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Posts Tagged ‘Tall Blue Lettuce’

When I see this photo I think “Oh, for a cloudy day” but no, last Saturday was another in a seemingly endless string of hot, humid, wall to wall sunshiny days. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing and that includes sunny days, but one of the first things someone who studies nature learns is that you take what comes, and so I set off down one of my favorite rail trails looking for nothing but a good time.

My good time started before I had walked 5 yards. Showy tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense) grew in sunny spots all along the trail. Often you find that the flowers are scattered here and there along the stems as they are here. 

One of the things I like about showy tick trefoil is how it blooms when goldenrod does. I like seeing the two colors together.

Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) berries start out green and then turn orange before finally ripening to red. They are pretty things but they can be mildly toxic to adults and more so to children, though I’ve never heard of anyone eating them. Tatarian honeysuckle is considered an invasive shrub. Birds eat the berries and the plant spreads quickly, with an estimated seedling density of 459,000 per acre. Once grown their dense canopy shades the forest floor enough so native plants can’t grow, so the land around dense colonies is often barren.

It’s hard to believe that the tiny scarlet threads of the female hazelnut flowers (Corylus americana) can grow into such wonderous things as these, but they do. Each hazelnut is encased in a frilly husk, and you can just see them around the center of the tennis ball size growth. In 1995 a large shallow pit in Scotland was found to be full of the remains of thousands of burned hazelnut shells and was estimated to be 9,000 years old, so man has been eating this nut for a very long time. In this country Native Americans used them to flavor soups and also ground them into flour, most likely for thousands of years as well. And we still eat them today.

Daisy fleabane flowers (Erigeron annuus) are white, but those blossoms that happen to be in the shade often have a purple tint as this one did.

As I said in my last post, I’m seeing tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) everywhere I go and it grew all along this trail. That is unusual, because it wasn’t too many years ago when I had to search high and low to find it.  

Wild tall blue lettuce goes to seed relatively quickly so maybe that’s why I’m seeing so much more of it.

Between the drainage ditch full of purple loosestrife and the tree line is supposed to be a cornfield but hardly a seed germinated because of the drought, so now it’s a field full of everything but corn. All of this corn is cattle corn so the cows might have a lean winter.

When we have hot humid weather the conditions are perfect for powdery mildew, which can be seen on this clover leaf. It doesn’t seem to care which plants it attacks; I saw it on a few different species along the trail.

Fuzzy staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) berries were conspicuously absent. I saw plenty of shrubs but these were the only berries I saw. Many plants seem to be behaving strangely this year. I also saw raspberry bushes all along both sides of the trail but not a single sign of fruit.

Tall thimbleweed’s (Anemone virginiana) white flower sepals don’t seem to last very long. Every time I see them they have either turned green or are in the process of doing so, and you can just see a hint of green on two or three of these. That means if you see them in bloom that’s the time to get a photo. There are usually plenty of yellowish stamens surrounding a center head full of pistils, even after the flowers turn green. These flowers are close to the diameter of a quarter; about an inch. Thimble weed’s seed head continues growing after the sepals have fallen off and it becomes thimble shaped, which is where the common name comes from. Though the plant is poisonous Native Americans used the root to ease whooping cough and the smoke from the seeds was used to treat breathing difficulties.

Carrion flower vine (Smilax herbacea) has blue berries that are a favorite of birds, but these examples seemed to be drying out as soon as they ripened and turned blue. This plant is a vine that can reach 8 feet long. The fruit is said to be edible, but you won’t catch me eating it. It gets its name from the strong odor of its flowers.

Common elderberry bushes (Sambucus nigra canadensis) had just a few green berries on them because birds are eating them as soon as they ripen and turn black. The big flower head stems look like star charts.

I saw quite a few bicyclists whizzing by and there go a couple now, on the other side of the trestle. These old trestles have been reworked by snowmobile clubs and some, like this one, hardly show any signs of the original construction.

To get a better look at what the trestle looked like originally I had to go down under it.

Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) grew in a sunny spot just at the edge of the trestle but I didn’t see any butterflies on it.

The trestle crosses Ash Swamp brook, which meanders lazily through Keene before finally meeting the Ashuelot River just around that corner. I spent many happy hours exploring this place as a boy and learned then that you have to be very careful where you step here because you could suddenly find yourself up to your knees in quicksand-like sucking mud. I’d guess that there must still be a few pairs of shoes under that mud, left behind when a stuck child was pulled out by friends. It wouldn’t have been parents pulling them out because you didn’t want parents knowing you were anywhere near this place. Very near here the banks of the river are high and sandy and bank swallows used to nest there. Watching them come and go was always good for an afternoon’s entertainment when I was a boy. Though the brook looked placid it can rise quickly in a heavy rain and flood quite a large area, so the surrounding land is considered flood plain. Seeing the water high enough to be almost touching the bottom of the trestle is something you never forget.

Can you stand another look at the Allegheny monkey flower (Mimulus ringens)? They grew here in quite large numbers but I still didn’t see a monkey. A helpful reader wrote in to say that if I turned the photo upside down then I’d see a monkey. I tried it and still didn’t see a monkey, but I’m glad she did.

If you’re wondering where the title of this post came from, here it is; traveler’s joy. This native clematis is also called Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana.) It drapes itself over shrubs so it can get all of the sunshine that it wants, just as it did in this spot, but I’ve also seen it climbing into trees. An extract made from the plant is hallucinogenic and was used by Native Americans to induce dreams. Mixed with other plants like milkweed, it was also used medicinally. It is a very pretty but toxic plant that can cause painful sores in the mouth if eaten. It is also called old man’s beard and devils’ darning needles, but since it always brings me joy when I see it I like the name traveler’s joy.

A great black wasp came by for a bite to eat while I was there and I admired its beautiful iridescent blue wings. The color reminds me of my grandmother’s favorite perfume Evening in Paris, because the bottle was almost the same color. These big wasps eat nectar and pollen from flowers and don’t bother people but they can be a bit intimidating because of their large size. It was a beautiful thing; a joy to see on the traveler’s joy. I do hope your travels will be joyous as well.

Freedom, joy or bliss doesn’t come from the situation that we think we should be in, but it derives from the one that we are already in. ~Aditya Ajmera

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Beautiful little marsh St. John’s wort (Hypericum virginicum) grows in the wet soil at the edge of ponds but it isn’t easy to get a photo of because it closes its flowers at night and won’t open them again until they’re in full sunshine the following afternoon. You never find them blooming on a cloudy day or in the morning so it is a plant that makes you go to it when it wants you to come, especially if you happen to be an insect or a nature nut. This is the only St. John’s wort I know of with pink flowers; all of our other St John’s worts are yellow.

If you’re very lucky you might find swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) growing alongside the marsh St. John’s wort like I did. It’s hard to believe it’s already time to say goodbye to this beautiful flower. I do hope you’ve had a chance to meet it in person.

Burdock (Arctium lappa) is blooming and it hopes you’ll come by later and give it a ride. The plant is a good example of a biennial plant. In the first year of life it grows leaves and in the second year it flowers, sets seeds, and dies. This is what biennials do, so we know that its tubular flowers with purple stamens and white styles signal that it is close to finishing its journey. There is no reason to grieve though, because the germination rate of its seeds is high and there will surely be burdocks for many years to come, especially if you (or your dog) help spread them around.

Burdock is said to have been introduced from Europe because it was noted in 1672 by self-styled naturalist John Josselyn, who wrote that it had “sprung up since the English Planted and kept Cattle in New-England.” He said the same thing about the dandelion, but fossil evidence has proved him wrong. Native American tribes across the country had many uses for burdock, both as a medicine and food, so some form of the plant had to have been here long before European settlers arrived. 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.  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. As the above photo shows, when fully open long white styles grow from the dark purple flowers.

Pearl crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos) seem to love burdock flowers. There were clouds of them around these plants.  I’ve read that males have black antenna knobs, so I’m guessing that this must be a female.

I’m seeing more tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) flowers this year than I ever have, and they seem to be everywhere I go.. These particular flowers were a lighter ice blue but sometimes they can be quite dark. They grow in a cluster at the very top of the sometimes six foot tall plant and each blossom is no bigger than a pencil eraser. They’re always worth a look because they’re always beautiful.

All flowers have, in my opinion, a divine light shining from them and few flowers illustrate that better than orange hawkweed (Pilosella aurantiaca.) It’s a beautiful thing that I don’t really see much of, even though it is said to be invasive. I see thousands of examples of yellow hawkweed for every one in orange and I’ve wondered if maybe their scarcity is due to the color orange being virtually invisible to bees. These flowers do reflect ultraviolet light though so you would think that some insects must find them, but on this day in the meadow these grew in there were tiny butterflies all over many other species, but not a single one landed on these blossoms.

In my last post that showed an  Allegheny monkey flower (Mimulus ringens) I never showed a face on view, so here is one. I still don’t see a monkey. According to the USDA it grows in almost every state in the country and nearly every Canadian province, but I rarely find it. They usually grow to about 2 feet tall and growing in wet, sandy soil. Each plant has its flowers strung along the stem, coming out of the leaf axils. I’ve read that the flowers can occasionally be pink or white. 

