Where have all the flowers gone–and their Monarchs?

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Monarch visiting thistle in Vinegar Hollow, Highland County, Virginia.

 

It’s a lonely fall for those of us who love being observers of the annual migration of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) back to Mexico, a 3,000-mile journey that is breathtaking for its scope and its beauty. If we could connect all the dots of all the trajectories and innumerable stops for nectar to fuel the journey, we would see a pattern, a living tapestry, so instructive of the importance of thinking ecologically.

I have recently been migrating myself, from Ithaca, New York to Harrisville, New Hampshire, back to Ithaca, and now south to western Virginia. Having heard that a 90% decline in migratory numbers was predicted for this fall, I have been looking for monarchs in old and new haunts. In Harrisville, I saw one monarch, in Ithaca three, and one in Vinegar Hollow. In past years,  significant numbers have accompanied me on my daily dog-walking rambles. Being with them, admiring their determined, zig-zaggy flitting, from blossom to blossom, I have felt part of the hero’s journey, the voyage home, a mythology rooted in biology.

Monarch on Verbena bonariensis in my garden in Ithaca, NY.

Monarch on Verbena bonariensis in my garden in Ithaca, NY.

Monarch visiting Verbena bonariensis in my garden in Ithaca, NY.

Underside wings of monarch still visiting Verbena bonariensis. It’s easier to write about monarchs than to photograph them, which is a dizzying experience.

The media have documented the decline in monarch numbers more authoritatively. The figure given since January 2014 is a 90% decline. For graphs, see the website of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and an article in the Washington Post by Brad Plummer. Plummer reports a conversation with Lincoln Brower of Sweet Briar College, one of the world’s foremost monarch experts, who outlines three causes for the decline:  deforestation in Mexico, severe weather issues (e.g., the 2013 drought in Texas), and herbicide-based agriculture. I remember a lecture given by Brower at Cornell a few years ago, in which he noted that efforts to create a monarch reserve in Mexico had in fact led to more poaching by illegal loggers than before its creation. All monarchs have to fly through Texas, so not much can be done to prevent a decline due to drought. It is important to know, however, that monarchs flying south need to feed heavily on nectar, some of which they store for use during the winter “hibernation.”  You might say that blossoms are their gas stations. The issue of herbicide-ready agriculture is big and contentious.

Citing the figure of a 97% decline, Richard Coniff in a post on his “Strange Behaviors” blog is pointed in stating that it’s now a question of Monsanto vs. the Monarchs. Since Monsanto developed Round-up ready soybean and corn seed in the 1990s, the widespread of this seed, which enables large-scale herbicide spraying, in the Midwest has wrecked havoc with the life-supporting patchwork of milkweed species hanging out here and there in fields and along roadsides. It takes four generations of monarchs to hatch and breed and feed on milkweed foliage, on their way across the United States to Canada. Milkweed species are said to show a 67% decline in numbers.

Coniff notes that farmers are not the problem and believes that Monsanto has the money to establish milkweed-friendly zones around agricultural fields. Apparently Monsanto is presently studying whether the fear of monarch extinction is legitimate, and whether it wishes to be part of conservation efforts.

We can all plant milkweeds. There are 110-120 species, of which 32 are particularly helpful for monarchs. Coniff offers a link to supplier of milkweed seeds and plants. Milkweeds in themselves are a wonderful group of plants with a  unique floral structure (see this additional Xerces posting) (and this one showing the common milkweed [Asclepias syriaca]), complete with horns, hoods, and corpuscula. Many of us in the northeast know the common milkweed, its fleshy, drooping, dusty-rose flowers, hypnotically scented, but there are many other milkweed species

 

Milkweed flowers with visitor.

Milkweed flowers with visitors, seen summer 2014 (Enfield, near Ithaca, NY)

with the same fascinating flowers perfected in different sizes and shapes (scroll down to the bottom of this link).

MonarchWatch.org, led by Chip Taylor, is an excellent organization/website offering information on the biology of monarchs and milkweeds and on conservation efforts. Many people are now hosting monarch “waystations” under the guidance of MonarchWatch.

Monarchs have been called “iconic” and their flight “epic,” and rightfully so. Every school child in North America has known their story. Many have watched, as I have, the chrysalis become butterfly in just seconds, miraculously, as the molecules reorganize themselves from immobile jewel case into polka-dotted flight machine. And there is more to learn. Just last week, National Geographic posted an article on new discoveries about the genetics behind the white monarch and the efficiency of  flight muscles in the migratory monarch. They continue to inspire our creativity, as in this book shown below about a biologist coming home to Lake Erie to study monarch migration, or this new Harrisville Watershed yarn called “Monarch” (click on it, sitting to the left of “Barn Red,” for a close-up).

A new book whose title perhaps draws inspiration from the plight of the monarch.

A new book whose title perhaps draws inspiration from the plight of the monarch.

There are many good people working to ensure a future for monarchs, so that they do not become part of a mythic past. And there are many good weeds and wildflowers ready to be part of the ongoing story.

P. S.  For an article on the migration of Fall 2014, see this article titled “For the Monarch Butterfly, a Long Road Back” by Liza Gross.

 

Finding the Lonesome Pine

 

 

Vinegar Hollow. Stark's Ridge is the farthest bare mountain top (left of center). Back Creek Mountain stretches off on far top right.

Vinegar Hollow. Stark’s Ridge is the farthest bare mountain top (left of center). Back Creek Mountain stretches off on far top right.

Trekking abandoned logging roads by ATV with a chainsaw in the back of the vehicle is a new experience for me, but happily so. As a young girl I wanted to be a plant explorer in the great tradition of “Chinese” Wilson and Reginald Farrer, who brought back garden treasures from the remotest parts of lands still foreign to westerners at the time. Farrer roamed craggy mountains and misty valleys in Burma, China, and Tibet in life-threatening conditions armed with whiskey and a set of Jane Austen. So here I am, exploring remote mountain tops and glens of the Allegheny Mountains, fulfilling youthful dreams. I am home and do not need to carry whiskey and Austen.

 

Back Creek Mountain.

Back Creek Mountain  meets the sky above Vinegar Hollow.

 

The folds of Back Creek Mountain, which forms one of the north-south borders of Vinegar Hollow, looks impenetrable and pristine from Stark’s Ridge, the highest point directly opposite on the other side of the hollow. The wooded undulations of the mountain range reveal little of the history of human use of the landscape. In fact, it has been logged and relogged for the last several hundred years. Rough trails criss-cross the forest floor in a maze of switchbacks and curlicues. The forest giants are long gone, but secret gardens remain and a hoary pine native to the Appalachian Mountains.

Younger son on ATV.

Younger son on older son’s ATV.

