May 18th: A Celebration of “International Fascination of Plants Day”

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Flowering crabapple trees at Tower Hill Botanic Garden May 6, 2017.

Dipping into Twitter last week to check on the latest natural history news from around the world, I came upon an announcement of “The International Fascination of Plants Day” by the Linnean Society of London. The official date is May 18th, 2017, but events are scheduled throughout the year.

I decided to ask a few people what they would describe as the most fascinating quality of plant life. The first person immediately said photosynthesis, the process by which plants, using the green pigment chlorophyll, make food (carbohydrates) from carbon dioxide, water, and light, during which oxygen is produced. We breathe and eat courtesy of plants. This was a fast start.

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Gunnera leaf taken at Trebah Garden, Cornwall, UK.

The second person praised the way in which trees, shrubs, and understory plants layer their branches and leaves in a forest to catch flecks of sun. The aim to maximize light-capturing efficiency becomes so artful. Human beings receive untold benefits from wandering among the layers of leaves. In Japan it is called shinrin-yoku, forest bathing. Japan has 48 official Forest Therapy trails, and conducts studies to document specific aspects of wellness enhancement during walks. It is thought that even cognition improves after forest-bathing.

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Entrance to forest in Enfield, Ithaca, NY>

A third person thought a bit and then said “spring.” We talked some and came to the conclusion that plants are spring–their capacity for regenerative burgeoning, the leafing out, the opening of buds. This brings us to flowers, an “abominable mystery” to use Darwin’s phrasing. Would we have the word “bloom” without plants? Middle English adapted the word from the Old Norse “blómi” for flowers, which also came to mean prosperity. What would we do without the verb “to bloom” and the noun “blossom,” which when transferred to a person came to mean “a state of great loveliness.”

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A tulip blossom.

 

The fourth person I asked referred me to this clip, BBC Life: Plants. 6 month time lapse in one minute, narrated by David Attenborough. A group of us clustered around the family dinner table watching it on her cell phone in wonder.

I am fascinated that the organizers used the word “fascination” rather than a word like “importance” or “recognition.” It is the right word to describe the botanical bent of my life. It began at a young age when I explored the farm in Virginia where I was born. I am not sure why I bonded with plants. It was instinctive or became instinctive. We had no television, radio, or phone and no neighbors in sight. Perhaps I became biophilic. “Biophilia” is naturalist E. O. Wilson’s term (and title of a book by him), first introduced by psychologist Erich Fromm, for the idea that human beings have an innate tendency to affiliate with other species. He believes that these bonds affect mental development.

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E. O. Wilson’s book published by Harvard University Press in 1984.

Here in Ithaca, NY, on May 18th, organizers (Cornell Botanic Gardens, Cornell School of Integrative Plant Science, and Cornell Department of Natural Resources) are holding an inaugural forum for the new Biophilia:Ithaca Chapter, modeled on one begun in Pittsburgh.  The first featured speaker is local metalsmith artist Durand Van Doren. It will be held 5-7 pm in the BorgWarner Room of Tompkins County Public Library.

The goals of Biophilia:Ithaca can be found on the Cornell Botanic Gardens website. In summary, it is an effort to awaken, acknowledge, and encourage biophilia in people, a suitable tribute for the 2017 International Fascination of Plants Day.

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Emerging leaf and/or flower bud  from an amaryllis bulb.

The Small Stoneflies of Ludlowville Falls

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Ludlowville Falls January 2017 where stonefly nymphs live (Photo credit:  Charlotte Whalen).

We, two grandmothers, two mothers, and two toddlers, were walking in the snowy playground overlooking Ludlowville Falls on Salmon Creek in Lansing, NY last week. The falls had thawed from their frozen state of January (shown above) and spumed forth vigorously. The snow was crusty and the sun bright. As we moved closer to the edge of the overlook, we noticed tiny bugs dispersed evenly over the surface of the snow. It was hard not to step on them. Although minute, their dark grey-brown bodies were starkly visible against the snow.  They moved slightly. We were all intrigued, even the one-and-a-half year olds, and we wondered how they could stay “warm” on the snow.

I thought to myself that they looked familiar.  One of the stranger insects that I studied in Entomology at Cornell was the stonefly, a member of a genus called the Plecoptera. It is one of those aquatic insects, like the mayfly, that devotes its entire terrestrial existence to mating, barely or never eating. The last stonefly that I encountered was a rather large one that crashed a party of ladies drinking wine near a stream.  We decided that it was a “stoned” stonefly. Rarely flying even though they have prominent transparent wings,  they have a still and somber presence. The name derives from the Greek, meaning “braided wings.” They are sometimes called “snowflies.”

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Stonefly near Ludlowville Falls 17 Feb 2017 (Photo credit:  Charlotte Whalen).