It’s time to say goodbye to my old friends the purple flowering raspberries (Rubus odoratus.) This shade tolerant plant is in the rose family and the 2 inch wide flowers might look like a rose at first glance, but one look at its large, light gathering, maple like leaves will show that it isn’t. The plant has no thorns but it does have a raspberry like fruit. The flower petals always look a bit wrinkled and once you know it, it’s difficult to mistake it for anything else.

The fruit of the purple flowering raspberry looks like a large raspberry and is edible but is on the tart, dry side. I’ve heard that it is sweeter if put on the very tip of the tongue but I haven’t tried that. Native Americans had over 100 uses for this plant, both as food and medicine.

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) is a European native that has been cultivated for centuries. The ancient Greeks knew it well and it was grown in the herb gardens of Charlemagne. It was brought from England by early colonists and by 1785 it had naturalized in New England. The flat flower heads are made up of many button-like disc flowers that have a peculiar, medicine like fragrance that some compare to camphor. The plant has a long history of use as an insect repellant and early colonials added it to the straw in mattresses to keep bedbugs away.

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. Though it is also used medicinally it is considered toxic and some people have violent toxic reactions to it.  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.

The backward bending petals make soapwort easy to identify. They bend back as they age. The flowers will be pink or lavender in full sun and whiter in shade. They are said to open toward evening, but I’ve seen them in the morning.

Lobelia inflata is called Indian tobacco because its round seed pods resemble the pouches that Native Americans carried their smoking materials in. It is an annual that grows new from seed each year and its tiny flowers are very hard to get a good photo of. Native Americans used all parts of the plant medicinally, and some tribes also used it in their religious ceremonies. Though the flowers closely resemble those of pale spike lobelia that growth habit does not. Pale spike lobelia grows in a single erect flower head and this plant is branched.

A friend at work grows Tomatillos in his garden and I noticed that the flowers were both unusual and quite pretty. I’ve never grown it.

The tomatillo fruit is even more unusual. It has a berry like fruit inside a papery husk and my friend uses it for salsa. According to Wikipedia the plant is also known as the “Mexican husk tomato. It is a plant of the nightshade family bearing small, spherical and green or green-purple fruit of the same name.” They originated in Mexico and were cultivated in the pre-Columbian era.

Spearmint  (Mentha viridis) has been used since recorded time both medicinally and as a flavoring. Pliny wrote of it and the ancient Romans cultivated it to scent their bath water. In Athens where every part of the body was perfumed with a different scent mint was specially designated to the arms. Spearmint is originally from Europe but the pilgrims brought it on their first trip to America, so valuable was the plant to them, and now it is found in the wild. The flowers are said to be pink or white but these were white, blue, pink and lavender. I wish I could send you their scent because it was refreshing on a hot summer day.

Wild thyme is blooming in lawns. Bees love these tiny blossoms so I’m sure they are just ecstatic.

And they are tiny; I won’t tell you how many tries this shot took. Ancient Egyptians used thyme for embalming and the ancient Greeks used it in their baths and burned it as incense in their temples, believing it was a source of courage, so it has been with us for a very long time.

Balloon flowers (Platycodon grandiflorus) get their common names from their buds, which look like small, air filled balloons. It’s an Asian native that apparently doesn’t escape gardens, at least in this area.

Balloon flower is also called the Chinese bellflower and is in the campanula family. I love its blue color. This one had beautiful blue veins.

One day I stood on the shore of a pond full of hundreds of fragrant white waterlilies. The breeze was blowing over them and the incredible fragrance that came across the pond made me want to never leave that place. But of course I had to leave eventually, so I brought this photo home to remind me of that day. There are some things that happen to you in nature that you never forget, and for me I’m sure this will be one of those.

A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life. ~Lewis Mumford

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If there was ever a plant so beautiful that it made me want to kneel before it it is the greater purple fringed orchid (Platanthera grandiflora.) Like a two foot tall bush full of beautiful butterflies it hides away in a swamp, burning with the light of creation, seen by only a very few lucky souls.

What can I say about something so beautiful? Orchids are the most highly evolved of all the flowering plants and they are also among the most beautiful. This one leaves me speechless, because I know I’m in the presense of something very special. That’s why I feel that I should do nothing to disturb it. I take a few photos and leave it until next year when hopefully, it will reappear. I’m very happy that I can show you such a rare and beautiful thing.

Some flowers seem to just refuse to cooperate when a camera is pointed at them and enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana canadensis) is one of those. I usually have to try again and again to get a good photo of it and this year was no different. Luckily this shade lover grows in my own yard so I have plenty of opportunities to take its photo. This isn’t one of the best I’ve taken but it shows what I’d like you to see. Each tiny 1/8 inch wide 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. 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.

Here is a tiny enchanter’s nightshade blossom on a penny that I took previously. They’re among the smallest flowers that I try to photograph for this blog. Enchanter’s nightshade 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.

A bee had filled its little pollen sacs quickly in a patch of brown knapweed (Centaurea jacea,) which had just started blooming. I’ve always thought that knapweed flowers were very beautiful but unfortunately this plant is also from Europe and according to the U.S. Forest Service is a “highly invasive weed that is capable of forming large infestations under favorable conditions.”  The large infestations crowd out native plants including those used for forage on pasture lands, so it is not well liked by ranchers. The brown bracts below the flower are what give the plant its common name. The flowers seem to be very darkly colored this year, or maybe that’s because they had just opened.

At a glance motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) might resemble one of the nettle family but the square stems show it to be in the mint family. The tiny flowers grow in a whorl around the stem in the leaf axils. This plant, originally from Asia, is considered an invasive weed but I don’t see it that often and I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than 2 or 3 plants growing together.  It was brought to this country because of its long history of medicinal use in Europe and Asia. The ancient Greeks and Romans used motherwort medicinally and it is still used today to decrease nervous irritability and quiet the nervous system. There is supposed to be no better herb for strengthening and gladdening the heart, and it is sold in powdered and liquid form. The tiny flowers of motherwort are very hairy and look like a microscopic orchid. They’re also very hard to get a good shot of because of both their size and color.

Another wort is black swallow wort (Cynanchum louiseae.)  The word wort by the way, was generally used to indicate that a plant had some medicinal value and it was often attached to the word for the body part that it was believed to help. That doesn’t seem to fit in the case of swallow wort however, unless it was used to help one swallow. The plant is in the milkweed family and like other milkweeds its flowers become small green pods that will eventually turn brown and split open to release their seeds to the wind. This plant also has a sharp, hard to describe odor that is noticed when any part of it is bruised. It originally came from Europe and in 1867 Gray’s Manual of Botany reported it as “a weed escaping from gardens in the Cambridge Massachusetts area.” In Canada it’s called the dog strangler vine, because its twinning stems are like wire.

Many plants that can take a lot of shade have large, light gathering leaves and the shade tolerant purple flowering raspberry (Rubus odoratus) shows that very well. This plant is in the rose family and the 2 inch wide flowers might look like a rose at a glance. It has no thorns like roses or raspberries however. The fruit looks like a large raspberry but is on the tart, dry side. Native Americans had over 100 uses for this plant, both as food and medicine.

This view shows the newer darker flowers of flowering raspberry as well as the older, lighter colored flowers. Flowering raspberry once got me a job as a gardener, so it holds a special place in my heart. A man called me to his house and asked me a few plant related questions and finally said that if I could tell him what the plants in his hedge were, he’d hire me.  I told him they were flowering raspberry and he hired me right there on the spot, and I worked for him for many years afterwards. This native shrub makes a great landscape specimen, especially in shade gardens, and it’s too bad that more people don’t use it. It attracts both birds and butterflies and can take anything that a New England winter can throw at it.

I thought I’d show you a rose so you could see how different it looks from the flowering raspberry. We have three native wild roses here in the U.S., the Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana,) the prairie rose (Rosa arkansana) and the wild rose (Rosa acicularis.) We also have roses that appear to be wild but which have escaped cultivation. None are truly invasive here and I think it’s safe to say that all are welcome. I found this beautifully scented example on the edge of a forest.

Fringed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata) gets its common name from the fringe of hairs on its leafstalks, but sometimes the flower petals are also fringed. It’s a cheery, pretty plant that often gets overlooked because there is just so much in bloom at this time of year. The flowers of fringed loosestrife are unusual because of the way they offer oils instead of nectar to insects. The oils are called elaiosomes and are fleshy structures that are attached to the seeds of many plant species. They are rich in lipids and proteins. Many plants have elaiosomes that attract ants, which take the seed to their nest and feed them to their larvae. Trout lily is another plant with elaiosomes. Native Americans used all of our yellow loosestrifes medicinally for various ailments, usually in the form of tea.

I was surprised to see how darkly colored the tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) flowers are this year. These flowers are usually a lighter ice blue but sometimes they can be quite dark. They grow in a cluster at the very top of the sometimes six foot tall plant. Tall blue lettuce is easily confused with tall lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) when it isn’t blossoming, but tall blue lettuce has hairy leaves and tall lettuce doesn’t. Native Americans had medicinal uses for both of the plants.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) has just started blooming here and I’ve already seen a few monarch butterflies in the area. I keep hoping they’ll make a comeback and we’ll once again see them in the numbers we did when I was a boy. Several times I’ve meant to write about how complicated milkweed flowers are to pollinate but the process is so complicated the task always ends up in my too hard basket. Instead I’ll just ask that you trust me when I say that it’s nearly a miracle that these flowers get pollinated at all. I’ll enjoy their beauty and their wonderful scent while trusting that nature will see to it that they’re pollinated, just as they have been for millennia.