 

ATVs are bumpy, noisy, and smelly, but they aid enormously in botanizing and can be turned off while one explores on foot. My husband and I had driven up this part of the logging trail maybe half a dozen times, but never stopped to get out at this particular turn in the road. Maybe it was the morning light shining on an expanse of silvery pale green lichens that caught our eyes, but soon enough we were trying to hop about on delicate feet, in thrall to the wonders underfoot in what I am calling the pine cone garden.

Lichens and pine cone.

Lichened branches and pine cones.

 

Pine cone and lichens.

Pine cone and lichens.

Whether nesting in lichens or pine needles, each cone seemed to be at home. Like sunflowers, pine cones have a deeply satisfying architectural form, the scales overlapping in an arrangement reflecting a sequence of numbers called the Fibonacci series. These cones are striking for their silvery gray brown shading and the curving, decorative prickles at the end of each scale.

Pine cone.

Pine cone.

 

Pine cone.

Pine cone.

The cones are stalkless, seemingly having sprouted out of stout branches.

Fallen branch with cones.

Fallen branch with cones.

But where was the parent tree? I looked up finally.

Parent tree.

Parent tree.

The morning light shone on its lichened, outstretched arms. One branch lay blasted on the ground.

Branch bent to the ground.

Branch of parent tree bent to the ground.

Lichens covered the bark exuberantly.

Lacy lichen.

“Lacy lichen” on parent tree.

 

Lichen on parent tree.

“Hoary lichen” on parent tree.

Further walking on this rocky slope by the side of the logging road revealed some dainty lichens displaying a  lovely pastel, slightly orange-pink coloration, something that forest fairies might have planned.

Fairy lichen.

Pink earth lichen.

 

Dainty lichen.

The extremely photogenic pink earth lichen again.

I know I wrote in my last blog about the importance of identifying small life forms, but I decided not to pursue lichen identification here (it would be like Alice falling into a wonderland of splendid but strange forms and vocabulary) because my primary goal now is to honor the pine and its cones. “Hoary lichen” and “lacy lichen” are just my own bland names, not proper common names. It turns out (courtesy of my husband’s research) that the lichen with the pink knobs is easy to identify via Google images. It is known by a lovely common name–the pink earth lichen. Its scientific name, Dibaeis baeomyces, is not at all user friendly. Project Noah offers a photo with a description offering the information  that the knobs are filled with “cottony fibers.”

My husband and I got busy taking measurements and assessing characteristics that would identify the pine.

Pine cone display technician David Fernandez.

Pine cone display technician David Fernandez.

 

A 2-3 needle pine!

A 2 (-3) needle pine! Apparently the number of needles per bundle is not totally constant.

 

One thing that makes pines fairly easy to identify is that there are not many different species of them in the world. Further, pine needles are arranged in little bundles bound in a common sheath, and the number of needles in the bundle (fascicle) is distinctive for each species. The familiar white pine, distinctive for its long, graceful needles, has five needles per bundle, for example.  So, it’s pretty easy to count the number of needles per bundle on a pine sample–we found two needles per bundle in this pine–and look up a list of 2-needle pines in North America. The list is not that long. Also, the pine cones of our pine were unusually prickly, which proved an excellent identifying characteristic. First we settled on Pinus echinata, the shortleaf pine, because it has prickle-tipped cones and it’s native, but its growth habit (overall shape) wasn’t right. We moved on through the list of 2-needle pines.

Voila Pinus pungens, commonly known as the prickly pine, table mountain pine, and hickory pine! Prickly pine  is certainly a suitable common name because of the cone, and table mountain because of the high elevation at which it likes to grow, but hickory pine? A hickory tree is in a completely different family and order and is known for its shaggy bark and edible nuts. I love it when the common names of life forms become interesting metaphors, connecting the unlike through some hint of likeness, so I puzzle over its derivation.  Hickory trees are often gaunt and gangly in shape, which is perhaps the likeness that inspired the common name of hickory pine because Pinus pungens is  described as having a “rounded, irregular shape.” Another possibility is that the common name recognizes the fact that Pinus pungens likes to grow with hickories. However, there were no hickories on this rocky hillside.

It is a lonesome pine. Unlike most species of pines, this pine is known for growing as scattered individuals, rather than in large groves.  Lonesome but not unsung. John Fox Jr. made this species famous in his book The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, a top-ten bestseller of 1908-1909, and a book still dramatized in yearly pageants in Big Stone Gap, Virginia where John Fox died in 1919. Fox’s book beautifully describes the Appalachian mountain culture and landscape, and the confusion and disruption that occur when modern civilization arrives, here in the form of the train and coal mining. Fox describes the lonesome pine repeatedly so that it becomes a character in its own right, representing the isolated individual struggling to retain identity. The main human protagonist is a young man from “civilization” who arrives to bring change to the area but is nevertheless sensitive to the value of what he finds there. Fox writes from the point of view of this character:

He had seen the big pine when he first came to those hills—one morning, at daybreak, when the valley was a sea of mist that threw soft clinging spray to the very mountain tops: for even above the mists, that morning, its mighty head arose—sole visible proof that the earth still slept beneath. Straightaway, he wondered how it had ever got there, so far above the few of its kind that haunted the green dark ravines far below. Some whirlwind, doubtless, had sent a tiny cone circling heavenward and dropped it there. It had sent others, too, no doubt, but how had this tree faced wind and storm alone and alone lived to defy both so proudly? Some day he would learn.

–John Fox, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine   

He suggests a parallel and a connection between the plight of the lonesome pine and the human being. Defiance in the face of unaccountable whirlwinds, like World War II. My parents loved this book for its description of the mountains they settled in post my father’s service in the war. With all their hearts they aspired to be mountain folk, fierce individuals never at peace when far from lichen-covered trees and forested vistas. Their grandson has now purchased some of this mountain land to protect–from the “green dark ravines far below” to the rocky slopes of the ridge tops where the lonesome pine survives, casting its prickly cones into a garden of fantastical lichen, both tender and tough.

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Trees rising from one of the deep, green glens of Back Creek Mountain.

  

 

Plants and People: Celebrating the Brooklyn Botanic Children’s Garden

Display near the entrance to the Children's Garden of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Display near the entrance to the Children’s Garden of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

 

On Saturday, June 7th, 2014, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) celebrated the 100th Anniversary of its renowned Children’s Garden. As Frances Miner, who worked in the Children’s Garden for 43 years said, “There are plants and there are people, and there are many ways they can be brought together.”

 

Exhibit item in the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

Exhibit item in the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

 

The history of the Children’s Garden is beautifully described on BBG’s website. Anyone interested in gardening with children will find this history interesting. Anyone interested in reading about strong women will find the profiles of Ellen Eddy Shaw and Frances Miner, who both shaped the garden for many years, inspiring.