I went home and googled “minute stoneflies in winter.” The first entry titled “Winter stoneflies sure are supercool” confirmed identification and answered questions about their lifestyle. Posted February 24, 2011, on the Scientific American website by Guest Blogger Holly Menninger, it describes the author’s visit to Taughannock Falls in Ithaca, NY, just a few miles from Ludlowville Falls, where she also encounters tiny stoneflies on snowy ground. She explains that winter stoneflies combine several strategies for avoiding internal freezing–through the phenomenon of supercooling and production of antifreeze compounds. Very small volumes of water, like a raindrop or cells in a stonefly, will remain liquid well below zero. The addition of antifreeze compounds in intercellular spaces prevents ice crystals forming and breaking into cells. Further, Menninger writes that “by walking about on the tips of their feet, the adult stoneflies avoid the hazards of external ice crystals potentially invading their bodies and inducing inoculative freezing.”

The presence of stoneflies is a good sign. Aquatic insects such as the stonefly have two life stages–the aquatic nymph, which may last for several years, and the terrestrial adult, which is very brief. Nymphs live in streams and require well-oxygenated water. Pollutants are known to deplete oxygen levels. So, the presence of the adults on snow indicates that nymphs prospered in pollution-free conditions. We marvel at the adults out so early in February, but how the nymphs survive in Salmon Creek near the frozen falls is even more astonishing. They find small pools of water insulated by ice. It all seems precarious. Thus, adults have just one goal–to mate. Females of some stonefly species can produce up to 1,000 eggs each. Winter stoneflies belong to the Capniidae family, which includes about 300 species.

I have been wanting to say a few complimentary things about winter. The stoneflies’ hardiness pushed me to take pen in hand. I profit from winter’s quietness, its testing of my own cold hardiness, and its artistry. Obliterating color and brush stroking every form, snowfalls  highlight architectural elements of garden plants and trees. Caps appear on the buds of the star magnolia. I see twigs that I have never noticed before. I see the structure of the long, feathery red spruce branches. Even an old rusty garden urn takes on an enhanced appearance and reveals visitors.

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Notice bird footprints on right corner of uppermost layer of pedestal. Primrose (Primula carniolica) in clay pot has nice snow cover.

Snow is fun.

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Snow offers new possibilities. (Photo credit:  Charlotte Whalen)

And a winter walk in the forest presents a minimalist landscape, a retreat from overstimulation.

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Enfield, New York.

About 10 days ago a huge flock of robins appeared in our neighborhood. They were animated, dashing back and forth from the sycamore to the tulip tree to the walnut to the honey locusts, never settling, chattering like magpies! A cheerful commotion for sure. That night it snowed, about 3-4 inches of light, crystalline flakes. There was artwork everywhere the next day. The robins, who had roosted overnight, seemed undaunted in the morning. Just as much chatter and commotion but they left by mid-afternoon. In Highland County the first snow after robins return is a called a robin snow. The implication of the folklore surrounding the name is that the robins bring the snow. There are several named snows in Appalachia. I experienced a robin snow on the way to Vinegar Hollow once. We had stopped at Seneca Rocks in West Virginia and became engulfed in a snowfall that was full of robins, hundreds of them. It was an exhilarating sight, one that could not be photographed. The grey wings of the robins appeared and disappeared, shuttling through the slanting snowfall at great speed.

Today, February 22, it’s 61 degrees F. Winter is elsewhere, but it will return, and I will keep looking for good signs.

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Rainbow at Ludlowville Falls in autumn 2016. (Photo credit: Matthew Slattery).

A New Year Begins in Vinegar Hollow

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Looking to the north end of Vinegar Hollow.

The long drive from Ithaca to Mustoe completed, we arrived just after dark on New Year’s Eve to a howling wind, snow-covered hills, and an icy terrace. By morning the melt was on, the ice turned to puddles and the snow just feathery patches. But there had been prolonged cold so, while the primrose that flowered last January 1st looked bright green, its buds remained tight. The melt brought mist and drizzle and for a few days we were in a fog bank.

Despite a few injuries, the old collapsed ankle, the new broken wrist, and the sudden onset of a stupefying upper respiratory virus, I took walks with my husband and Belle the dog.

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Looking to the south end of Vinegar Hollow.

Trees in winter tell such different stories than those of their summer selves. The old apple trees in the orchard that haven’t been pruned for decades reveal the thicket of watersprouts jutting vertically from almost every horizantal branch. Shoots that spring from the base of a tree are called suckers. They are an important source of regeneration. Arising from latent buds and the result of “weather and other damage” (old age?), watersprouts, on the other hand, make a mess of the interior life of a tree, blocking light and air flow, which in turn decrease the quality of fruit. I remember my mother telling me that the apple tree in the orchard was an old variety called the Northern Spy. I loved the name. Trees do make perfect spies. No one notices them. There are only six left now, each uniquely misshapen.

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Two old apple trees join branches, heavy with waterspouts.

Another walk takes us up Back Creek Mountain on one of the old logging roads. It’s misty. These woods were logged about 10 years ago. The giants are gone, and the slender trees that remain reach for the sky from the steep hillsides, a maze of toothpicks tilted slightly off vertical. Pale grey green lichens cover their trunks, a contrast to the deep green leaves of the mountain laurel thickets forming the understory. These are Appalachian colors, muted.

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Lichen-and-moss garden along logging road. British soldier lichens are red topped.