The common orange daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) doesn’t have Lilium in its scientific name because daylilies aren’t a true lily. It’s a plant you’ll find growing near old stone cellar holes out in the middle of nowhere and along old New England roads. It is also found in cemeteries, often planted beside the oldest graves. It is one of those plants that were passed from neighbor to neighbor and spread quickly because of it. These days it is one of those plants that new homeowners go out and dig up when they can’t afford to buy plants for their gardens. It is both loved for being so easy to grow and hated for being so common. It was introduced into the United States from Asia in the late 1800s as an ornamental and plant breeders have now registered over 40,000 cultivars, all of which have “ditch lily” genes and all of which have the potential to spread just like the original has. If you find yourself doing battle with a particularly weedy daylily, no matter the color, there’s a very good chance that the common orange is one of its parents. I know people who mow it after it flowers and it comes right back the following year.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) flowers are about 1/4 inch wide and have 5 petal-like, rounded sepals. In the center of the flower are green carpels that come together and will form the purple black berry. It happens quickly and you can find both flowers and fruit in all stages of growth on a single flower head (Raceme.) Pokeweed was called pocon by Native Americans. The Delaware tribe used the plant as a heart stimulant and other tribes made a salve from it and used it as a cure for rheumatism. If it isn’t used correctly pokeweed can be toxic.

Native Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina ) has just started flowering. Before long these flower clusters will be bright red berries from which a good substitute for lemonade can be made. This plant is much more common in this area than smooth sumac (Rhus glabra.) Smooth sumac has very shiny, smooth leaves and does not have hairy stems. 

Staghorn sumac is another flower that most of us, myself included, pass by without a glance. It’s another of those flowers that won’t win any prizes but insects must love them, judging by how each flower head becomes a cluster of bright red, fuzzy berries. Each greenish yellow flower is about 1/4 inch across and has 5 curved petals, a 5 lobed calyx, 5 stamens, and a central pistil, all of which are so tiny I can’t even see them by eye alone.

I know of only one spot to find Carolina horse nettle (Solanum carolinense) and it’s worth going to see it. From what I’ve read it is not a true nettle, but instead is a member of the nightshade family. The flowers have five petals and are usually white or purple with yellow centers. There is a blue variant that resembles the tomato flower, which makes sense since tomatoes are also in the nightshade family. The flowers have no scent but the foliage has a certain odor that I find disagreeable. The fruits resemble tomatoes and are sometimes called devil’s tomatoes. Unripe fruit is dark green with light green stripes, turning yellow and wrinkled as it ripens. Each fruit contains around 60 seeds but the plant spreads successfully by underground stems (rhizomes.)  

Horse nettle’s stem and undersides of larger leaf veins are covered with spines and I can attest to their sharpness. It’s hard to grab it anywhere, even for a photo. This plant is native to our southern states, so why it is growing here is a mystery. It seems to like where it grows and I find more plants growing there each year. I can see its spreading becoming a real problem. Native Americans used the plant as an antispasmodic and sedative, and I’ve also read that it is used to treat epilepsy but all parts of the plant are poisonous and eating it, especially the fruit, can cause death. Pheasant, Bobwhite, Turkeys and Skunks are said to eat the fruit.

If you see a flat topped flower cluster like this one on a native dogwood it’s either a silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) or red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea.) If the flower cluster is slightly mounded it is most likely a gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa.) All three shrubs bloom at about the same time and have similar leaves and individual white, four petaled flowers in a cluster and it’s very easy to mix them up. Sometimes silky dogwood will have red stems like red osier, which can make dogwood identification even more difficult. Both gray and red osier dogwoods have white berries. This silky Dogwood  will have berries that start out blue and white and then turn fully blue.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw this huge patch of goldenrod blooming at the end of June. I like goldenrod enough to actually grow it but I think these plants were pushing it a bit. It’s a late summer, early fall flower after all. Still, it’s hard not to love it. Just look at that color.

Beauty is something that changes your life, not something you understand. ~Marty Rubin

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Last Saturday I went into the deep cut rail trail up in Westmoreland to see if I could find some turtlehead blossoms. I know two or three places where they grow but when I checked the other locations I didn’t even see the plants, much less the blossoms. This man made canyon was blasted out of the bedrock in the mid-1800s by the railroad and it has become a hidden gem of nature, with plants growing here that I’ve never seen anywhere else. The section shown above is the northern section; what I think of as the “sterile” part, where it’s too dark for all but a few mosses to grow. I had to boost the ISO on my camera as high as it would go just to get this shot, and it was a sunny, bright day.

When I enter the trail I turn south to follow the part of the trail seen here. It starts with huge retaining walls on both sides of the trail, and they answer the question of what the railroad did with all the stone they blasted out of the canyon. This is a good lesson for all the wall builders out there; you can see how the wall tilts back into the hillside, usually at about 10-15 degrees. This adds to the strength of the wall. Behind most retaining walls here in the northeast you’ll find sand, gravel or other porous material so water will drain away from the wall. In this climate the last thing you want behind your wall is wet soil, because when it freezes and expands in the winter it will tear your wall apart. These walls have stood for 150 years and I’m guessing they’ll still be here hundreds of years from now if people leave them alone.

Lush growth is what you find when you walk south on this trail. Every inch of the trail is filled with plants and it doesn’t end there, because the canyon walls are also covered with plants of all kinds.

One of the first thigs I found was a big, yellow spider. I think it was one of the orb weaver spiders (Argiope.)

Possibly a marbled orb weaver, but I haven’t been able to pin it down. It was weaving with plenty of silken threads as I watched. I know that  some of you get creeped out by spiders but if you can just try to put that aside for a moment and just appreciate their various forms and colors and the intricacies of their webs, and realize that they have a right to a place in this world as much or maybe even more than we have, maybe someday you will be able to get along. With me it isn’t spiders but rats, and I’m trying too.

I saw lots of tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) along the trail and I noticed that the flowers with the deepest shade of blue were those that grew in the deepest shade. The ones that grew in the sunnier spots were much lighter in color. I’ll have to remember that when I look for them next year.

There are also lots of purple flowering raspberry plants (Rubus odoratus) here. Because they have large light gathering leaves they can grow in surprisingly shaded places, and even bloom as this one was doing.

The fruit of the purple flowering raspberry looks, not surprisingly, like a giant raspberry. They’re about the size of the tip of your thumb. I’ve heard that it is close to tasteless but some say if you put a berry on the very tip of your tongue it will be delicious, so I tried it. I can’t say it was tasteless but it seemed a bit sour, with a flavor that is hard to describe. It didn’t taste like a raspberry and I can’t say it was delicious, but that might have been because I was chewing peppermint gum, which I often do on hikes to give my breathing a boost. The gum is very sweet and that might account for the sourness of the berry. I’ll have to try again without the taste of peppermint fresh in my mouth.  

And I saw turtleheads (Chelone glabra linifolia); in fact I saw more blooming plants than I’ve ever seen anywhere else, so they obviously like it here. Turtlehead plants seem to have a problem with diseases and pests. Quite often I see the leaves and flower buds at the top of the plant curl and deform, and there are at least two different species of sawfly larvae that feed on the plant, but nothing seems to bother them much here.

The turtlehead plant gets the first part of its scientific name from Chelone of Greek mythology. She was a nymph who insulted the gods and was turned into a turtle for her trouble. I have a friend who said he immediately thought of a turtle when he saw these flowers but for some reason I never see a turtle when I look at them. I’ve always thought it was interesting how two or more people could look at the same thing and give very different descriptions of what they had seen.

In my last flower post I showed hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) blossoms. What I didn’t mention was how I had to search high and wide to find them in bloom, and here they were blooming more prolifically than I’ve ever seen. Great handfuls of the small flowers hung from the undersides of the vines.

The berries of false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum) turn from green to red and for a short time they are speckled with both colors, as these were.  I’ve read that soil pH can affect the fruit color. Native American’s used all parts of this plant including its roots, which contain lye and must be boiled and rinsed several times before they can be used. Birds, mice, grouse, and other forest critters eat the ripe berries that grow at the end of the stem. They are said to taste like molasses and another common name for the plant is treacle berry.

Can you be happy and heartsick at the same time? If you’re a summer lover who has just found New England asters blooming the answer is yes, because though the flowers are beautiful they also mean that fall is very near. It’s a season that always seems to sneak up on me and I’m not sure that I’ve ever really been ready for it.

New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) are our biggest and showiest native aster and the large, inch and a half diameter blossoms come in varying shades of purple. Some can be almost white and some are very dark. I like the dark ones but I don’t need to see them right away.