Elizabeth Scholtz (left),   Director Emeritus of BBG, and Ruth Harzula, fellow instructor in the Children's Garden.

Elizabeth Scholtz (left), Director Emeritus of BBG, and Ruth Harzula, fellow instructor in the Children’s Garden.

I came to BBG as a “botanical instructor” just as Frances Miner was retiring. The motto she stressed was “learn by doing.” This statement has rung true to me many times over the years. Too often we feel “stupid” because we can’t replicate a procedure or activity after hearing an explanation. But we are not “stupid,” we just have not learned through the body. The Director of BBG at the time, Elizabeth Scholtz (shown above) still goes to work at the garden, as Director Emeritus, Monday through Friday. Her devotion, charm, and horticultural advocacy are legendary. Ruth Harzula (also shown above), who was the first woman to graduate from Delaware Valley College with a degree in Ornamental Horticulture,  was in my cohort of young “botanical instructors” who worked at the garden in the 1970s. She brought many talents to our group, among them working with special needs children in the vegetable garden. I also remember the day she unleashed a natural history drama at lunch. Bringing forth her insect collection for show and tell, she screamed upon opening it.  There were lots of little “bodies” moving around.  A praying mantis egg case had hatched and a swarm of tiny praying mantises, each the length of a finger nail at most, was busy devouring her carefully pinned insects. It was a terrifying scene of carnage, wings and legs strewn about half eaten.  At least this is how I remember it. Ruth, please let me know if I have misrepresented the event.

 

Tools in the Children's Garden house.

Tools in the Children’s Garden house.

In my era we taught a sequence of four classes for New York City public school children in which they learned how to make cuttings, how to pot up their rooted cutting,  and had tours of the conservatory and the outdoor plant collections. I remember the students as being very interested and well behaved. They loved the hands-on work in the greenhouse. We taught adult classes as well. While most classes had a practical application, like dyeing fibers with plant materials, I taught a “romantic” one, “Trailing the Wild Arbutus with Gun and Camera,” about the world’s great plant explorers and the plants they introduced to our gardens. These plant-loving explorers underwent extraordinary deprivations and dangerous situations to make these flowery “introductions.”

Staff in the Children's Garden offer lemon balm cuttings for potting up.

Staff in the Children’s Garden offer lemon balm cuttings for potting up at the celebration. Lemon balm is tough and lovely. The cutting I potted up survived several subway rides and a long bus ride to arrive safely in Ithaca, NY.

 

I was also in charge of the Shakespeare Garden, but at that time there was insufficient funding for buying special varieties or even spending many hours in the garden. Luckily it looked perfectly beautiful, to me, with too many foxgloves.

There are still lots of foxgloves in the Shakespeare Garden.

There are still lots of foxgloves in the Shakespeare Garden.

 

Scotch thistle in the Shakespeare Garden.

Scotch thistle in the Shakespeare Garden.

 

 

Mullein plant in the Shakespeare Garden.

Flowering stalk of the Arctic Summer Mullein (Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Polarsommer’) in the Shakespeare Garden.

 

There were people as interesting as the plants. One was George Kalmbacher, a retired postal worker, who became an expert in bromeliads (pineapples and their relatives), traveling all over the world to visit and document rare species. Like our very own phantom of the opera, he could be found at all hours of the day and night scurrying between the herbarium and the conservatory with a huge camera and a plant in his hand that he was photographing, probably for the book What Flower is That? It had over 1000 photographs of garden flowers. His knowledge was encyclopedic–because he certainly learned by doing. One winter he got quite excited because the night-blooming cereus (a kind of cactus) was getting ready to flower and he  urged us to be in the conservatory between 10 pm and 11 pm for the grand opening. I fretted about staying so late in the city, but he said that this would be my only chance to watch the huge buds open, petal by petal, and he was right. Some call it the Queen of the Night, and have paid tribute with musical accompaniment. By morning the Queen has wilted, her gown in disarray, the petals hanging limp.

 

Keyhole tree near the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

Keyhole tree near the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

And then there was Frank Okamura who curated an outstanding collection of bonsai. He was a little intimidating, not loquacious like George, stern in protecting his tiny trees. Although not a fan of bonsai, when I stood before one of his two-foot-high, 100-year-old oak trees in full flower, I felt the miracle of being able to physically and mentally encompass the entirety of the oak.  You can shrink a tree, but not its flowers. The oak tassels (the name for their flowers) were their normal size, dangling like hugely oversize but still elegant ear-rings on the diminutive trees, an incongruous, arresting sight.  Some people don’t realize that trees flower, so a bonsai seen through the seasons can be instructive. Like Mr. Kalmbacher, Mr. Okamura was self-trained.  The obituary in the New York Times written by Stuart Lavietes describes how, interned in California in WWII, Mr. Okamura came to the garden to work in its neglected Japanese garden, but also waited tables and set pins in bowling alleys.  Mr. Okamura’s daughter said that he “virtually dangled off precipices in the Catskills to get saplings he thought would make good bonsai trees.”

 

The celebration offered healthy drinks.

The celebration offered healthy beverages.

I first started as a botanical instructor in Fall ’73 or early ’74, fresh from a year as a horticultural work-study student at Kew Gardens. The salary was $6000 a year so I commuted one and a half hours from home each way. Leaving a trail of corn muffin crumbs from my favorite deli in Grand Central, I carried hazelenut coffee, a book, and my earth shoes. It was in Grand Central that I bought a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  The opening lines transported me:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Upon reading that sentence I was deeply in love with a book. An untidy passenger, I sat on the subway reading and spilling coffee but never scalded anyone but myself. Back then Grand Central was not the upscale place it is now. I remember a homeless woman in a tattered nightgown barely covered by a dirty raincoat standing on the top of the steps leading down to the Lexington Avenue line, urinating and shouting obscenities. The stream of well-dressed commuters heading to Wall Street parted in front of her and united beyond her seemingly without notice. Buffeted by the noise and the soot, I rose out of the subway as bedraggled as the Queen of the Night after flowering and entered the Brooklyn Botanic Garden through a turnstile leading to the Cherry Esplanade. Calm, green, symmetrical allees of flowering cherry trees lined a central area, a place to breathe deeply, a sanctuary. I learned then and know so much more now how much work it takes to maintain a sanctuary. In the obituary mentioned above, Stuart Lavietes writes that

Mr. Okamura taught his students that practicing bonsai required patience, sensitivity to nature and five fundamental qualities: humanity, justice, courtesy, wisdom and fidelity.