There have been other travelers on this road. We notice coyote scat, blunt at one end and pointed at the other, a pale grey brown that blends with the fallen leaves. The British soldiers do not blend in. They are bright and bold, in lime green uniforms and orange red helmets. This seems to be their season as they look fresh and new. Large patches, like miniature gardens, occur frequently along the sides of the trail. The mosses look prosperous also at this time of the year, their green rich and glowing.

We walk up to a large bend and then turn around, retracing our steps. I am thinking about how I love these woods, and that, though they do not have the diversity and flamboyance of a tropical rain forest, there are surprises, like the British soldiers, and undoubtedly there are very beautiful mosses, lichens, and liverworts that have never been named, when I hear a loud “Wow!” I race to catch up with my husband. He is staring at the ground. Even when almost upon him I do not see anything under his gaze. On bended knee, however, I come face to face with a strange life form. As we walk down the trail, we find more and more of them in various stages of development, all of which we had missed on the way up.

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Stage 1 of the yellow-stalked puffball.

The first stage looked like a very small yellow star-like flower flattened on the ground. Next a balloon-like orb appeared underneath the “flower” whose “petals” became a reddish collar around a “mouth” atop the balloon. Tapping the balloon produced a cloud of white dust.

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Stage 2 of yellow-stalked puffball: balloon (spore case) has “mushroomed.”

It was so bizarre that I couldn’t see it belonging to any of the five kingdoms of living organisms. But it had to be a mushroom, perhaps related to an earthstar. An Alice-in-Wonderland Google search through the world of bizarre mushrooms led to dead ends until I stumbled on the phrase “stalked puffball,” and then I found it—the yellow-stalked puffball, Calostoma lutescens. It is also called the lattice puffball, apparently for the mesh-like consistency of the stalk.

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Stage 3 of yellow-stalked puffball: net-like, fibrous stalk elevates “balloon” for spore dispersal.

Michael Kuo of MushroomExpert.com writes that

This distinctive, funky fungus is fairly common in the southern Appalachians, but has been reported from Arkansas to Massachusetts. It looks like a little yellow globe with puckered red lips, sporting a tattered collar, held aloft by an odd pedestal of half-digested pasta. It’s hard to imagine mistaking Calostoma lutescens for anything else.

My Internet search reminded me of Project Noah. It is a site where ordinary people, or citizen scientists, can upload photos for sharing and identification. Someone posted a photo of the yellow-stalked puffball found in North Carolina about a year ago.

For some reason I have always felt the role of reporter or recorder of the hollow’s news, whether about a puffball or water-sprouted old apple trees, as my calling. Why? Why do some people have certain inclinations that seem necessary, like a cosmic job, despite how difficult to honor along with all one’s other responsibilities?

These first few days of January, while thinking determinedly about the yellow-stalked puffball, I read obituaries of John Berger (b. November 5, 1926; d. January 2, 2017), the English writer who spent 43 years living in a small village in the Haute Savoie of the French Alps, in part to chronicle the peasant way of life (he preferred the word peasant to describe the rural worker). In an essay for The Guardian in 2014, he wrote:

What has prompted me to write over the years is the hunch that something needs to be told, and that if I don’t try to tell it, it risks not being told. I picture myself as a stop-gap man rather than a consequential, professional writer.

I take heart from that. One can be a stop-gap writer of or for almost anything. Most would say that Berger was a pretty high-level, stop-gap writer. I think he would affirm that it is ok to be a low-level, stop-gap writer like me. He also said, even when nearing 90, that writing never got any easier for him, though drawing did.

Berger had been an influential art critic, author of Ways of Seeing, but from Quincy in the Haute Savoie, he wrote about the people and their down-to-earth work, making hay, shepherding, and the like. In his essay about the yearly cleaning of his outhouse, “Muck and its Entanglements: Cleaning the Outhouse,” he describes a local schoolroom story of a conversation between a cowpat and a fallen apple. The fallen apple is too pristine to speak to the friendly cowpat. This is his point of departure for seeking meaning in “shit” and the nature of cows:

Perhaps the insouciance with which cows shit is part of their peacefulness, part of the patience that allows them to be thought of in certain cultures as sacred.

Berger also made the observation that cows walk as if on high heels. Their hooves do seem extremely dainty for their ponderous bodies, and I have often wondered that they don’t just topple over on the steep hillsides of Vinegar Hollow. I blame the breeders for their ungainly, top heavy bodies.

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They are waiting.

Every time I am here I do some cow watching. Mike, owner of the cows, comes up twice a day with giant hay bales skewered onto the front and back of his John Deere tractor, which he spreads in different parts of the farm, leaving swirling, Celtic patterns, figure-eights of uneaten hay all over the farm.

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The cows may seem to vaguely follow his whereabouts, but their attention is not vague. They came up the road more or less single file and stop on the part of the road between the barn and the granary. They stop moving and stand still as statues, no flick of a tail or turning of a head, noses to the north, tails to the south, single file (they are chewing however, as I can make out a rhythmic movement of their jaws), not moving for up to an hour or until they hear a vehicle and then they bound towards the sound, practically scampering. It’s comical, though, if they are in error (if it’s not Mike with their hay bales) because they return to their positions on the road, single file, and wait, chewing, as if they have not been caught dancing about on their high heels to watch the approach of the bales.

