them and hide it behind a penny, so small are the blooms.

And here is a Canada St. John’s wort blossom on a penny. It’s one of the smallest flowers I try to photograph.

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

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

Sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) flowers look a lot like dandelions, but the rest of the plant doesn’t. Its flowers are held about 2 feet high on wiry stems, and its leaves have prickly edges. The seed heads look a bit like a dandelion seed head but are denser because of more seeds. This plant is considered a noxious weed in many places and comes from Europe and Asia. It was first reported in Pennsylvania in 1814 and is now in all but 8 states and most of Canada. This one grew right at the edge of a ditch I didn’t know was there and as I backed up to get a better shot I suddenly found myself lying on my back in the muddy ditch. Once I stopped laughing I came out of it feeling a little foolish but otherwise unscathed.

Here is a look at the edge of a sow thistle leaf. It feels as prickly as it looks.

When I started working where I do I found a single chicory plant (Cichorium intybus) growing in a 13 acre field that I mow each week. I mowed around the plant and let it be and then there were 3 or 4 plants, and then a few more, and now there is a forest of them. One recent day I found myself in the middle of this forest admiring all of these beautiful flowers and I suddenly had the strange sensation that I was lighter, almost as if gravity had been switched off and I was being carried away by the beauty that I saw. And for all of the rest of that day I felt light, as if I had little weight. It was very strange, but not uncomfortable. In fact I’d like for it to happen again. It reminded me of lying on my back in the grass as a boy, watching the clouds float past. Sometimes I felt as if I was floating then, too.

Beauty, according to Indian spiritual master Amit Ray, is the purest feeling of the soul. Beauty arises when the soul is satisfied he says, so on this day my soul must have been immensely satisfied.

And then I wondered if dragonflies like this Halloween pennant, perched atop a chicory plant, felt the same lightness I felt. And bees and butterflies? Do they have a sense of having any weight at all? Since they must know that they’ll float to earth if they stop moving their wings I’d guess the answer would be yes. Insects, especially dragonflies, do seem to have a certain amount of intelligence, because when I’m mowing this field dragonfly squadrons fly along on either side of me, knowing that the mower will scare insects up out of the grass. It’s an easy meal they don’t have to work too hard to get, and it’s always quite a remarkable thing to watch. No matter how fast or slow the mower goes they fly right along beside it.

Beautiful yes but every gardener’s nightmare come true, because creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides) is virtually impossible to eradicate. I worked for years trying to remove it from a garden I once worked in and last I knew the plants were still thriving. I think the new owners must have come to see the futility of it all.  

White avens (Geum canadense) are everywhere this year, more than I’ve ever seen. Each flower is about a half inch across with 5 white petals and many anthers. The anthers start out white and then turn brown and you usually find both on each flower. Each flower becomes a seed head with hooked seeds that will stick to hair or clothing.

I saw a hosta blossom that had to be in this post because it showed perfectly why hostas are in the lily family. In fact another name for the plant is the plantain lily.

This very beautiful rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium) grows just off the side of an old dirt road at the edge of a swamp. At least I think it is rosebay willowherb; there seems to be some confusion among sources about the regions it grows in. According to the USDA it doesn’t grow in New England, but the University of Maine lists it in its database. Another name for the plant is fireweed and Henry David Thoreau mentions seeing great stands of it in 1857, so I’ve been wondering for years now if the USDA map is incorrect. If you live in New Hampshire and have seen this plant I’d love to hear from you.

Narrow leaved gentians (Gentiana linearis) grow alongside the same road that the rosebay willowherbs were on. Gentians of any kind are extremely rare in these parts and I’m always as excited to see them as I would be to see a field full of orchids. Narrow leaf gentians like moist, calcium rich soil and that’s one reason you don’t see them here very often, because our soil is generally acidic. Another reason is that the flowers never open so insects have to force their way in, and it takes a strong insect like a bumblebee to do so. Third is how its seeds are too small to interest birds and its foliage too bitter to interest herbivores. I love its beautiful deep blue color and I hope this small colony will spread. I’ve heard of other hidden colonies of it here and there as well.