I would like to think that people, children and adults, do learn these qualities in working with plants, all plants, from liverworts to radishes to roses. I will let Ted Maclin, former coordinator of the Children’s Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden speak here:

Statement from

Statement from Ted Maclin, displayed in the exhibit at the Steinhardt Conservatory commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Children’s Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

 

So, I learned from plants and people in my days at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It was poignant on June 7th to greet people that I have not seen in 40 years. The good news is that their smiles are as youthful and their eyes as bright as when I first knew them. We were happy to be together again in the garden.

 

Carolina spicebush (Calycanthus sp.) near Cherry Esplanade.

Strawberry Shrub (also known as Carolina Allspice, Sweet Shrub, Sweet Betsy, Bubby Bush [Calycanthus floridus])  near Cherry Esplanade.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A walk on the wild side: Highland County, Virginia

View of Vanderpool Gap, Highland County, Virginia

View of Vanderpool Gap, Highland County, Virginia, looking west into Blue Grass Valley.

 

I am back, in Highland County, Virginia, exploring again, starting off a few feet from these cows. We are headed east in jeep and on foot into a parcel of land that was once cleared, but is growing back into the wild in places. As is usual here, we have to go through several gates before we are into the parcel.

 

My walking companions.

My walking companions.

We are trying to get a sense of the entire topography of this 700-some acre parcel. It’s varied, rarely flat.  We surprise a golden eagle and a bevy of vultures. They scatter in a leisurely fashion, in no hurry to leave the carrion they have found. When we have passed along, they will be back. I am not quick enough to capture the golden eagle with my iPhone, even though it is huge and moving so slowly.

 

Halfway to the top.

Halfway to the top.

 

We arrive at a little glen with a beautiful stream. It’s sparkling and luxuriant with vegetation.

Mountain stream.

Mountain stream.

Here I find a notable Appalachian wildflower: Saxifraga micranthidifolia, commonly known as branch lettuce or mountain lettuce. Native to the Great Smoky Mountains, it flourishes in cold, fast-moving mountain streams and is one of the first plants to show itself in early spring. The early settlers found it palatable and a welcome salad green after a long winter.

 

Mountain lettuce (Saxifraga micranthidifolia).

Mountain lettuce (Saxifraga micranthidifolia).

 

It is not in Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers, so when I discovered it as a young girl in Vinegar Hollow I felt like a genuine plant explorer. I finally tracked it down in Joseph E. Harned’s Wildflowers of the Alleghanies, a book I found by chance at a second-hand bookstore. It has been called “a monumental book,” and there is no doubt that it is–written with grace and comprehensive in scope. “Micranthidifolia” remains one of my favorite botanical tongue twisters.

The mountain lettuce are abundant and so is the plant shown below, which is new to me.

 

False hellebore (Veratrum viride).

False hellebore (Veratrum viride).

 

It takes several hours of searching online to find the name  because for once Peterson and McKenny’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers fails to give me an identification, probably because it was such a big presence there in the stream, but quite small, practically hidden in the top right corner of  p. 370 among the “6-part flowers, lengthwise leaf veins, Lily Family (Liliaceae).” Peterson and McKenny instruct through arrows, using them to point to distinctive, often little-noticed features. They do have an arrow to the “heavily ribbed” leaves. I should have noticed that arrow, but I missed it.

 

Drawing of false hellebore (shown left of center on top) from Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia McKenny's A Fieldguide to Wildflowers (pp. 369-379).

Drawing of false hellebore (shown left of center on top) from Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia McKenny’s A Fieldguide to Wildflowers (pp. 369-379).

 

False Hellebore is also known by a host of other names, including Poor Annie, Tickleweed, and Devils Bite. This plant is not palatable, in fact just the reverse. According to one website, it is highly toxic and can cause “birth defects, gastrointestinal distress, salivation, prostration, general paralysis, spasms, irregular heart beat, difficulties breathing, and death.” That sounds like just about enough results for its toxicity. Large patches of bluets carpet the path the follows the stream up the glen.

 

Bluets or Quaker Ladies (Houstonea caerulea).

Bluets, also known as Quaker Ladies, Innocence, and Little Washerwoman (Houstonia caerulea).

 

Bluets go by many names as well and are extremely  photogenic. It is certainly a pleasure to walk along a path so blue, though I am hopping because I do not wish to crush a bluet or a Quaker lady or a little washerwoman. They are in the bedstraw or madder family (Rubiaceae). The settlers are said to have stuffed their mattresses with the common bedstraw (Galium sp.), which grows in hay meadows and has a sandpapery feel. Probably because I am so dazzled by the mountain lettuce, the false hellebore, and the bluets, I fail to notice two species that we see on our way back through this part of the parcel: the pink lady’s slipper and the pinxter flower, a kind of rhododendron.

 

Lady's slipper orchid

Lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium acaule).

 

Flame azalea nestled into trunk of tree with fern.

Pinxter flower nestled into trunk of tree with hayscented fern.

 

I was dazzled, but now I am delirious. These Appalachian plants touch me deeply. Pinxter flower has had several scientific names, from Rhododendron nudiflorum to the current Rhododendron periclymenoides. Nudiflorum makes perfect sense (flowering without leaves), but I will have to do further research to understand how periclymenoides adds to an understanding of the biology of this species.

We trek on, discovering an old friend from Vinegar Hollow, hound’s tongue, a member of the forget-me-not family–“downy, with a mousy odor; maroon flowers …embraced by velvety calyx scales” according to the description by Peterson and McKenny.

Hound's tongue (Cynoglossum officinale).

Hound’s tongue (Cynoglossum officinale).

 

I think I have caught its downiness in my photograph (enhanced by the slight out of focus). This is limestone country. One of my companions has worked with stone. He points to a rock with a lot of character and shows us where bear have overturned rocks to get at ants.

 

Limestone rock showing fossil creatures.

Limestone rock showing fossil creatures.

 

We lock gaze with a deer.

 

Deer in the undergrowth.

A deer.

 

We reach the top of the parcel.

 

At the top of the parcel.

At the top of the parcel.

The Vanderpool gap is still visible. Two stick-like black locusts stand in the center of view. The locusts are very late leafing out this year. One hopes that a blight or new pathogen is not attacking this very valuable and beautiful species. As we walk back down to the jeep, ticks, rather large ticks, attach themselves conspicuously to our pants and soon appear on our arms. My youngest companion, wearing medium-weight blue jeans, shoos away more than 30 ticks, while my companion with camouflage pants has less than half that amount, and I, with rubber wellies, only attract 10 or so. We speculate about the relative merits of what we are wearing with regard to attracting ticks, but are most preoccupied with just getting the ticks off of our clothing and bodies. One of my companions describes a nature program that showed a moose in Canada driven mad by blood-engorged ticks covering its body. We lament how hard it is to feel charitable towards this particular species. A superfluous hostility, however, should be avoided. Basically little arachnids, ticks are an old species,  having been found in fossil amber dating back to sometime in the Cretaceous (65 to 146 million years ago), according to some researchers. They make their living in an unsavory way, but then so do some humans.