It is good for me to start the new year by fitting into the rhythms of Vinegar Hollow. Too soon it will be time to go. I have ordered Pig Earth, the first  book in John Berger’s trilogy (Into their Labours) about working with the fiercely independent people who farm the French Alps, in order to understand the rhythms in places where people have worked the land for centuries.

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Looking south, through the branches of a young black cherry, on the day of departure.

P.S. Pictures of the puffball were taken by my husband David Fernandez.

Visitors in Vinegar Hollow: Bee and Bear

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Vinegar Hollow on a late July morning.

 

I am back in the hollow and there is ongoing news as usual. For me, it is a self-imposed writer’s retreat with the dog and the cat as I rework a book on primroses and nurse a collapsed ankle. The latter is good for the book and, as it turns out, natural history observations.

Sitting on the terrace with a cup of tea near the end of the first day of my visit, I heard a busy buzzing at my left elbow. My tea cup was to the left on a low stone wall that separates the terrace from an overgrown garden bed. The buzzing came from a straggily maple sapling that loomed over my tea cup. It was a compact bee, with yellow markings, its wings about as wide as the length of its body, not one that I recognized. It had business with the maple sapling. It buzzed away abruptly but in a minute or so was back and I watched as it snipped a piece of leaf from the edge of a maple leaf. Years ago I had seen leaf cutter ants marching across the jungle floor in Panama, snippet of leaf overhead like a sail.

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Leaf cutter bee at work just left of center.

There were five visits that day. The bee fell onto the surface of the leaf on two visits but mostly worked quickly and efficiently. Each snippet had a smooth, tidy edge and was about the size of the bee, though there was variation. The bee would zoom off to the left with the snippet held underneath the body. That night I was looking at natural history sightings on my Twitter feed, and there from @GranthamEcology was the report of a leaf cutter bee in the UK. I had never heard of such a bee, but soon was reading online about the Megachilidae, a group of solitary bees that includes the masons and the leaf cutters. Masons use soil and the leaf cutters use leaves to line their nests. The Megachilidae are said to be “gentle” and “charming,” qualities that I felt instinctively. I was inches away and the bee attended to its purpose calmly and industriously.

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View of maple sapling from above. Leaf cutter work somewhat camouflaged.

I kept a log of the bee visits for several days. On July 28:

5:25 the bee is back, 2 visits with no snip

5:28 the bee is back but buzzes off quickly; thunder

5:29 back but off quickly

5:30 back but off quickly; more thunder.

I couldn’t decide whether the thunder or the shiny lid of my laptop distracted the bee from its leafcutting. In the past tens days I have observed that the bee visits from noon on and the leaves of the maple now look like the crafting of a fanciful cutout artist. One website has posted videos of a leaf cutter bee at work.

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Maple leaves showing leaf cutter activity.

Solitary bees receive more attention these days because they are efficient pollinators. One alfalfa leaf cutter, for example, can do the work of 20 honey bees. With honey bee populations struggling, it’s important to encourage solitary bees by placing a bee hotel or two on one’s property. There are a number of models available. In nature, leaf cutter bees nest in hollow cavities, so placing hollow canes or logs with holes in the garden may attract them. @GranthamEcology says that leaf cutter bees are known to like rose leaves. In rural settings there are many nesting sites, but not so in more suburban, manicured yards. Dr. Bryan Danforth of Cornell University has ongoing research projects devoted to the Megachilidae. One project involved asking sponsors, friends and relatives (like me, a second cousin), if he could place bee hotels for solitary pollinators in their yards and check how readily they attracted residents. At the time I didn’t realize how appealing solitary bees can be.

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Lifecycle of a leaf cutter bee. (Lydekker, R. 1879. The Royal Natural History. Volume 6. Frederick Warne and Co. [from http://www.archive.org]). (Public Domain, wiki).

As for the bear, when I first arrived, I found a puddle of butterscotch kittens curled up by the back door of the “new” house, which is where I was going to park. Luckily I hadn’t driven in. There was a gate to open. I called Mike because he feeds the barn cats and knows their ways and I was worried that handling the kittens might cause the mother cat to abandon them. Mike said that mother cat had probably brought them out from a hiding place to get some sun. He picked each kitten up by the nape of the neck and placed him/her in a box I provided. On the way to the barn we skirted a prominent bald-faced hornet’s nest hanging at eye level in a window frame. Mike said that he would spray it the next day. I nodded. The hornets had clearly taken control of the walkway. Having been stung multiple times on the face by bald-faced hornets, and greatly incapacitated, removal seemed a good plan. By the next morning mother cat had removed all the kittens from the box and placed them in hiding again.

A few days later as I set out with Belle the dog for our morning walk, I met Mike getting the cats’ morning ration of dog food from the old house. Half of the hornets’ nest was the ground, its streaked gray and white paper shredded.

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Mike looked surprised.

“Did you do that?”

“Me? No!”

I must have looked even more surprised. Mike started examining details of the “crime scene.” As a former game warden, he is very knowledgeable about wildlife and is an excellent tracker.