White wood asters (Aster divaricatus) also bloom here in great profusion. Though it is very wet here this plant is known for its drought tolerance, and it will grow under a heavy leaf canopy. The stalked, coarsely toothed, heart shaped leaves help with identifying this plant. The small, half inch flowers of white wood asters can have red or yellow centers. This aster is very easy to grow and makes an excellent choice for a dry shaded woodland garden. It is best used in mass plantings and many nurseries sell native asters grown from seed. Where I work they’re used as under plantings for lilacs, but the choice was theirs and they moved under the lilacs completely on their own.

When I was a boy I loved to read about far off jungles and I dreamed of being a plant hunter. Off I’d go to places no one had ever heard of and I’d bring back plants so beautiful tears of joy would fall when people saw them, and mere words couldn’t describe them. One of the places I read about was fictional but it was still my kind of place, and this place reminds me of it; the Shangri-La that James Hilton wrote about in his book Lost Horizon. He described Shangri-La as an earthly paradise, and that’s what this place seems to me. It sends me away; out of myself into a waking dream, and the beauty and the dream draw me back here again and again.

This is a place where coltsfoot grows on stone, and it can do that because of the constant drip of groundwater. Every plant here has a never ending supply of rich minerals and water, and that’s what makes the place so lush.

The smaller plants growing around the coltsfoot in the previous photo are great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum,) and they grow here by the thousands. They are one of the plants that I’ve never seen anywhere else, and they’re one of the reasons I come here.

To get close to the liverworts you have to be willing to walk in the drainage ditches and I wear rubber boots to get through them, but there’s nothing I can do about the falling rocks. You can see them scattered around in this photo and apparently they fall quite regularly. I’ve only seen them fall a couple of times though so I cross my fingers and don’t dilly dally when I’m near the liverwort ledges; a couple of quick photos and I’m out of there.

And then I can come home and admire these beautiful things in a photo. The reptilian appearance is caused by the way its pores and air chambers are outlined on its surface. It is the only liverwort with this feature so it is very easy to identify. And, if you squeeze a small piece and smell it you’ll immediately smell one of the cleanest scents found in nature that I know of. In general liverworts are a sign of very clean water, so that says a lot about the quality of the groundwater in this place.

The great scented liverwort is like one of those plants I used to dream I’d bring back from far away places. It’s such a beautiful thing and it somehow manages to look both plant and animal at the same time. Scientists say that liverworts are like “a canary in a coal mine” because they are very vulnerable to environmental changes and will be one of the first organisms to show the effects of climate change. On this day most of them looked good and healthy. The lighter shade of green signifies new growth, and I saw lots of it.

I’ve walked this trail a hundred times I’d bet, and in all those times I’ve never seen white snakeroot growing here. It wasn’t flowering but that doesn’t matter, because I’d like you to see its leaves. Though its flowers resemble those of boneset, which flowers at the same time, white snakeroot’s (Ageratina altissima) large heart shaped, toothed leaves look nothing like boneset leaves. This plant is very toxic and in the early 19th century it killed thousands of settlers in the Midwest. A compound called trematol is passed from the plant to cows that graze on it and when humans drank the milk before too long they started to show signs of what was called “milk sickness.” In a week or less most would die of heart or liver failure. Abraham Lincoln’s mother died from milk sickness when he was just 9 years old. All parts of the plant are toxic to cattle, horses, sheep, and humans. Today’s farmers eradicate the plant from their pastures and mix the milk from many cows together, so milk sickness is almost unheard of. A Native American woman from the Shawnee tribe is credited with finally warning settlers about this plant and most likely saving thousands of lives.

Individual white snakeroot flowers are small, bright white, and fuzzy, much like those of the boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) flowers shown here. But look closely at the leaf shape and then scroll up and look at the leaves of white snakeroot again and you’ll see that they’re very different. The reason I’m harping about this is because boneset is used medicinally, and if you mistake snakeroot for boneset you could find yourself in dire straits, even in Shangri-La.  

I wonder if everyone who comes through here marvels at the staying power of the old lineman’s shack. It has been slowly picked apart over the years by those wanting boards to bridge the drainage ditches and every time I come here I expect it to be down, but here it stands to this day, over a hundred years later. It’s a testament to the quality workmanship of the railroad workers who once populated this place.

I know paradise has many gates, just as hell does. One has to learn to distinguish between them, or one is lost. ~Henning Mankell

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Burdock (Arctium lappa) is blooming and it hopes you’ll come by later and give it a ride. The plant a good example of a biennial plant. In the first year of life it grows leaves and in the second year it flowers, sets seeds, and dies. This is what biennials do, so we know that its tubular flowers with purple stamens and white styles signal that it is close to finishing its journey. There is no reason to grieve though, because the germination rate of its seeds is high and there will surely be burdocks for many years to come, especially if you (or your dog) help spread them around.

Burdock is said to have been introduced from Europe because it was noted in 1672 by self-styled naturalist John Josselyn, who wrote that it had “sprung up since the English Planted and kept Cattle in New-England.” He said the same thing about the dandelion, but fossil evidence proved him wrong. Native American tribes across the country had many uses for burdock, both as a medicine and food, so some form of the plant had to have been here long before European settlers arrived. 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.  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. As the above photo shows, when fully open long white styles grow from the dark purple flowers.

No matter how many times I see the Allegheny monkey flower (Mimulus ringens) I don’t see a monkey, but whoever named it obviously did. This plant gets about knee high and likes to grow in wet, sunny places, and it isn’t all that common. I usually have a hard time finding it. This year though, for the first time, I found several plants growing beside the river in Keene.

Allegheny monkey flowers have square stems and are also called square stemmed monkey flowers. The throat is partially closed and bumblebees are one of the few insects strong enough to pry it open to get at the nectar. Native Americans and early settlers sometimes used the leaves as an edible green.

I’ve searched for years for floating heart plants (Nyphoides cordata) growing close enough to shore to get photos of and this year I finally found them. In fact I found hundreds of examples of this tiny native waterlily very close to shore. They have small, heart-shaped, greenish or reddish to purple leaves that are about an inch and a half wide, and that’s where their common name comes from.  

The tiny but very pretty flowers of floating heart are about the size of a common aspirin, but are still every bit as beautiful as the much larger fragrant white water lily blooms they resemble. They grow in bogs, ponds, slow streams, and rivers. I was very happy to finally see them up close.

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 enchanter’s nightshade. 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 in an unmown meadow.

Showy tick trefoil has 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.

I saw these striking daylilies in a local children’s park. The plant breeders are obviously still trying to breed a black daylily but they haven’t quite got it yet.

They grow an ornamental datura (Datura metel) at the local college.  I’ve seen Datura many times, but never as beautiful as these. I think this one is a black Datura hybrid called Datura metel Fastuosa “Double Purple Blackberry.” A native Datura found here is called Jimson weed, which is a corruption of the original Jamestown weed, signaling where it was first found. Each blossom opens in the evening and lasts until about noon the following day.

I’ve gone to see them several times this year but I can’t find a blossom fully opened, so this will have to do. these datura blossoms are doubled with many ruffles and they never really seem to be fully open. Bees in the know crawl in from the side and then down into the trumpet but I didn’t see any on this day. Datura contains several powerful toxic compounds and even the honey made from its flowers can sometimes lead to poisoning.

The seeds and flowers are the most toxic parts of the datura plant, but they were used in sacred rituals for many thousands of years by Native American shamans and the plant is still called “Sacred Datura” by many. Native Americans knew the plant well though, and knew what dosages would and wouldn’t kill. Many with less experience have died trying to test the hallucinogenic effects of the plant. This is the strange, spiky seed pod of this datura.

Zinnias grow in the same garden as the datura and this one caught my attention. These flowers are usually swarming with painted lady butterflies but I haven’t seen a one yet this year.

But I have seen plenty of garden phlox! It’s another of those flowers that whisper of autumn’s approach. I pretend I’m deaf for as long as I can though, and just admire their beauty.

Slender fragrant goldenrod (Solidago tenuifolia) is a goldenrod that’s easy to identify because of its long slender, willow like leaves and its pleasant, vanilla like fragrance that is impossible to describe. The only other similar goldenrod is the lance leaved goldenrod (Solidago graminifolia) but its leaves are wider and have 3 to 5 veins as opposed to the single vein in a slender fragrant goldenrod leaf. It is also called flat topped goldenrod. Insects of all kinds swarm over slender fragrant goldenrod and you have to be careful that you aren’t going to inhale one when you smell it.

Whorled white wood aster (Oclemena acuminata) gets its common name from the way its leaves appear to grow in whorls around the stem from above. In botany, a whorl is an arrangement of at least three sepals, petals, leaves, stipules or branches that radiate from a single point around the stem, and the leaves of this aster really don’t fit the definition. Looking at them from the side the tiers of whorled leaves would appear flat like a plate, but these leaves appear randomly scattered up and down the stem’s length. The plant is also called sharp leaved aster and grows to about a foot and a half tall. It’s one of the easiest asters to identify because of its early bloom time. The plant can take quite a lot of shade and I usually find it growing alongside the edges of woodland paths.

Tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) can get very tall indeed and often towers over my head. A cluster of small, pencil eraser size, blue flowers sits at the tip of the long stem. This plant is very similar to the wild lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) which bears yellow flowers. Both plants were used medicinally by Native Americans but they should only be used by those who know them well, because it is said that they can cause death by cardiac paralysis. The flowers of tall blue lettuce can be white, deep blue, or ice blue. The deep blue ones are always the hardest to find but also the most beautiful and worth the effort. I haven’t seen a single one this year though.

Mad dog skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia) almost always blooms in pairs on grassy hummocks near rivers and ponds and that’s where I always find them. The skullcap part of the common name comes from the calyx at the base of the flower, which is said to look like a medieval skull cap. The plant was once thought to cure rabies, and that is where the “mad dog” part of the common name comes from.

There is powerful medicine in both mad dog and marsh skullcap and when Native Americans wanted to go on a spirit walk or vision quest this was one of the plants they chose. The small blue and white flowers always grow in pairs in the leaf axils. Those of mad dog skullcap are slightly smaller.

You don’t need to be on a vision quest to see the beautiful light that shines from this purple morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea) that grows on the fence at the local post office. Unlike the wild bindweeds morning glory is an annual, so it grows new from seed each year. Postal workers must love it because I’ve seen the bed it grows in weeded down to bare ground, but the morning glories are always left to grow. I’m not surprised; how could anyone pull up something so beautiful?

Little things seem nothing, but they give peace, like those meadow flowers which individually seem odorless but all together perfume the air. ~George Bernanos

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It’s aster time here in New Hampshire and the will appear in all sizes and colors from now until a freeze. What I believe is crooked stemmed aster (Symphyotrichum prenanthoides) has just started blooming. This native aster gets its common name from the way the stems zig zag between the leaves. The stems are smooth and the leaves clasp it. The flowers are about an inch across and are usually pale lavender but this one was in the shade when I took its photo and that made it appear darker. This plant was about three feet tall.

Whorled wood aster (Oclemena acuminata) gets its common name from the way its leaves appear to grow in whorls around the stem from above. In botany, a whorl is an arrangement of at least three sepals, petals, leaves, stipules or branches that radiate from a single point around the stem, and the leaves of this aster really don’t fit the definition. Looking at them from the side the tiers of whorled leaves would appear flat like a plate, but these leaves appear randomly scattered up and down the stem’s length. The plant is also called sharp leaved aster and grows to about a foot and a half tall. It’s one of the easiest asters to identify because of its early bloom time and because the narrow white ray florets look like they were glued on by chubby fingered toddlers. The plant can take quite a lot of shade and I usually find it growing alongside the edges of woodland paths. I love the beauty of asters but I don’t like their message of summer’s passing, so when I stop and admire them I always feel a bit of wistfulness and wonderment that a season could pass so quickly.

Looking at them from the side the tiers of whorled leaves would appear flat like a plate, but these leaves appear randomly scattered up and down the stem’s length. Indian cucumbers have tiers of whorled leaves as do some loosestrifes. The plant is also called sharp leaved aster and grows to about a foot and a half tall.

I often find purple stemmed beggar’s ticks (Bidens connata) growing in the wet soil at the edges of ponds and rivers. This example was growing at the edge of a pond.

Purple stemmed beggar’s ticks have curious little yellow orange ray-less disc flowers that never seem to fully open and dark, purple-black stems. It is closely related to bur marigold (Bidens tripartita), and is also called water hemp because of the leaf shape. The name beggar’s tick comes from its barbed seeds that stick to fur and clothing like ticks. It is an annual that grows new from seed each year so there’s no telling where it might turn up.

I was surprised to find showy tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense) still blooming. This plant is a legume in the bean family and it gets part of its common name from the little barbed hairs that cover the seed pods and make them stick to clothing like ticks. 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.

The flowers of tall blue lettuce have just about finished for this year. They can be white, deep blue, or ice blue. The deep blue ones are always the hardest to find but also the most beautiful and worth the effort. I haven’t seen a single one this year though. This one had hardly any blue at all until I looked closer.

If it was early June I wouldn’t have been surprised to find the maiden pink (Dianthus deltoids) in the above photo at the edge of a meadow, but it’s almost September. They must be having a good year. These flowers look like their cousins the Deptford pink (Dianthus armeria,) but that flower doesn’t have the jagged red ring around its center like this one does and it blooms later, usually in July. Maiden pinks are originally from Europe and have escaped cultivation but aren’t terribly invasive. They seem to prefer the edges of open lawns and meadows. Their colors can vary from almost white to deep magenta.

Native wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) is a late summer blooming vine that climbs on shrubs and trees like it’s doing in this photo. It likes to grow in sandy soil and prefers shade over full sun. The flower spikes (Racemes) grow to 6 inches or more all along the main stem. These plants are annuals and grow from seed each year.

The greenish white, star shaped male flowers of wild cucumber have 6 petals that are twisted slightly. The female flowers are yellowish green and not at all showy. They grow at the base of the male flower stems. There is usually only one female flower for every 5 or 6 male flowers, which is why there are so few fruits seen on each vine.

Wild cucumber climbs by the use of tendrils and, as Mike Powell noted on his blog recently, they look like the coiled stretchy cords that we used to see on phones. (If you can remember that far back.) If you aren’t reading Mike’s blog and you’re a nature lover, you’re doing yourself a disservice. You can find it over in the favorite links section on the right.

The spiny, 2 inch long fruits of wild cucumber have a watermelon shape and boys have been throwing them at each other for as long as I’ve been around. They look prickly but the spines are soft until the fruits dry out and drop their seeds. By then they’re so light and desiccated that they can’t be thrown at anybody. The fruit is not edible and doesn’t really resemble a cucumber.

Pretty groundnut (Apias americana) flowers are still blooming. They come in pink, purple or reddish brown and always remind me of the helmets worn by Spanish conquistadors. The plant is a vine that will climb just about anything and I usually find it growing in the lower branches of trees and shrubs along the river. Native Americans used the roots of the plant in the same ways we use potatoes today, but groundnut “potatoes” contain about three times the protein. Natives taught the early colonials how to use the groundnut and the plant helped save the lives of the Pilgrims during their first few years as settlers. Not surprisingly another name for it is Indian potato.

Field milkwort (Polygala sanguinea) doesn’t seem to be having a good year. I found a single plant with a single flower, and this is it. Or maybe I was just late; this flower head was showing yellow, which is something I haven’t seen. 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. Its flowers can be white, purple, pink, or green. I know of only one place where it grows and its beautiful flowers always make it worth the walk to see them.  The flowers are very beautiful and unusual enough to make you want to sit beside them for a while and study them, and quite often that’s just what I do.

Slender gerardia (Agalinis tenuifoliais) is also called false foxglove. There might be a faint resemblance but I think it would be hard to confuse the two, especially after a good look at the slender, sword shaped leaves. The blossoms are very hairy and have a long curved protruding pistil and especially from the side look nothing like foxglove to me.

Slender gerardia is a shy little plant that grows in the tall grass at the edge of meadows and I usually find it growing in full sun. It has the unusual habit of dropping all of its opened flowers each afternoon. It opens fresh buds at the start of each day which means that its flowers don’t even last for a full day, so insects (and photographers) have to be quick. The plants that I find are always 6-8 inches tall but I’ve read that they can reach 2 feet.

Native common yellow wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta) is unusual because it grows in woods or meadows and I see it in both. It’s considered a weed by many and is largely ignored by most, but it’s a very interesting plant. Its raw leaves can be chewed as a thirst quencher if you forgot to bring water on your hike. The Native American Kiowa tribe called it “salt weed” and used it that way for long walks. Its seed capsules can also be chewed but they can also explode when mature and can fling seeds up to 13 feet away. They are said to be tart with a flavor similar to rhubarb. The plant is high in vitamin C and it can be pressed to make a passable vinegar substitute.

When you’re trying to identify plants there are enough hawkweeds to make you crazy. While many have thin, wiry, leafless stems this one has thick, stout, one and a half foot tall stems with tough leaves most of the way up it. For those reasons I think it might be Gronovi’s hawkweed, which is also called queendevil (Hieracium gronovii.) I’m guessing that ranchers and pasture owners gave it that name, even though it’s a native plant.

Hawkweeds are slippery and hard to pin down, but I can’t find a reference to another hawkweed with leaves like this one except maybe rough hawkweed (H. scabrum.) The leaves actually make it look like it’s in the lettuce family, but the flowers are what you’d expect on a hawkweed and not the tiny flowers found on the various lettuce species. I find this one along trails right at the edge of the forest.

Since I started with an aster I might as well end with one. I think this one might possibly be a smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum prenanthoides.) It grew along the shore of a pond and stood about knee high.

There are other asters this could be but knowing its name isn’t that important to me. More often than not just being able to see such a pretty thing is enough for me these days.

He who does not become familiar with nature through love will never know her. ~Friedrich Von Schlegel

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Blue vervain (Verbena hastata) was surprised by all the rain and got its feet wet because it grew too close to the river. Many other plants made the same mistake, but only because we went so long without any real rain. They all thought they’d be high and dry but now we’ve had 2 weeks of rain and they’re swamped. All of their seeds will fall and float downriver to brighten someone else’s world, and that’s a good thing. We have so many flowers blooming here right now I haven’t got time to get photos of them all.