The pinxter flower, the mountain lettuce, the false hellebore, a golden eagle, a deer, vultures, and ticks. These species and many more we have encountered on our walk. We are fortunate to have had this opportunity to walk in the Appalachian mountains of western Virginia in Highland County.

Upon returning to where we started, I find horses by the barn near where the cattle grazed, and a view through a window of that barn.

Back to the beginning. A horse grazes. Vanderpool gap visible through window in barn.

Back to the beginning. A horse grazes. Vanderpool gap visible through window in barn.

 

Our walk is like a view through the keyhole. We have seen so much, but not everything. A parcel of land on the wild side is immense. The diversity of life forms, from bluets to ticks, inspires in me wonder and happiness.

P.S. An excellent article on the topography, biodiversity, and habitat loss of this area, titled “Appalachian-Blue Ridge forests” is available on the World Wildlife website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My friends, the liverworts!

Homage to the bobcat at the end of a double row of flowering pears at Cayuga Landscape tree nursery.

Bobcat at the end of a double row of flowering pear trees at Cayuga Landscape tree nursery in late afternoon of overcast spring day in mid-May.

May 12, 2014. Late afternoon. I am off to my husband’s tree nursery to walk the dogs. I have two now, Daisy the golden and Belle the Belgian shepherd.  Daisy, Jack’s dog, comes occasionally for a week of  camp with grandma. There is abundant visual interest in the late afternoon under a brooding spring sky that spits raindrops but not too seriously. The dandelions, the pear trees, and the green grass. That is enough to marvel at after such a long winter plagued by polar vortexes. I have walked here for years and I watch the trees grow and am sad when they depart. I walk desultorily (I constantly remind my husband that my country walks are not  fitness hikes), looking at what’s going on–the leafing out and the sprouting and the spreading and the bubbling of algae in the two little marshy ponds. I absorb the energy of exuberant growth.

 

I walk around the end of field 2 with its rows of young conifers and boxwoods, enjoying the swoosh of the tails as the doggies go in and out of the hedgerows sniffing and peeing. They are happy to be off leash in the country and that makes me happy too. I come to the end of field 2, which has a huge compost pile, a great site for giant teasel and monster mustard weeds in the summer and late fall, and a fenced enclosure for growing specialty trees and shrubs. It is not appealing to see anything fenced in, but there is so much loss to deer browsing already in the nursery that my husband reluctantly decided to fence in a small area.

Disturbed soil underneath fence line.

Disturbed soil underneath fence line of enclosure.

 

I walk near the fence line of the enclosure. I see bare earth and something more.

Pale pink pattern of male fruiting bodies of the common liverwort.

Pale pink rosettes of male fruiting bodies of Marchantia polymorpha.

A beautiful pattern on the mud.

Zoomed in image of the one above.

I stopped, thrilled to see an old  friend, the common liverwort (Marchantia polymorpha). Years ago as a graduate student in the Botany Department at the University of Texas at Austin I spent hours looking at slides of every aspect of the life cycle of this primitive, nonflowering plant under the tutelage of the great botanist Professor Harold C. Bold. He was a stickler for life cycles, and this plant has several ways of reproducing itself.

A view of  the female umbrellas of the common liverwort.

A view of the female umbrellas of the common liverwort.

 

Zoom-in view of photo above.

Zoom-in view of photo above.

 

View of gemmae cups, which are a means of asexual reproduction. Sometimes called splash cups, the they hold little balls of tissue that splash out in the rain, spreading the plant vegetatively rather than sexually.

View of gemmae cups, which are a means of asexual reproduction. Sometimes called splash cups, the they hold little balls of tissue that splash out in the rain, spreading the plant vegetatively rather than sexually. (I apologize for the focus, but I find it hard to hold my iPhone steady while on my hands and knees with the dogs breathing down my neck, intensely interested in what I am doing.

I walk on, finding a patch with male and female reproductive structures near each other, which means that sperm may easily swim from the underside of their “umbrellas” to the underside of the female “umbrellas,” where sexual union may take place if circumstances (like water) are conducive. Liverwort “love” results in a very little plant, the sporophyte, which only lives on the underside of the female umbrella for a short time, producing spores. There are further explanations about “life cycle” and “alternation of generations” and “haploid vs. diploid” that I could delve into but will dash on instead to basic liverwort stuff.

Male and female reproductive structures relatively close together. Gemmae cups apparent also.

Male and female reproductive structures relatively close together. Gemmae cups apparent also.

 

The “body” of a liverwort is called a thallus, and is considered primitive because there is nothing much to it at first glance, or second glance, or third glance. A thallus looks like the underside of a very skinny old green bathtub mat, the kind that has suction cups.  Or maybe I should just say that spreading thalli look like pond scum that has found its way to land, which is probably what happened millions of years ago. They do not stand. There is no water-conducting or structural tissue in the thallus. Only the reproductive structures lift themselves from the horizontal. There are so many wondrous aspects of liverwort biology that I could go on about, but I know that blogs are better short than long. I went home and dug up some of my liverwort literature. There is the grand three-volume The Hepaticae and Anthocerotae of North America by Rudolf M. Schuster.

The classic

The classic three-volume The Hepaticae and Anthocerotae of North America by Rudolf M. Schuster.

 

Volume I.

Volume I.

Volume I.

Volume II.

 

Volume III.

Volume III.

I have photographed the covers because these are Schuster’s own illustrations (the Foreward notes that he drew 98% of the illustrations in the three volumes) to give a sense of the beauty of these minute plants. In the Preface Schuster writes that he traveled 175,000 miles over the 20 years of his research. His travels took him from Key West, Florida to Ellesmere Island, part of the Qikiqtaaluk Region of Nunavut, a Canadian territory–“within 80 miles of the northernmost edge of land.”  He wanted to see each species as a “living, dynamic entity.” I, a native of the Appalachian mountains, take particular interest in his comment that there is a high degree of endemism in the southern Appalachians. His wife Olga typed and retyped his manuscript and critiqued his work. Professor Schuster  includes an epigraph for the book on a page directly  after the title page:

Quote used in prefatory material to Volume I.

Quote used in prefatory material to Volume I.

There is no epigraph for Volume II, but there is one for Volume III.

Quote in the prefatory material to Volume III.

Quote in the prefatory material to Volume III.