“It was a bear,” he said.

“Gee.”

I was taken aback that a bear was prowling around the garden and glad that I hadn’t gone out to look at the stars at midnight.

“The bear was after the grubs in the nest,” he said.

“It seems like dangerous work for a small meal,” I said.

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Bear’s paw print  (with author and her iPhone visible above).

Mike pointed out that most forms of wildlife barely eke out a living.  The garden is on the foraging path of both bears and coyotes. On cold winter mornings he finds the tracks of coyotes leading to the yard. They look for frozen songbirds that fall out of the overgrown boxwoods onto the lawn. I said the bear’s visit made me feel a little uneasy. He said that where he and his wife live down the road on 220, a bear visits the pear tree right next to their bedroom window. The bear grabs entire branches that then rattle against their bedroom window. Exasperated, his wife asked him to get his gun. Mike refused. “No, I’m not going to kill a bear for a pear,” he said.

North on 220 I talked with some friends who also had a recent bear experience. Their neighbor called them one morning to say there was a bear heading their way and to get prepared to shoot it. Jerry grabbed his groundhog-shooting gun and opened his back door. There he found himself face to face with the bear. A very large bear. He looked at his gun and said to himself, “I don’t have enough gun for this bear.” He turned around, went in, and shut the door. The neighbor upon finding out that the bear had not been shot, asked for directions. Jerry’s reply was, “If you want to shoot that bear, you’re going to have to find it yourself.”

Long live bees and bears!

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The way out of the hollow.

It’s hard to leave Vinegar Hollow. There’s so much going on!

 

 

 

 

 

Primrosing at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden

 

It’s primrose time, so last weekend I drove from Ithaca, New York, to Boston, Massachusetts, to attend the annual Primrose Show organized by the New England Chapter of the American Primrose Society.

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Informative poster at the Primrose Show at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

 

Primrose is of course a noun, the name of a small, compact perennial much beloved of gardeners. But primrose can be used as a verb, to primrose. One can go primrosing, as I did at the show, and one can be primrosed, which can also occur as I came home with four flats of plants.

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First-place winner in the “5-Mixed” category.

The organizers of the show hoped to inspire interest and enthusiasm for all members of the genus Primula, commonly known as primroses or primulas. The events included a display of prize-worthy specimens, a coloring table for children, a sale of plants from plant nurseries as far away as New Brunswick, and lectures by a Scottish nurseryman, Ian Christie of Kirriemuir, south of Aberdeen. Shows direct attention to details of a plant that even gardeners, distracted by the overall scene of their garden, might never notice. I remember as a young horticulture student attending my first Royal Horticultural Society Vegetable Show. I came to a standstill, shocked before a display of carrots draped over black velvet. My attention was riveted. I remember the carrots.

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Polyanthus (primrose) showing lovely floral palette.

The primroses at this show were demure by contrast, simply presented in clay or plastic pots on tables without velvet. One young couple with a child in a stroller paused before the first-place winner in the auricula category. After looking very closely, he said to his wife, “I get it. It’s all about the flowers.”

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An auricula (primrose) flower.

He did get it. Auricula flowers are some of the most unusual in the plant kingdom. Then there was a woman who rested her flat of purchased plants on the table with posters explaining the different kinds of primroses. She looked at the posters and looked at her plants. Then she asked her friend, “Did I buy any primroses?” Her friend said, “No, you didn’t.” “Really, no primroses?” The friend said very definitively, “You didn’t buy any primroses.” The woman sighed and said, “Oh well, next year.” Choosing among an array of beautiful spring flowers for sale can be bewildering despite informative posters.

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The common primrose (Primula vulgaris) probably colored by a member of the New England Chapter of the American Primrose Society.

To attract the youngest and most impressionable members of the public, primrose society members set up a coloring table with crayons and colored pencils and drawings of different kinds of primroses. The young colorers received a free polyanthus, a kind of hybrid primrose. The plants given away had nodding flowers in shades of yellow and orange and red. I watched as a child protectively clutched her polyanthus primrose as her mother pushed the stroller away from the coloring table. Later I met them outside in the garden and the little girl was still holding the pot.

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Formal planting at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden with woodland walk at the far right.

Outside I found that Tower Hill Botanic Garden had a woodland walk designed to engage their youngest visitors. There were pictures of illustrations from a classic children’s book published in 1906, When the Root Children Wake Up. In the story the Earth Mother comes to wake the root children, who will animate the Spring. She gives the little root girls pieces of colored fabric to make dresses to match the spring flowers they will carry to the Earth’s surface, while the little root boys are sent off to wake up the ladybugs and beetles and bumble-bees and other insects.

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Illustration from When the Root Children Wake Up. It’s time for Spring.

It was written and illustrated by Sibylle von Olfers (1881-1916) who was born into a large family that lived in a castle near Konigsburg. She wrote and illustrated her fanciful children’s books for a younger sister. After becoming a nun in 1906, she worked as an art teacher. Ten years later she died of lung disease.

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The boys dust off the bugs.

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The girls carry up the flowers. Primrose follows Daisy at the right.