Burdock is the exception; I usually see burdock flowers everywhere but this year I’ve searched and searched and have only seen two plants blooming. But burdock is a biennial that grows leaves the first year and blooms and dies the second year, and last year there was an explosion of burdock blooms, so that means that I’ll probably have to wait until next year to see that many again. I’ve seen many non-flowering small plants, so the promise has been made. Above all else nature study teaches patience, and you either learn the lesson well or you find something else to interest you.

Common burdock (Arctium minus) 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.  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. As the above photo shows, when fully open long white styles grow from the dark purple flowers.

Slender fragrant goldenrod (Solidago tenuifolia) is a goldenrod that’s easy to identify because of its long slender, willow like leaves and its pleasant, vanilla like fragrance that is impossible to describe. The only other similar goldenrod is the lance leaved goldenrod (Solidago graminifolia) but its leaves are wider and have 3 to 5 veins as opposed to the single vein in a slender fragrant goldenrod leaf. It is also called flat topped goldenrod. Insects of all kinds swarm over slender fragrant goldenrod and you have to be careful that you aren’t going to inhale one when you smell it.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) usually blooms in early July but I’ve been watching this plant and it just bloomed. These are extremely beautiful flowers that seem to glow from within when the light is right, and I have to get a shot of them when I see them. They are of the kind that you can lose yourself in and suddenly discover that you’ve been admiring their beauty for far longer than you had intended. Time might slip away but as the bees taste the nectar, so can you taste the place of deep peace from which flowers come.

I probably see one orange hawkweed (Pilosella aurantiaca) plant for every thousand yellow hawkweed plants so I thought I’d show some again this season. Orange hawkweed is native to the alpine regions of Europe, so apparently it likes high places. Maybe that’s why I never see it. I’d like to see more of it; orange is a hard color to find among our wildflowers. This is only the second time I’ve found it this summer.

Tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) can get very tall indeed and often towers over my head. A cluster of small, pencil eraser sized, blue flowers sits at the tip of the long stem. This plant is very similar to the wild lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) which bears yellow flowers. Both plants were used medicinally by Native Americans but they should only be used by those who know them well, because it is said that they can cause death by cardiac paralysis.

The flowers of tall blue lettuce can be white, deep blue, or ice blue. The deep blue ones are always the hardest to find but also the most beautiful and worth the effort. I haven’t seen a single one this year though.

White rattlesnake root (Prenanthes alba) is sometimes called white lettuce but it isn’t a lettuce, though they are in the same aster family that the lettuces are in. It’s probably thought to be another lettuce because it blooms at the same time and in the same locations as the wild lettuces do, but instead of the daisy like petals of lettuce flowers these look more bell shaped and lily like. The Native American Choctaw tribe used the tops of the plant in tea that they used to relieve pain. It is said that the common name comes from the way that some Native American tribes used the plant to treat snakebite.

Nobody seems to know how shaggy soldier (Galinsoga quadriradiata) got from Mexico to New Hampshire but everyone calls it a weed; even in its native Mexico. The plant is also called common quick weed or Peruvian daisy and is common in gardens, where it can reduce crop yields by as much as half if left to its own devices.

Tiny shaggy soldier flowers are about 3/8 of an inch across and have 5 white ray florets widely spaced around even tinier yellow center disc florets. It’s a very challenging flower to photograph.

When I see a rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) I always think of my time spent as a gardener in Florida. I worked in the gardens of a large hotel and the job included trimming what seemed like miles of tropical hibiscus hedges (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) and rose of Sharon is a kind of hardy hibiscus in the same family as the tropical hibiscus. The hardy version shown here has large trumpet shape blossoms in early fall.

Purple cone flowers (Echinacea purpurea) are having a great year and bees, butterflies and other insects are benefiting from it.

There are many little yellow flowers that look much alike so I admire their beauty but leave their identification to someone else, just as I do with little brown mushrooms. It can sometimes take weeks to identify a flower you’ve never seen before properly and life is just too short for all the little yellow ones, in my opinion. But this one is different; it’s called Canada St. John’s wort (Hypericum canadense) and its flowers are some of the smallest I’ve tried to photograph. You could pick three or four of them and hide the bouquet behind a penny, so small are the blooms. I think they might even be smaller than those of dwarf St. John’s wort. The bright crimson seed pods are a bonus, and surprising for a plant with yellow flowers. I once thought they were flower buds but I’ve watched closely and I know that isn’t accurate.

I find spearmint (Mentha spicata) growing in the sunshine at the edge of the woods. Like wild mint (Mentha arvensis) spearmint has been used since before recorded time both medicinally and as a flavoring. Pliny wrote of it and the ancient Romans cultivated it to scent their bath water. Spearmint is originally from Europe but the Pilgrims brought it on their first trip to America, so valuable was the plant to them.

Instead of growing in the leaf axils as they do on wild mint, tiny spearmint flowers appear near the top of the stem. They are said to be pink or white but these were white, blue, pink and lavender. Their scent is very refreshing on a hot summer day and always reminds me of spearmint gum. Imagine; you are seeing flowers that people admired 2000 years ago.

Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) is a late summer blooming native clematis vine that drapes itself over shrubs so it can get all of the sunshine that it wants. I’ve also seen it climbing into trees, but in this photo it has set its sights considerably lower and grew over nearby plants. As long as it finds the sunshine it needs, it doesn’t matter what it grows on.  An extract made from the plant is hallucinogenic (and dangerous) and was used by Native Americans to induce dreams. Mixed with other plants like milkweed, it was also used medicinally. It is a very toxic plant that can cause painful sores in the mouth if eaten.

Another name for virgin’s bower is traveler’s joy which it is, but its small white flowers are another reminder that fall is near.

Puffy little bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) is everywhere. It’s in the pea family and grows about a foot tall, and is a common sight along roadsides and waste areas. It gets its common name from its clusters of brown, 1 inch long seed pods, which someone thought looked like a bird’s foot. The plant has 3 leaflets much like clover and was introduced from Europe as livestock feed, but has escaped and is now considered invasive in many areas. It can form large mats that choke out natives but I haven’t seen much of that happening here.

Last year with a lot of help from readers this beautiful little thing was identified as low baby’s breath (Gypsophila muralis.)  The flowers are tiny; about the same size as those on red sandspurry, and blossom on the ends of wiry stems. Its leaves are also small and sword shaped and very hard to see in this photo. This entire plant shown would fit in a tea cup with room to spare. It is an annual plant native to Europe and available commercially, sold as cushion baby’s breath. Thanks again to all who helped with this one. I had never seen it.

Beauty is something that changes your life, not something you understand. ~Marty Rubin

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I haven’t been to the Beaver Brook natural area in Keene for a while so last weekend I decided take a walk up the old abandoned road. This road was gated when a new highway was built in the 1970s, but my father and I used to drive over it to visit relatives when I was a boy.  Back then the road went all the way to the state capital in Concord and beyond, but the new highway blocked it off and it has been a dead end ever since. At what is now the end of the road is a waterfall called Beaver Brook Falls and I thought I’d go see how much water was flowing over it. We’ve had a lot of a rain this year.

The old road follows along beside Beaver Brook and was originally built to access a sawmill which was built on the brook in 1736. In 1735 100 acres of “middling good land” and 25 pounds cash was offered to anyone who could build a sawmill capable of furnishing lumber to the settlement of Upper Ashuelot, which is now called Keene. Without a sawmill you lived in a log cabin, so they were often built before anything else in early New England settlements. The headwaters of Beaver Brook are in Gilsum, New Hampshire, north of Keene.

Tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) grows prolifically here and is one of the first plants I notice at this time of year because it towers above everything else. The one growing up past the top of this photo must have been 8 feet tall. These plants usually end up with powdery mildew by the end of summer and this year they all seem to have it here. I was a bit surprised to see it though because this summer hasn’t been all that humid. It could be that the closeness of Beaver Brook makes the air slightly more humid. It is also usually very still here, with little wind.

As I’ve said many times on this blog, fall starts at the forest floor and lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) tells me that fall is in the air. This is the only fern that I know of with fronds that turn white in the fall.

If you aren’t sure that you have a lady fern by its fall color you can always look at its sporangia, which are where its spores are produced. They are found on the undersides of the leaves and look like rows of tiny black eggs. The little clusters are usually tear drop shaped.

Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides,) one of our most beautiful native shrubs, was also whispering of fall.

Hobblebush berries start out green then turn to red before finally becoming deep purple black, so they’re at their middle stage right now.

A hickory tussock moth caterpillar (Lophocampa caryae) crawled on a goldenrod leaf. This black and white caterpillar can cause quite an itchy rash, from what I’ve read. The nettle like hairs can break off and stick in the skin and they are said to bother some people enough for them to be hospitalized, so it’s probably best to look and not touch this one.

When Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora) turn their nodding flowers to the sky it means they’ve been pollinated and are ready to set seed. The plants will turn brown and become hard like wood, and finally the seed pods will split open and release the tiny seeds. They are dust like and are borne on the wind.

Orange crust fungus (Stereum complicatum) grew on the underside of a fallen branch. This small fungus has a smooth whitish underside with no pores. The complicatum part of the scientific name means “folded back on itself” and the above photo shows these examples just starting to fold. It also likes to grow on the logs of deciduous trees. It can be seen from quite a distance because of its bright color.