Schuster’s three volumes are a work of art and, as the epigraph above suggests, one good reason for lack of brevity is a textual appreciation for the diversity of flora and fauna found on planet Earth. I have learned that Professor Schuster only recently died, at 91, after a lifetime as a professor, world explorer, bryologist (one who studies mosses), botanist, and writer. Early in his career he studied at Cornell University, which is where I completed my graduate studies in botany, and not very far from where I am writing this blog. The scope of Professor Schuster’s three-volume work is daunting. For the beginner hepaticologist I recommend Non-flowering Plants, a  Golden Nature Guide. This is a wonderful series and I often go to one of their guides to get my bearings in some aspect of the natural world–minerals, spiders, seashells, fossils, ….

Non-flowering Plants, a Golden Nature Guide by Floyd S. Shuttleworth and Herbert S. Zin.

Non-flowering Plants, a Golden Nature Guide by Floyd S. Shuttleworth and Herbert S. Zin.

In defense of little plants, like the mosses and liverworts grouped in the plant family known as the liverworts, the eminentVictorian botanist and plant explorer Richard Spruce, who spent many years collecting, among other plants, the very beautiful leafy liverworts of South America, wrote:

The Hepaticae are by no means a ‘little family.’ They are so abundant and beautiful in the tropics, and in the Southern Hemisphere generally that I think no botanist could resist the temptation to gather them. In equatorial plains, one set creeps over the living leaves of bushes and ferns….In the Andes, they sometimes hang from the branches of trees in masses that you could embrace with your arms….I like to look on plants as sentient beings, which live and enjoy their lives–which beautify  the earth during life….When they are beaten to a pulp or powder in the apothecary’s mortar, they lose most of their interest for me. It is true that the Hepaticae have hardly as yet yielded any substance to man capable of stupefying him or of forcing his stomach to empty its contents, nor are they good for food;  but if man cannot torture them to his uses or abuses, …they are, at the least, useful to, and beautiful in themselves–surely the primary motive for every individual existence.” (epigraph to Schuster’s Introduction of Volume I)

I take to heart what Spruce says about the primary motive for existence–to be useful, and beautiful, to oneself at least. Motivated by his love of mosses and liverworts, Spruce explored, at great expense to his health, and in doing so found bitter bark quinine and introduced it to Europe. Liverworts are useful as well as beautiful. They are known to colonize burned areas, their thalli flattened on the soil like bandaids. Indeed, my husband said that he used RoundUp (it is a commercial nursery) along the fence line of the enclosure, so it should be no surprise to find liverworts there.

 

Seeing the liverworts reminded me of my days as a young botany student, when I thought I could learn everything about all the species in the plant kingdom (and other kingdoms) and be the richer for it–richer in appreciation for the “endless forms most beautiful” (Darwin) that grow around us.”Studying little things”–I did a great deal of that for a number of years, peering into various kinds of microscopes in the laboratory and on my hands and knees in the field. I am the richer for it, or I would not have noticed, and respected so greatly, what was going on in the mud along the fence line of the enclosure at the tree nursery.

 

P. S. If anyone does want to know more about the life cycle of the common liverwort, please let me know! And here is my homage to Professor Harold C. Bold of the University of Texas at Austin. There is probably no book in my beloved library that I have ever read so closely as his text:

My copy of the Third Edition of Professor Harold C. Bold's Morphology of Plants.

My copy of the Third Edition of Professor Harold C. Bold’s Morphology of Plants.

I underlined almost every sentence, in pencil, as a young graduate student. Unfortunately, the  more “primitive” a plant (I put primitive in quotes because sometimes a seemingly simple organism is actually a reduced version of something that was once more ornate [elegance is often the result of the trimming of the extravagant), the more Dr. Bold expected that we students should be able to visualize and comprehend the significance of every cell in the plant body (the thallus mentioned above). It was a struggle for me then–the elaborate vocabulary (male umbrellas were anteridiophores and female umbrellas were archegoniophores), the strange convolutions of the life cycle.  I, a human being, wandered in a marvelous botanical garden.

Pages from Bold's Morhology of Plants, illustrating the cellular anatomy of the common liverwort.

Pages from Bold’s Morhology of Plants, illustrating the cellular anatomy of the common liverwort.

A day’s walking in early May

May 2, 2014

6:30 am. I set off around the block with the beast, Belle the Belgian shepherd, who likes to herd everyone she meets. She terrifies passersby, with good reason, because she doesn’t want them to pass by, so I go out early and late.

We find a mysterious robin’s egg.

IMG_1128

Robin’s egg in notch of exotic but struggling maple tree (part of Cornell University experiment in urban planting).

 

We find the purple of the snake’s head fritillary.

Snakeskin fritlllary in my own front yard.

Snake’s head Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) in my  front yard, flowering from bulbs planted years ago.

 

In the UK, they drop the punctuation and simply call it the snakeshead fritillary. There are many other common names for this member of the lily family, but really snakeskin fritillary would be the most apt. The nodding, bell-like flowers do not look like a snake’s head to me, but the checkered pattern is reminiscent of certain snake skins.The buds of the fritillary are at first deep magenta, and then when open exhibit the light-and-dark checkered pattern seen above.

 

Immature buds of the snakeskin fritillary. They look out of focus even as one looks at them, especially as all stages are present at the same time.

White-flowered variant of the snakeshead fritillary. The blossoms look out of focus even as one looks at them.

 

Mid-afternoon. I set off to the Cornell Plantations, Cornell’s botanic garden, with a friend to go primrose hunting. There are masses of primroses, but they are not flowering yet.

We find a Japanese skunk cabbage instead.

 

Japanese skunk cabbage at the Cornell Plantations.

Japanese skunk cabbage at the Cornell Plantations.

 

And then more and more, their white flags artfully furled to catch our attention.

 

More Japanese skunk cabbage.

More Japanese skunk cabbage.

 

The Latin name of the Japanese skunk cabbage is unpronounceable and unspellable.

 

Identifying label for Japanese skunk cabbage.

Identifying label for Japanese skunk cabbage.

 

We find the speckled petals of the hellebore (Christmas rose).

 

Hellebore (member of the buttercup family) at the Cornell Plantations.

Hellebore (member of the buttercup family) at the Cornell Plantations.

 

Hellebore flowers come in many shades--from pale cream to pale green to pale pink to deep maroon.

The background color of hellebore flowers varies–from pale cream to pale green to pale pink to deep pink, rose, and maroon.