The botanic garden decorated the woodland walk with small houses of the sort that little fairies and gnomes might like. One young couple without children paused in front of one of these charming structures. The man who was wearing a black leather jacket pulled out a camera and took a photo, saying to his girlfriend, “This is adorable.” We all appreciate visions of other realms.

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Dwelling for woodland  fairies.

Among the primroses that I brought home was Primula carniolica, commonly known as the Slovenian primrose. Having lost a seedling of this last year in my unruly garden, I was anxious to try again. This specimen is robust, so I will not lose it. The Slovenian primrose is endemic, meaning native, to a very small area in the Slovenian Alps. Found in grassland, woodland, and high cliffs, it prefers a limestone substrate, summer moisture, and shade. When you grow a plant from a faraway place, you feel connected to its exotic geography and try very hard to mimic its desired conditions. It is considered scarce—in the wild and in cultivation, all the more reason to strive to do one’s horticultural best.

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Robust leaves of Slovenian primrose.

 

My seedling had not flowered so I was not prepared for the beauty of the small blue flower. The “body” of the plant is sturdy rather than graceful. The leaves are smooth and hooded, arranged in an off-center rosette.  Elevated on slender stalks well above the stout plant, the flowers create a very different effect. They have an exquisite necklace of farina (a powder) circling the base of the petals and the cream-colored throat glistens, pearl-like. Many of the alpine primroses have a dusting or even a heavy coat of farina, which is thought to protect against cold and intense irradiation. The observer of primroses finds extraordinary details.

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Close-up view of the flower of the Slovenian primrose. It looks pinkish here, but bluish “in person.”

Primroses have a long history of medicinal use. Two common species, the English primrose (Primula vulgaris) and the cowslip (Primula veris), have sedative/narcotic constituents in the flowers, leaves, and roots. The Benedictine mystic Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) wrote in her Physica that the primrose was a powerful cure for melancholia:

A person whose head is so oppressed by bad humors that he has lost his senses should shave his hair and place primrose on top of his head. He should bind it on and should do the same thing to his chest. If he leaves these bindings on for three days, he will return to his senses.

Fortunately, most people, rather than wearing primroses on their heads, just have to look at them to receive some benefit. However, the greatest reward is found in growing primrose plants, as this Primrose Show at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden hoped to demonstrate.

 

 

The uncertainty of winter: the primrose and the hellebore

The view to Stark's Ridge.

The view to Stark’s Ridge, where Lawson’s Knob overlooks Vinegar Hollow, Highland County, Virginia.

 

January 1, 2016

Apparently it is a fact that Monet thought the Christmas rose (hellebore, also known as Lenten rose; Helleborus sp.) and the primrose, Primula sp., belong together. See New York Botanic Garden’s “Monet’s Garden: Creation, Facts & Secrets.”  Monet was right, of course, because  he is reported to have said “I cannot live without flowers.” So, he surrounded himself with flowers– in order to survive.

I agree, though I have never been able to have a grand garden like Monet’s, but even a few flowers here and there are enough. Groundhogs in Virginia eat my snakeroot; beloved dogs in Ithaca sit on my primroses, though that has failed to kill them. So be it. My policy is share. No violence.  Right now I am looking at one hellebore and one primrose, and I am glad that I’ve gotten the pairing right according to Monet.

 

The primrose and the hellebore.

The primrose and the hellebore.

 

I am here again in Vinegar Hollow where Angus cattle, their black bodies and white faces are silhouetted against the copen-blue sky behind the Peach Tree Hill, three bluejays are splashing in the gutter, flocks of juncoes swirl over the sinkhole, and I see the unexpected shades of pink and rose in the garden. Unexpected for the first of January.

The primrose in the noon sun.

The primrose in the noon sun on January 1, 2016. This is a polyanthus, a hybrid primrose. Notice the circle of anthers resting in a golden yellow cup slightly raised above the petals at the center of the flower. This is called the rose-crown or the rose-eye. When this occurs in a thrum-eyed flower (anthers visible, stigma invisible), one has “the last word in Polyanthus elegance” according to Florence Bellis, renowned primrose breeder (APS, 1943, p. 35).

 

It has been unusually warm here in western Virginia as in most of northeastern North America. Last year when here in the hollow I reported about reading Antarctic explorers and braving a blizzard to experience the chill. It is has been spring-like here for a month. I am not surprised the hellebore is budding and even opening flowers. Every year it pops up in snow in the coldest of temperatures here in the hollow. The plant now has between 50 and 100 buds. If winter comes now, when all these buds, so delicately striated pink and white, are ready to open, what will happen? It will survive. Hellebores are tough.

 

Buds and foliage of the hellebore.

Buds and foliage of the hellebore.

 

 

The flower of the hellebore.

The one flower of the hellebore open in Mustoe today.

 

The primula will survive also, though its more delicate greenery will get glassy, frozen looking if very low temperatures come. But it will survive. Primroses are tough.