Never has the earth been so lovely or the sun so bright as today. ~Chief Nikinapi

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This post is part two of all the things I see that don’t seem to fit in other posts but are too interesting to disregard. This post is more about shapes, colors and textures than anything else.This looks more like a pineapple than a pinecone to me, but it is called a pinecone willow gall. This gall appears at the branch tips and is caused by a midge (Rhabdophaga strobiloides) laying eggs in them. Once the eggs hatch the larva burrow into the branch tip and the plant reacts by forming a gall around them. This gall was smaller than an egg, but still quite big. This oak gall was fairly fresh-they are a darker brown after they have aged. There are horned oak galls, gouty oak galls, artichoke oak galls, potato oak galls, and oak marble galls. The photo above is of a marble gall and it really is about the size of a marble. These marble galls are usually near perfect spheres but this one looked like it had been stretched a bit. Some galls form on the undersides of leaves, some on the tree’s roots and others, like the one shown, on the twigs and stems. All are caused by different wasps or mites which will only lay their eggs on the leaves, roots, or twigs of their favorite species of oak tree. Native blue cohosh fruit (Caulophyllum thalictroides) couldn’t be mistaken for anything else even though lack of rain dried the plant’s leaves up. You can also see a few of the unripe green fruit in this photo. I tried very hard to find this plant last spring and couldn’t, so this discovery means that I’ll see it next spring if I can get to it. The medicinal qualities of this plant have been known for hundreds if not thousands of years-it was used by Native Americans to ease childbirth. It has since been learned that, though the plant does indeed ease childbirth, it also damages the heart and all parts of it are considered toxic. This burl was on near a large pine tree that had fallen. You can clearly see all the gnarled, swirled grain patterns that burl is famous for and which make it so valuable. I thought it was a beautiful thing and because it was a small, detached piece I brought it home. If you look closely at the right hand edge of the burl you can see bits of blue lichens, which are rare. I wish I’d seen them when I was taking the picture.This burl I saw on a maple tree would most likely look every bit as nice as the previous one once it was taken from the tree, carved and turned on a lathe to create a bowl.Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) flowers seem to turn into fruit so fast that you can almost see it happen as you stand there watching. Those in the photo will eventually become black, shiny, poisonous berries. Pokeberries have long been used as a source of ink-the United States Constitution was written in ink made from them. Native Americans used to make a red dye from the berries that they used to decorate their horses. I took this photo because of the vivid purple stems.Some parts of white cushion moss (Leucobryum glaucum) have no chlorophyll and this gives it a silvery- gray appearance. This moss, because of its shape and color, is one of the easiest to identify. It is very common in moist, shaded areas.I thought these prickly sow thistle seed heads (Sonchus asper) looked like they were worthy of having their picture taken. I have no doubt that the previous plant was a sow thistle (Sonchus asper,) but I can’t find an example in any book of a sow thistle with plum colored buds like these, which were on the same plant. This plant has been used as a potherb since ancient times. It is native to Europe and Asia. The black seed pods of blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) were once used as rattles by children. Not surprisingly, other common names include rattle weed and rattle bush. Native Americans made a blue dye that was a substitute for true indigo from this native plant.Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) was hit hard by our lack of rain but it can still make you itch, even at this stage.This puffball was about the size of a tennis ball. I can’t come up with an identical match for it, either in books or online, so I’m not really sure what it is.I’ve seen a lot of wild grapes this year. Since there are dozens of species it’s always hard to tell which one it is that you have, but I think these are fox grapes. The fox grape is as big as a nickel, deep purple in color, and said to be the most delicious wild grape in North America. Concord, Isabella, Catawba, Niagara, Chautauqua, and Worden grapes all come from the fox grape. Heavy with not quite ripe, speckled fruit is false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa.) I see large bunches of these berries everywhere I go, so it’s going to be a good year for birds, mice, grouse, and other forest critters. When these berries are fully ripe they will be bright red, but I like them speckled too. Soil pH can affect fruit color. Native American’s used all parts of this plant. Its roots contain lye and must be boiled and rinsed several times before they can be used.Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) seed heads are more interesting than the flowers, I think. This is our most common native clematis and can be seen on roadsides draped over shrubs or climbing high up in the trees. Many bird species eat the seeds and goldfinches line their nests with the soft, feathery seed coverings that are just beginning to show in this photo. Clematis can cause internal bleeding, so it should never be eaten.The fuzziness of staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina,) on the right, is apparent even in its fruit while smooth sumac (Rhus glabra,) on the left, has smooth fruit. It isn’t just the fruit but the limbs and leaves which are smooth or hairy. Smooth sumac seems to have brighter red fruit. Its leaves are also darker green and shiny. Around here staghorn sumac gets much taller and forms larger colonies than smooth sumac. Smooth sumac trunks are usually much more crooked as well. The leaves of both plants turn brilliant red in the fall.This beech tree looked like it had gone through some tough times but didn’t have any dead branches or appear to be ailing. It looked like someone had wrinkled it up and then hadn’t quite straightened it out again. I couldn’t help wondering what its grain pattern would look like, but I’d bet that a sawyer would love to find out. This tree is on state land however, and will hopefully be protected for its lifetime.

Free your heart from your mind. Embrace wonder for one moment without the need to consider how that wonder came to be, without the need to justify if it be real or not. ~Charles de Lint

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