 

Late afternoon. I am still thinking about the robin’s egg so I take Belle around the block again.  The egg is still there as perfect as before. I had invented a story that maybe the wind wafted it there, but it would surely have broken, so that was not a good story. The robins came back about a month ago, in fact, so many that my neighbor called me. There must have been forty to fifty robins gabbling and babbling in our combined back yards. My husband pointed out that they were feasting on a plentiful crop of last year’s crabapples. The afternoon of the second day of their appearance the temperature plummeted. The weather report called for low teens that night. I worried about the robins and was happy to watch the whole group of them swoop one by one into the dense ivy that has covered almost the entire trunk of a locust tree in our front yard. As the sun went down, they chattered their way into the ivy’s foliage. By dark not a peep. No one would know that the bedraggled winter-burned ivy sheltered so many robins. Robins are quite territorial and thus sometimes termed antisocial, but they do travel in flocks when they migrate. The collective noun for a group of robins is a “wave.” Three or more robins together constitutes a wave!  Surely my neighbor and I shared a tsunami of robins those few days before they moved on. So, I wondered about the robin’s egg. This time I turned it slightly. There was a hole on the back. Clearly a human hand had found it and placed it there in the notch of the tree. I have a new story in my head about how it got there. I’ll save it for further personal embellishment.

As Belle and I continue around the block, we find one of my favorite plants.

 

One of my favorites, the dandelion.

The dandelion.

 

There are so many reasons to admire the dandelion. There can never be too many.

Keep walking, I remind myself. All it takes are footsteps. One walk leads to another.

We find a primrose I have grown from seed by the back door.

 

IMG_1201

My homegrown primrose.

 

Night. The day is almost over, but I am still thinking about the luminous color of the robin’s egg seen in the half light of early morning.

 

The robin's egg.

The robin’s egg.

 

I suppose I am simply amazed that the robin can create such a blue, and this particular egg was wrapped like a gift.  I’ll keep walking.

P. S. I went to check on the fritillaries two days later and not one snake’s head was there nodding in the corner of the wall and the fence. The deer had eaten all five of the blossoms.   The foliage remains, however, and the bulbs are safe underground. For an interesting article on Fritillaria, see “A checkered history” by Andy Byfield of Plantlife.  Endangered in the wild because of habitat loss, the snake’s head fritillary has been rescued by horticulturalists.

The jade vine blooms!

Orchids on display at New York Botanical Garden's orchid show.

Cattleya orchids on display at New York Botanical Garden’s annual orchid show (March 9, 2014).

“So, what’s your vote? What’s the most amazing flower here?” a father asked his two young children. He sat on the knee-high edge of a long reflecting pool that ran the length of a stately glasshouse. There was no answer as his children were too busy trailing their hands among the water lilies. It was the second weekend of The Orchid Show: Key West Contemporary being held at the New York Botanical Garden (March 1- April 21, 2014). I was there with my son and grandson, just two.

Son and grandson in a conservatory of the New York Botanical Garden:  son pointing finger one way and grandson pointing  finger the other way.

My son and grandson pointing to different routes in the conservatory of the New York Botanical Garden. The two year old led the way.

“I vote for the jade vine,” the father said, looking up.

Raceme of jade vine flowers dangling over the reflecting pool at NYBG.

Raceme of jade vine flowers dangling over the reflecting pool at NYBG.

I answered the man. “Yes, I agree. The jade vine wins.” After college, I worked for a year at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, UK, as a work-study student. There I met my first jade vine, and came home with a botanical drawing by Margaret Stones that I have carried with me ever since.

Botanical artist Margaret Stone's rendering of the jade vine.

Botanical artist Margaret Stone’s rendering of the jade vine.

To a budding botanist, Kew Gardens was heaven, but my entry into heaven was rough—and the ordeal was orchid related. I arrived in September for my first day of work with a terrible head cold contracted in the dry air of the British Airways flight over. I still remember the skimpy navy blue blanket I huddled under and how cold I was the entire trip. Mr. Pemberton, the director of students, had said he would put me “under glass” in the orchid house for the first three months because (it was clear during my interview that he didn’t like Americans) he assumed that I was a pampered sort I suppose. (I proved him wrong.) We have heard about orchid thieves and orchid addicts, but has anyone heard the story of a naive, young preparer of orchid potting medium? The supervisor of the orchid house set me to work making orchid “soil.” In my botanizing in Highland County, Virginia as a child I had met a number of orchids, beautiful species like the slender ladies’ tresses, which were terrestrial and hid sweetly among the meadow grasses. I was shocked when I saw how tropical orchids were arranged in the propagating house, attached to little gravestone-like boards, hanging row on row, on the side walls of the greenhouse. The “public” never entered this greenhouse. In the jungle these tropical orchids live as epiphytes high up on tree branches on leaf litter, absorbing nutrients through their peculiar spongy roots that protrude like branches into the air. They don’t live on the ground in soil. However, there were a number of tropical orchids that resided in clay pots on waist-high benches in the central part of the greenhouse. They didn’t need “normal” potting soil, but rather a special nutrient-poor potting medium.

Photograph of drawings of ladies' tresses orchids (Spiranthes) from Peterson & McKenny's A Field Guide to Wildflowers.

Photograph of drawings of ladies’ tresses orchids (Spiranthes) from Peterson & McKenny’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers (p. 18). The slender ladies’ tress grows in Vinegar Hollow, Highland, County, Virginia.

Making orchid compost with a bad head cold proved to be a nightmare. First, I snipped clumps of dried sphagnum moss into smaller pieces with scissors. Sphagnum moss is a wonderful vehicle for water retention when it is moist, but dry, it’s like fiberglass insulation. Luckily I didn’t know about sporotrichosis, the rose-gardener’s disease, but maybe that’s why I suffered so. Bits and pieces flew around and went up my nose where they tickled and prickled, causing profound irritation. Then I had to separate clumps of charcoal into smaller pieces using sieves the size of dinner plates. Clouds of charcoal dust surrounded me, invading my nostrils and sinuses.  The final step was to mix the chopped sphagnum and charcoal chunks with shredded bark. Hooray for shredded bark, a relatively “quiet” substance. After mixing, voila, a suitable substrate to anchor the orchid in its pot where it never wanted to be! I made orchid potting medium for a month and got sicker and sicker. I could hardly breathe and I couldn’t sleep at night for the coughing and snuffling and expectorating of greeny black effluent. Each day when I got on the tube to go to my flat, I looked like a chimney sweep, blackened snot dripping from my nose, my hair gray, my eyes red.

Another treasured moment from my year at Kew Gardens, a print of the squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium).

Another treasured momento from my year at Kew Gardens, a print of the wild squirting cucumber (Momordica [Ecballium]  elaterium), a copy of an 1842 Burnett botanical print). I met the squirting cucumber in the order beds, where species were arranged by family, and  watched fruits explode.