Ledges show how the road was blasted through the solid bedrock in the 1700s. The holes were all drilled by hand using star drills and there are still five sided holes to be seen in some of the boulders. Once the hole was drilled they filled it with black powder, lit the fuse and I would imagine ran as fast as they could run. There are interesting things to see here among these ledges, including blood red garnets, milky quartz crystals, many different lichens and mosses, and veins of feldspar.

It’s worth taking a close look at the ledges. In the right light the spore producing fruiting bodies (Apothecia) of smoky eye boulder lichens (Porpidia albocaerulescens) turn a beautiful blue. It happens because of a light reflecting, thin coating of wax that covers each one. In different light they can appear black, gray or whitish but in this light they glow different shades of blue and are as beautiful as jewels.

Another beautiful thing that grows on stone here is rose moss (Rhodobryum roseum.) Each little rosette of leaves looks like a tiny flower, and that’s how it comes by its common name. Rose moss is a good indicator of limestone in the soil so it’s wise to look for other lime loving plants in the area when it is found. This is a relatively rare moss in my experience; this is the only place I’ve ever found it.

One of the reasons I came here on this day was to get photos of purple flowering raspberry fruit (Rubus odoratus,) but I was surprised to see several plants still blooming. This plant is in the rose family and the 2 inch wide flowers might look like a rose at first glance, but one look at its large, maple like leaves will show that it isn’t. Flowering raspberry has no thorns like roses or raspberries but Japanese beetles love it just as much as roses and it’s common to see the large leaves looking like they’ve been shot full of holes. The plants are a little fussy about where they grow but they will thrive under the right conditions, as they once did here.

The fruit of purple flowering raspberry looks like a large raspberry. The plant is closely related to thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) and gets its common name from its fruit. I’ve never eaten one but some say that they’re close to tasteless and others say they taste like dried raspberries. The plant is unreliable as a source of berries though; I’ve seen many clusters with no fruit at all and others that had 5 or 6 flowers bearing only a single berry. Native Americans had over 100 uses for this plant, both as food and medicine.

Chances are you don’t see anything wrong with this view of the old road but I was appalled when I saw it. Thousands of wildflowers used to grow right over the road almost to the yellow lines on each side. There was a narrow, 2 person wide path through here last time I came, but now the city workers have come in and plowed all of the plants away. Without even having to think about it I could list over a hundred different species of plants that grew here and were plowed up.

Here is the view from where they finally stopped plowing up the plants. You can see how far they grew into the road in this spot but this doesn’t accurately show how it used to be because this is pretty much the end of the road just above Beaver brook falls, and few ever walked here. The plants didn’t grow quite so far out toward the yellow lines where people regularly walked.

And here is what is left of the plants; decades of growth just rolled off to the side like so much worn out carpet. Just think; many of the growing things at the beginning of this post and hundreds more like them just kicked off to the side. You would think before doing something like this that they would call in a botanist or a naturalist, or at the very least buy a wildflower guide so they knew what they were destroying but instead they just hack away, most likely thinking all the while what a wonderful thing they’re doing, cleaning up such a mess.

They’ve peeled the road right back to the white fog line at the edge of the pavement. This is what happens when those who don’t know are put in charge of those who don’t care; nature suffers every single time. What these people don’t seem to realize is that they’ve just plowed away the whole reason that most people came here. I’ve talked to many people while I’ve been here and most came to see what happens when nature is allowed to take back something that we had abandoned. You marveled at the history before you; the charm of the place was in the grasses and wildflowers growing out of the cracks in the pavement, not a road scoured down to just built condition. New Hampshire Public Radio even did a story about the place precisely because it was untouched. The very thing that drew so many people to the place has now been destroyed, and it will be decades before it ever gets back to the way it was. I certainly won’t be here to see it.

A lot of people also come here to see Beaver Brook Falls, but to get a clear view of them you have to climb/ slide / fall down a very steep embankment and then climb over large boulders. It’s becoming more dangerous all the time and now younger people are about the only ones who dare do it. If you broke an ankle or leg down here it would take some serious work and several strong men to get you out, but Instead of cutting the brush that blocks the view of the falls from the road so people don’t have to make such a dangerous climb down to the brook to see the falls, the city would rather spend their money plowing up all the wildflowers.

This is the view as you’re leaving. Where the road is narrower is where they left a few yards of growth at the start of the road, but I wouldn’t count on it being this way the next time I come here. You might say “Big deal, who cares about a few old weeds?” But what grows in those unplowed strips of vegetation includes blue stemmed goldenrod; I’ve never seen it anywhere else. White wood sorrel; I’ve seen it in one other place. Field horsetails; I’ve seen them in one other place. Plantain leaved sedge; I’ve never seen it anywhere else. Yellow feather moss; I’ve never seen it anywhere else. Thimbleweed; I’ve never seen it anywhere else. After wandering through the destruction for as long as I could stand it I had to go into the woods for a while because, as author David Mitchell said: Trees are always a relief, after people.

Lord, what fools these mortals be! ~William Shakespeare

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Last Sunday I decided that a walk along the Ashuelot River in Keene was in order because this stretch of river is one of only two places I know of where gentians grow, and I wanted to see how they were coming along. They should bloom in a little over a month.

People have been walking along this path since long before I came along and it’s still a favorite of bike riders, dog walkers, joggers and nature lovers. On a good day you might see ducks, geese, blue heron, beavers, muskrats, squirrels, chipmunks and more birds than you can count here, as well as a wide variety of wildflowers and fungi. There have also been quite a few recent reports of a black bear in the area, but I was hoping that it was taking this day off.

You might even see something you’ve never seen before; that was my experience with this Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis.) This is the first time it has appeared on this blog because this is the first time I’ve ever seen it. I was surprised by how small it was. I thought it would be as big as a tradescantia blossom but it was only half that size. It is an introduced plant from China and Japan but it could hardly be called invasive; it seems to be quite rare here. I love that shade of blue.

Another introduced plant that can be called very invasive is purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and I was sorry but not surprised to see it here. If left unchecked it might very well be the only plant on these river banks a few years from now. It eventually chokes out almost every native plant it contacts.

Native Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) grew along the river bank as well, and I hope it doesn’t lose the battle to purple loosestrife. I like seeing its dusty rose flower heads at this time of year.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) also grew on the river bank but I couldn’t get near them because they were growing in the water. I was surprised because every other time I’ve seen this native shrub it was growing up high on the river bank well away from the water. The waterfowl will appreciate it being so close because they love the seeds.

This was one of a few strange things I saw on this day. I don’t know what it was all about but what struck me as even stranger than its being here in the first place was that hundreds of people have walked by it and nobody has touched it. I must have seen at least ten children walking or bike riding with their parents and I don’t know why they left it alone. They must be very well behaved. When my own son and daughter were little this would have been like a magnet to them.

This was another strange thing I saw. It was nailed to a pine tree and I don’t have any idea why.  I do know for sure that Europeans weren’t nailing metal tags to trees in New Hampshire in 1697 though.

Yet another strange thing I saw was a turtle that appeared to be trying to fly. It kept putting its hind legs up in the air and wiggling its toes in the breeze. I don’t know what it was trying to do but it seemed very happy to be doing it. Maybe it was just celebrating such a beautiful day.

A young robin flew into a nearby bush and watched the turtle trying to fly. It didn’t seem real impressed, but what bird would be?

Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) grew near the turtle’s log. At a glance common boneset looks like white Joe Pye weed. That’s because the two plants are closely related. In fact they can often be found growing side by side, but boneset blossoms a little later than Joe Pye weed here. I find it on river, pond and stream banks; almost always near water. The “perfoliatum” part of boneset’s scientific name means “through the leaf,” and that’s what boneset leaves look like; as if they had been perforated by the stem. The leaves joining around the stem as they do looked like bones knitting together as they healed to ancient herbalists, and that’s how the plant got its common name.

I’ve never seen pink lady’s slipper orchids (Cypripedium acaule) blooming along this stretch of the Ashuelot but the plants are here. I must not have walked this trail at the right time but I’ll be here next spring when they bloom.

There are many side trails off the main trail and every time I come out here I tell myself that I’m going to explore them one day but, even though I’ve been coming here since I was a boy, so far that day hasn’t come.

A crust fungus had nearly engulfed this entire tree stump. I think it was the netted crust fungus (Byssomerulius corium,) but I’ve never seen it get so big. It looked as if it was oozing right out of the stump.

White rattlesnake root (Prenanthes alba) is sometimes called white lettuce but it isn’t a lettuce, though they are in the same aster family that the lettuces are in. It’s probably thought to be another lettuce because it blooms at the same time and in the same locations as the wild lettuces do, but instead of the daisy like petals of lettuce flowers these look more bell shaped and lily like. The Native American Choctaw tribe used the tops of the plant in tea that they used to relieve pain. It is said that the common name comes from the way that some Native American tribes used the plant to treat snakebite.

