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Posts Tagged ‘Racemed Milkwort’

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

On this day bumblebees were all over the coneflowers.

There were lots of insects on the tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) too and that surprised me because tansy is a natural insect repellent and was used as such in colonial times. Dried tansy added to the straw in mattresses was said to keep bedbugs away. These insects must not have read the same books that I have because they seemed to be enjoying themselves. Tansy is a European native that has been cultivated for centuries and was brought over on the first ships to cross the Atlantic. The flat flower heads are made up of many button like disc flowers; almost like a daisy without the white ray flowers that we call petals. Most tansy plants are seen in gardens but it had naturalized itself in New England by 1785 and can still be occasionally found growing along roadsides. It’s a good plant to use in vegetable gardens for pest control. The ancient Greeks grew tansy for medicinal use but modern science has found it to be toxic.

Pickerel weed likes to grow in shallow water and large amounts of it grow here in the shallows of a local pond. This plant tells the story of how low the water level is and can be a help to kayakers and canoeists who don’t want to find themselves stuck in the mud. This plant is blossoming much later this year than it usually does and some aquatics like pipewort and arrowhead I haven’t seen at all.

Pickerelweed’s common name comes from the pickerel fish because they were once thought to breed only under its leaves. Each of the small, tubular flowers on the spikey flower heads will produce a fruit with a single seed. Once the flowers are pollinated and seeds have formed the flower stalk will bend over and drop the seeds into the water, where they will have to go through at least two months of cold weather before being able to germinate. Ducks and muskrats love the seeds and deer, geese and muskrats eat the leaves. Though humans can eat the seeds and new spring shoots of this plant there is no record that I can find of Native Americans using it for food, but I have read that some tribes used it as a contraceptive. I’m not sure how that worked.

Ping pong ball size buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) flower heads look like frilly pincushions with their long white styles sticking out of the tubular blossoms 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 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. That might be why I see so many ducks and geese along this stretch of river.

Though I’m not foolish enough to think that I’ve seen every plant there is to see out there I’m always surprised to see plants I’ve never seen before growing in areas I’ve walked through dozens, if not hundreds of times. I first saw racemed milkwort (Polygala polygama) recently in a spot I frequent occasionally and then I found it growing in my own yard. It’s a small, shin high plant with flowers too small for me to see any real detail in without magnification.

The tiny flowers are about a 1/4 inch across with 2 winged sepals on either side of 2 petals rolled into a tube in the center. The flowers also have a fringed crest but this example hadn’t blossomed full so it doesn’t show. These flowers are like miniature versions of fringed polygala (Polygala paucifolia) flowers, which appear in mid-May.

This photo of fringed polygala (Polygala paucifolia) flowers that I took last May shows the similarities between them and the racemed milkwort blossom in the previous photo. The central tubular petals and two winged petals immediately led me to the polygala family when I was trying to identify the racemed milkwort. Other names for fringed polygala are fringed milkwort and gaywings. They’re very beautiful things that I wait impatiently to see each spring.

This photo shows how small the flowers of racemed milkwort really are. They’re hard on the eyes, but worth the effort to see in all their beauty.

Another tiny flower is found on native Canada St. John’s wort (Hypericum canadense). The plant has deep red buds but its flowers come in the more traditional yellow. Though some very reputable websites will tell you that this plant likes wet soil I always find it in dry gravel. It has grown in full sunshine for months now without harm so it’s a very tough little plant. I wonder if they might have it confused with dwarf St. John’s wort (Hypericum mutilum) which likes the wet soil of pond edges, or if I have it confused with yet another variety of St. John’s wort that I don’t know about. Canada St. John’s wort is also called lessor Canada St. John’s wort, so I assume that there must be a greater Canada St. John’s wort.

Canada St. John’s wort flowers are smaller than even dwarf St. John’s wort (Hypericum mutilum) flowers are. They’re said to be 1/4 inch across but I think that’s stretching it a bit. The Hypericum part of the scientific name comes from the words hyper, meaning ‘above’ and eikon meaning ‘picture’ in the Greek language. The flowers were once hung above pictures to prevent evil befalling the pagan midsummer festival. The popular festival eventually became the Feast of St. John, and that’s how the large family of St. John’s worts came by their common name.

Enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana canadensis) is a woodland plant that likes a lot of shade and is one of those plants that is easy to miss until it blooms along trails in July. It gets its scientific name Circaea from Circe, an enchantress in Homer’s Odyssey with a fondness for turning men into swine. There are similar plants native to Europe and Asia.

Each tiny 1/8 inch wide enchanter’s nightshade flower consists of 2 white petals that are split deeply enough to look like 4, 2 green sepals, 2 stamens, and a tiny central style. To say that these flowers are difficult to get a good photo of is an understatement. I usually have to try many times, and I had to again this year. I think this was somewhere near the 10th attempt.

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

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

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

Each inch long spotted jewelweed blossom dangles at the end of a long filament and can dance in even in the slightest breath of breeze, and this makes getting a good photo always a challenge. It usually takes many tries for blog worthy photos of the blossoms and this year was no different.  Hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies pollinate these little flowers. You need a long tongue to reach all the way into that curved nectar spur. It is said that jewelweed is an important source of food for ruby throated hummingbirds.

I tried to get a bee’s eye view looking into a jewelweed blossom (Impatiens capensis) but when I saw the photo I could see that I had been only partially successful. The lower lip of the blossom looked like red candle wax had dripped on it, which is common. This plant gets its common name from the way its seed pods snap and release the seeds when touched. Other names include orange Jewelweed, common jewelweed, and orange balsam.  The name “jewelweed” comes from the way that raindrops sparkle on its wax coated leaves. The way the flowers shine, I wonder if the same waxy coating isn’t on them.

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is an invasive perennial that came over from Europe in the ballast of a cargo ship in the 1800s. The beach sand ballast, loaded with purple loosestrife seeds, was originally dumped on Long Island, New York. The seeds grew, the plant spread and now it covers most of Canada and all but 5 of the lower Untied States. It likes wet, sunny meadows but will grow just about anywhere. It’s hard to deny its beauty, especially when you see a meadow full of it growing alongside yellow goldenrods, but the plant chokes out natives including goldenrod and creates monocultures. I know of 2 places where you’ll soon see nothing but purple.

This is the first time long leaf speedwell (Veronica longifolia) has appeared on this blog because I’ve never seen it growing in the wild before, as these examples were. It’s a pretty plant that is native to Europe and China and is usually grown in gardens. It has obviously escaped but certainly doesn’t seem to be aggressive or invasive. I love its showy blue flower spikes.

Any post that has two plants that I’ve never seen before in it has to be a good one and I hope you enjoyed it. I’m sorry it ran a little long but there is just so much to see out there. Something else I’ve never seen is so many black eyed Susans growing in one spot. This roadside display is actually about 4 times wider than what you see here and there is a drift of many thousands of blossoms, so they’re having a good year.

The world unwraps itself to you again and again as soon as you are ready to see it anew. ~Gregory Maguire

Thanks for coming by.

 

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