I think again (see previous blog called “Snow as Metaphor:  Revealing and Concealing”) of the very old 15th century Christmas carol “Es ist ein ros entsprungen.” Its centerpiece is a rose that blooms in winter. At that time “ros” or “rosa” was a generic term for flower. Although of metaphorical import here, it is important to remember that a literal flower is at the root of the metaphor. Some think that the song’s rose is a hellebore. But it could have been a primrose. “Roses” of all sorts do bloom in winter. A version that I like is sung by the Ensemble Amarcord. Or this one using the words of Praetorius. There are various translations of the original German. Here is one:

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.

The shepherds heard the story proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of glory was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped and in the manger found Him,
As angel heralds said.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

O Savior, Child of Mary, who felt our human woe,
O Savior, King of glory, who dost our weakness know;
Bring us at length we pray, to the bright courts of Heaven,
And to the endless day!

The primrose on January 3, 2016.

The primrose on January 3, 2016.

In an interview the poet James Wright quoted from memory a passage from a letter that Tolstoy wrote to a pacifist group, where he talks about spring (in relation to religion). He writes:

I can only go back to myself. I look around myself and I see every year that, no matter what people do to themselves and to one another, the spring constantly renews itself. This is a physical fact, not a metaphysical theory. I look at every spring and I respond to it very strongly. But I also notice that every year the spring is the same new spring and every year I am one year older. I have to ask the question: what is the relation between my brief and tragic life and this force in the universe that perpetually renews itself? I further believe that every human being asks this question.

We can’t have spring without winter.

 

January 4, 2016

 

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Winter arrives in Vinegar Hollow with a dusting of snow.

Winter arrived with a dusting of snow, and tonight it will go to 13 degrees F. This feels right. I will cover the primrose tonight just to ease it into this sudden drop from 40-50 ish degree F weather to the teens.

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Snow continues its dusting throughout the day. Black locust in the center and old apple trees to the right are still.

 

January 5, 2016

Second morning at 4 degrees F. Three blue jays are back with a flock of juncoes. They have  spread themselves all over the lawn in the morning sun and eagerly peck the ground, perhaps finding seeds of the red spruce and the beech? There was a howling wind the night before that might have dislodged seeds. But this is just a guess. I have no idea what they are so excited about. They are tapping at the ground. The three blue jays retreat to the gutter occasionally to splash. It is hard to describe the beauty of the translucent white fan that the ends of their feathers make as they alight and depart. There is more white to the blue jay than one realizes. The primrose has shrunken within itself, the vigorous green departed, the vivid rosy pink now a troubled purple. There were no pollinators for it, but a primrose lover has seen a “ros” in winter.

p.s. The hellebore is a really extraordinary variety called Helleborus x ballardiae ‘HGC’ ‘Pink Frost.’ I lose my plant labels, or maybe I can blame it on the dogs, but this label I saved in my writing desk. It certainly can handle the ultra cold.

 

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Autumn: “the small gnats mourn”

HeadeMartinJohnsonSunlightAndShadow

“Sunlight and Shadow” by Martin Johnson Heade (American 1819-1904, National Gallery, Washington, D. C.). The artist depicts “the tides, meteorological phenomena, and other natural forces that shaped the appearance of the swamp and showed how the land was used for hunting, fishing, and the harvesting of naturally occurring salt hay” (quote from National Gallery description). The apple tree is full of fruit  and the haystack  half in sun and half in shadow. I saw this painting a few weeks ago at the National Gallery and felt it captured the warmth of the harvest season portrayed in Keats’ ‘To Autumn.’ (This photograph is courtesy of wiki commons. My photograph cut off the apple tree.)

Autumn: it’s time again to walk the long good-bye among the fallen leaves and the last flowers of summer and think about Keats’ ‘Ode to Autumn,’ a poem I cannot forget. For a number of years on an especially fine October day I would take my Writing as a Naturalist class at Ithaca College outside. We would read Keats’ poem aloud together and then I would ask them to choose their favorite line. Though many students of the 21st century seem to be occasionally more interested in science fiction and epic fantasy, they responded wholeheartedly to this classic Romantic poem. It never failed to awaken their notice and appreciation of the day and the season. Every line had a champion.

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,

Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

Spares the next swath and all its twinéd flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

Steady thy laden head across a brook;

Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?

Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—

While barréd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

Among the river sallows, borne aloft

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Keats’ “Autumn” has been called by some the most perfect poem in the English language, and many readers and critics have observed that it is a celebration of our ecosystem and interconnectedness. Which is perhaps the reason for its perfection, in that its many references to nonhuman species awaken a remembrance of how our own biology connects us to all the fruits and birds and insects and weather of the Earth. We feel nourished after reading the poem, more aware of the blessings of harvest. Keats composed the poem, in 1819, two years before his death. Scholar Jonathan Bate writes in his essay “The Ode ‘To Autumn’ as Ecosystem” that when doctors in Rome opened up his body after death “they thought it was the worst possible Consumption—the lungs were intirely destroyed—the cells were quite gone’” (p. 258 in The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism). Keats died when he was 26.

My copy of Keats' Letters.

My copy of Keats’ Letters.