Native long leaved pondweed (Potamogeton nodosus) also grew in the calm shallows. It likes to root in the mud and grow in full sun in warm standing water up to 4 feet deep. Many types of waterfowl including ducks and swans eat the seeds and leaves of this plant and muskrats like the stems. Many species of turtle eat the leaves, so it seems to be a plant that feeds just about every critter on the river. A man and woman came along when I was taking this photo and the woman came over to see what I thought was so interesting “Yuck, that’s disgusting!” she said. Since I see nothing disgusting about it her reaction to this important pond weed baffled me. Maybe she just doesn’t get out much.

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is doing well this year; this plant was loaded with berries. They’ll ripen to a chalky white from the green seen here. I get into it every year and this year was no exception. One of my fingers has had a blister on it for about a week and is itching as I type this. Luckily it stays put on me and doesn’t spread, but I’ve known people who were hospitalized by it.

Tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) isn’t being very blue this year. I keep hoping to find a plant with deep blue flowers but so far all I’ve seen are ice blue examples. There are hundreds of plants along this stretch of river and I know of many more that grow along a stream and some near a pond, so the plant must like to be near water, possibly due to the increased humidity.

Though I usually look for narrow leaf gentians (Gentiana linearis) near mid-August the bottle gentians (Gentiana andrewsii) along the Ashuelot were nowhere near blooming. Last year I found them blooming in mid-September, so I’ll wait awhile and come back. The plants looked good and healthy with plenty of buds and hadn’t been eaten by bug or beast, so they should bloom well.

I was born not far from this river and I first put my toes into it just about 50 years ago. I’ve been near it pretty much ever since but even after all this time I still see many things along its banks that I’ve never seen, and I guess that’s why I keep coming back. I hope there is a river in your life as well.

If you have a river, then you should share it with everyone. ~Chen Guangbiao

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This is the time of year when our roadsides begin to look like Monet paintings. Purple loosestrife and goldenrod dominated this one, but the pink of Joe Pye weed and the white of asters and boneset often help brighten scenes like these.

There are enough different goldenrods (over a hundred it is said) which look enough alike to convince me that I don’t want to spend the rest of my life trying to identify them all, but some are quite easy to identify.  One of the easiest is gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis).  It’s one of the first to bloom and its flower heads always look like they have been in a strong wind that blew them over to one side of the stem. The heavy flower heads also bend the stem so the plant almost always leans at an angle like those shown.

I’ve included this shot of a field full of many kinds of goldenrod for those who haven’t ever seen one. Sights like this were common when I was a boy but are getting harder to find now, mostly because of invasion by purple loosestrife. The Native American Chippewa tribe called goldenrod “sun medicine” and used it to treat fevers, ulcers, and boils. Many other tribes also used it medicinally.

After years of trial and error Thomas Edison found goldenrod to be the best domestic source of natural rubber and bred a plant that grew to twelve feet tall and contained about twelve percent rubber in its leaves. Henry Ford and George Washington Carver developed a process to make rubber from goldenrod on an industrial scale during World War II and the USDA took over the project until synthetic rubber was discovered a short time later.

I’ve been surprised to find over the past couple of years how some of the flowers that I love to see, like the tiny little forked blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum) above, have somehow found their way into my yard. Since I haven’t done anything to encourage it how they get here is a mystery, but the list gets longer each summer. It’s such a pleasure to be able to see them each day without having to go and look for them, and I hope the trend continues.

Eastern forked blue curls have beautiful flowers that might make a half inch across on a good day and the entire plant barely reaches ankle high, so it’s a challenging plant to photograph. One unusual thing about the flower other than its unique beauty, is its four long, arching stamens that dust bees with pollen when they land on its lower lip. This plant is an annual that grows new from seed each year. It seems to like sandy soil and I find it growing along river banks and sometimes roadsides, and now in my own yard.

I know of only one place to find field milkwort (Polygala sanguinea) and it is always worth the walk to see them.  The flowers are very beautiful and unusual enough to make you want to sit beside them for a while and study them, and that’s just what I often do. I find them growing in full sun in sandy loam.

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. Its flowers can be white, purple, pink, or green and I’ve noticed that the color can vary considerably from plant to plant.

Tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) can get very tall and often towers over my head. A cluster of small, pencil eraser sized, blue flowers sits at the tip of the long stem. This plant is very similar to the wild lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) which bears yellow flowers. Both plants were used medicinally by Native Americans but they should only be used by those who know them well, because it is said that they can cause death by cardiac paralysis.

The flowers of tall blue lettuce can be white, deep blue, or ice blue. The deep blue ones are always the hardest to find but also the most beautiful and worth the effort. I haven’t seen a single one this year though.

I have trouble seeing red against green due to colorblindness and that’s why you don’t see much red in these posts, but these bee balm blossoms stood high enough above the surrounding foliage to be clearly visible. The name bee balm comes from the way the juice from its crushed leaves will soothe a bee sting. Our native scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma) is also called Oswego tea, because the leaves were used to make tea by the Native American Oswego tribe of New York. Early settlers also used the plant for tea when they ran out of the real thing. It’s a beautiful flower that I’m always happy to see. Hummingbirds and butterflies love it too and will come from all over to sip its nectar.

There are 2 or 3 small lobelias with small blue / purple flowers that grow here, but though the flowers look alike the plants themselves have very different growth habits, and that makes them easy to identify. This lobelia is called Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata) and the small flowers are about 1/3 of an inch long. It is the only lobelia with calyxes that inflate after the flowers have fallen and to identify it I just look for the inflated seedpods.

Indian tobacco gets its name from the way its inflated seed pods resemble the smoking material pouches that Native Americans carried. The inflata part of its scientific name also comes from these inflated pods. The pods form so quickly that they can usually be found on the lower part of the stem while the upper part is still flowering. Though Native Americans used this and other lobelias to treat asthma and other breathing difficulties they knew how to use what we don’t, and today the plants are considered toxic. They can make you very sick and too much can kill.

Common burdock (Arctium minus) 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.  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. The examples in the above photo had just opened. When fully open long white styles grow from the dark purple anthers. In this flower head only the lower blossom shows the styles.

Arrowleaf tearthumb (Polygonum sagittatum) is in the smartweed family, which gets its common name from the way your tongue will smart if you eat its peppery parts. Though the flower buds in this family of plants seem like they never open they do, sort of. They look like they only open about halfway though and I find the buds as pretty as the blossoms. This plant is a kind of rambler / sprawler that winds its way over nearby plants so it can get as much sunshine as possible.

It’s easy to see how the plant came by the arrowleaf part of its common name.

Tearthumb got that name because it will indeed tear your thumb or any other body part that comes into contact with it. Many a gardener has regretted trying to pull it up without gloves on, because when the small but sharp barbs (prickles, botanically) along its stems slip through your hand they act like a saw and make you sorry that you ever touched it. The plant uses these prickles for support when it climbs over other plants, and they work well. Sometimes the stems and prickles are red but in this example they were green. Tearthumb is considered a wetland indicator because it likes to grow in very moist to wet soil. I almost always find it near water, often blooming quite late in summer.

Steeple bush (Spirea tomentose) seems more herb than shrub to me but it’s in the spirea family of many shrubs. Sometimes it gets confused with meadowsweet (Spirea alba) but that plant is a very woody shrub with white flowers in flower heads that aren’t as long and pointed as these are. A dense coat of white wooly hairs covers the stem and the leaf undersides of steeple bush, and that’s where the tomentose part of the scientific name comes from. It means “covered with densely matted woolly hairs.” I almost always find this plant at the water’s edge.

Five petaled, pink steeplebush flowers are about 1/16 of an inch wide and loaded with 5 pistils and many stamens, which is what often gives flowers in the spirea family a fuzzy appearance. Many different butterflies love these flowers. Native Americans used the plant medicinally in much the same way that we would use aspirin.

Pipewort (Eriocaulon aquaticum) usually grows in ankle deep water at pond edges with the lower stem submerged so it’s hard to see the entire plant, but last year’s drought let me see that each plant had a tiny tuft of sword shaped leaves at the base of the stem. The stem has a twist to it and has 7 ridges, and because of that some call it seven angle pipewort.

The plants grow in the mud and send up a slender stalk that is topped by a quarter inch diameter flower head made up of very tiny white, cottony flowers. For the first time since I’ve been photographing the plant I was able to see what look like black stamens on this example. Eriocaulon, the first part of pipewort’s scientific name, comes from the Greek erion, meaning wool, and kaulos, meaning plant stem. The second part of the scientific name, aquaticum, is Latin for a plant that grows in water, so what you have is a wool-topped stem growing in water, which of course is exactly what pipewort looks like. Pipewort is wind pollinated. It is also called hat pins, for obvious reasons.

Last year swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) started blossoming at the end of June and this year it waited until the end of July, a full month’s difference. Of course I started checking the two plants I know of at the end of June and have been waiting impatiently ever since to see this, in my opinion the most beautiful of all the milkweeds. Certain flowers can absorb me, and this is one of them. It’s one that I can sit and look at without thinking or caring about much of anything else for a time.

Flowers have an expression of countenance as much as men and animals. Some seem to smile; some have a sad expression; some are pensive and diffident; others again are plain, honest and upright, like the broad-faced sunflower and the hollyhock. ~Henry Ward Beecher

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