Bates quotes from one of Keats’ famous letters about a walk he took in 1819:

How beautiful the season is now—How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather—Dian skies—I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now—Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—in the same way that some pictures look warm—that struck me so much in my sunday’s walk that I composed upon it. (p. 258)

Bates says that “To Autumn” is a weather poem, as were many other major Romantic poems.  Weather has always influenced our moods and especially now, in this time of climate change, our sense of the fragility of life. Keats in his letter talks about the stubble appearing warm to him, and in the poem he shows it turning rosy in the setting sun. Bates writes:

… the poem itself is an image of ecological wholeness which may grant to the attentive and receptive reader a sense of being-at-home-in-the-world….the movement through the poem…is not one which divides the culture from the nature. There is no sense of river, hill, and sky as the opposite of house and garden. Rather, what Keats seems to be saying is that to achieve being-at-home-in-the-world you have to begin from your own dwelling-place. Think globally, act locally….

Bates sees the “thee” in the poem as thoroughly female, and I have always imagined the person with “soft-lifted hair” as a woman, though much older than Winslow Homer’s “Autumn,” but perhaps with red hair as well, while Carol Rumens in her rumination on the poem, which she writes is “marked by sensuous profusion and artistic control,” sees a male Dionysian figure  becoming at some points androgynous. The students always end our Keats’ Autumn class talking about how they love Ithaca’s Apple Festival and drinking cider and eating apple cider donuts, where they connect with farmers and growers and craftspeople, many distant from academic circles the rest of the year, through the sharing of harvest.

Winslow Homer's

Winslow Homer’s “Autumn” seen at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago.

I also walk in autumn, saying a  good-bye to the ecosystem before its winter’s nap. Devoid of the kind of “artistic control” that Keats possessed,  I wish to include here all that I see.

Wild apples:

Wild apple (Enfield, Ithaca, NY).

Wild apple (Enfield, Ithaca, NY). So delicious!

Autumn crocus, always a surprise when it pops up unexpectedly because you forget that its leaves were ever there in the spring:

Autumn crocus arising out of myrtle. The large (some call them ungainly) leaves of the autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnal) appear in the spring. After the leaves have died down, the flowers appear in the fall.

Autumn crocus and myrtle. The large (some call them ungainly) leaves of the autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) appear in the spring. After the leaves have died down, and much later  the flowers appear in the fall.

Beechdrops:

Beechdrop arising out of leaf litter.

Beechdrop (a parasitic plant, Epifagus virginiana) arising out of leaf litter. It carpets the forest floor at this time of year in Enfield, NY.

Looking down at the whorled form of a beech drop, showing the reddish purple flower.

A view looking down at the whorled form of a beechdrop, showing the reddish purple flower. The beechdrop lacks chlorophyll and so must gain its sustenance from the roots of beech trees.

Delicate grasses:

The grace of grasses.

The grace of grasses.

Dewdrops find the fine hairs of these soft grasses.

Dewdrops find the fine hairs of these soft grasses.

Dewdrops and fall-flowering grass.

Dewdrops and fall-flowering grass.

Some plants only become exuberant in fall, like the bur cucumber:

Bur cucumber: flowers, fruit, and tendrils.

Bur cucumber: flowers, fruit, and tendrils.

Where is the bird now who nested here in the spring?

The nests are empty.

An empty nest dangles in my path.

As Keats’ suggests, the bees have their own harvesting to do:

Apple and bees.

Apple and bees or are they wasps that look like bees? I must consult my cousin for an identification.

I have my own “later flowers for the bees” —Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’:

Helianthus (perennial sunflower) and butterfly.

Helianthus (perennial sunflower) and butterfly.

The autumn day portrayed in Keats’ poem is gracious and benevolent, but we know there are also days of cool mists and grey skies and shriveled plants. Yet, they are beautiful too:

Horse browsing in Keats'

Horse browsing in Keats’ “mellow mists” (Enfield, NY).

The only descriptive word Keats repeats in the poem is “soft” as in “thy hair soft-lifted” and “soft-dying day.” He’s right. When the sun shines, autumn days are so soft, because some mists are warm.

My favorite line is “Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn.” It’s a line that is both romantic and unromantic. I find it moving that Keats gives the burden and honor of mourning, the short good-bye because gnats do not live very long, to the insignificant gnat.

Every day that I walk I find new autumn stories. The hedgerows of my husband’s tree nursery are blessed with hickories–particularly shagbark hickories. The nuts cause my feet to bobble. Soon I pick up the offending spheres, sniff them, and put them in my pocket for further aromatherapy. Sometimes I see an ecosystem story, like this one about the hickories and ants.

Shagbark hickory awaiting an herbivore.

A shagbark hickory awaiting an herbivore caught my attention.

Ants investigate the inside of a hickory shell.

Ants investigate the inside of a hickory shell.

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Ants in close contact as they explore the inside of the shell.

Ants in close contact as they explore the inside of the shell.

I am sure this is a story that E. O. Wilson, the great ant biologist, could decipher, or perhaps Darwin had notes on such an interaction because he observed almost everything. It seems that Autumn is a time when members of an Ecosystem exhibit their last behaviors of interconnectedness before the Big Rest.

Goldenrod and woodpile.

The golden and the grey: goldenrod ornamenting woodpile constructed by busy human.