  Fortunately things just got better (no, I forgot about the horrible, horrible episode of potting up practically an entire greenhouse of Primula obconica, one of the woolly primroses, from which I got a gargantuan [not quite the right word here, but I am trying to make the overall point clear] case of hives that drove me insane). For my last “tour of duty” at Kew, I spent three months in the great Palm House, doing this and that (other stories…).  It was full of palms, obviously,  historic cycads, tall gingers, and many other wonderful tropical plants that dazzled me. There were vines too, dripping from the rafters of the greenhouse. I was lucky. For the first time in many years the jade vine flowered when I was there. Just one raceme in late winter that dangled to the top of my head in the North end of the glasshouse, as I yelled “Closing Time” in my best British accent. Just as stuffy as Mr. Pemberton in my own way, I didn’t think it proper that an American should be doing the honors at such an important moment. When the jade vine puts on a show in the conservatory of a botanic garden, it usually makes headlines in the local newspapers. On April 7, 2003, The Oxford Times ran a piece with the headline “Our vine isn’t jaded” and quoted curator Louise Allen who said “It’s incredibly difficult to grow and you can never guarantee it is going to flower.” They were proud to have 60 flowers “spikes” according to the newspaper. The more proper term is raceme to describe the huge pendant clusters of wisteria-like flowers. The headline in The Hindu Times on July 2, 2005 included the words “as precious as jade.”

Peacocks roam the outdoor eating area at NYBG scarfing up french fries and the like.

Peacocks roam the outdoor eating area at NYBG scarfing up french fries and the like.

I would say the specimen at NYBG is growing like topsy, as “rampant” and “rank” and “aggressive” (all words applied to the growth habit of the jade vine) as it can get in the still relatively confined space of a conservatory. In the wild of its native Philippines, it can grow to 80 feet and each raceme can carry 100 flowers. But it’s the color that makes you stop dead in your tracks.  I think it safe to say that there is no other flower in the plant kingdom so strangely, alluringly, and bizarrely colored. It is like jade, but the hue in plant tissue takes on a startling iridescent sheen. I picked up a blossom that had fallen to the floor and put it in a small plastic address box I carry. By evening the blossom was shot through with the colors of the northern lights– pinkish, pale bluish, lavenderish, pale jadish.

Close-up of Margaret Stones' botanical drawing of the jade vine.

Close-up of Margaret Stones’ botanical drawing of the jade vine.

Its shade has been scrupulously characterized in a lovely book published in 1976, Flowering Tropical Climbers by Geoffrey Herklots.  The author, botanist and ornithologist, developed a hobby of cataloguing sightings of the great tropical vines of the world and drawing them, beautifully, both in color and in line drawings. For the jade vine, he names three colors with numbers, probably in reference to an artist’s color chart that apply—Jade Green HCC 54/1 and 54/2, Viridian Green HCC 55/1, and Chrysocolla Green HCC 56/1. Interestingly, jade, viridian, and chrysocolla are all mineral stones. There is something mysteriously unplantlike about the color of the jade vine, as if it’s the result of being crossed with a lizard or a chameleon or rare gemstone.

Rampant, "agressive" growth of jade vine.

Display of jade vine’s vigorous growth.

The shape of the each blossom adds to the intrigue. A member of the Fabaceae (Leguminosae) or Pea Family, the blossoms have the characteristic architecture of pea flowers, but on a grand scale. The jade vine’s awkward-sounding Latin name derives from the Greek “strongylodon” meaning spherical and “botrys” meaning raceme or cluster.  Grouped en masse, the blossoms’ “claws” or “keels” zigzag swingingly down the stalks, sultry scimitars just looking for a fight. The flowers are the opposite of flimsy, often described as “fleshy” or “waxy.”

Informative display in the greenhouse, reminding us "no plants, no people!"

Informative display in the greenhouse, reminding us “no plants, no people!”

The jade vine is losing its place in the wild, although a recent expedition of botanists to Palanan Point in the Philippines has found locations where it still climbs freely. Known to be bat pollinated, specimens have not been happy setting seed in the conservatory setting, but researchers at Kew Gardens have recently enabled a plant to set fruit. A few years ago their website showed a heavy pod attached to the vine with a little help from a supporting macramé like mesh. In Puerto Rico, bees are vigorous pollinators, tearing apart the flowers for nectar in the process. So what is the world’s most beautiful flower? The question is unanswerable. Is it one of the orchids– the voluptuous cattleya?  the delicate slender ladies’ tresses? or is it the sea-foam green jade vine flower? (Or is it the peacock’s tail?)

Cover of NYBG's Spring/Summer Catalogue, listing classes and events.

Cover of NYBG’s Spring/Summer Catalogue, listing classes and events.

Who is the fairest of us all? That is not a good question, and the young father did not ask that question. He asked, “What is the most amazing flower here?” Yes, the jade vine. It was then in early March, and still now, the most amazing flower at the orchid show at NYBG and the most amazing flower I saw during my year at Kew Gardens. The fairest?  Each organism is the fairest of us all. We need every speck of diversity, as E. O. Wilson, the great naturalist has said over and over. Working with plants, in horticulture–sowing seeds, digging, planting, weeding, mulching–has always made me feel grounded, literally and spiritually. Plants have been for me, from a young age, a lifeline to sanity (except for those few experiences mentioned above). I look at each individual plant and feel rooted in partnership as his or her neighbor on the Earth. Support your local botanic garden. Take classes. Draw plants. Write about plants. Grow plants. Weed, yes, but place the weeded gently in the compost. Remember the words on NYBG’s display sign: “After all, plants make life on Earth possible–no plants, no people.” If we are what we need, then people are plants, and, why not consider the reverse,  plants are people.

A miraculous bouquet!

I know it’s winter, and I love the colors of winter, the grays of tree trunks and the white of snow and the beige of beech leaves, but I am thinking about a bouquet of flowers.

Belle surveying Enfield on February 2, 2014.

Belle surveying Enfield on February 2, 2014.

I have a big, black wolf of a dog, a Belgian Shepherd named Belle, who needs to be reminded often that she is a dog and not leader of her human pack, so I take her to doggie day care once a week. There in a pack of 17 or so dogs she learns that a pecking order is the name of the game for most creatures on Earth. Pam, who runs the doggie day care, is in my pantheon of heroines. There is no question that she is leader of the pack of 17 who run and romp and bark and snarl in the fields by the barn. It helps that she is tall. But she has the voice as well. When she says “Knock it Off,” the most overexcited, tooth-ey cat killer (there are such dogs there, but Belle is not one of them) wilts, sitting back on his or her haunches, ears back, the picture of canine contriteness. Pam understands each dog, adapting her approach to his or her strengths and weaknesses. Assertiveness blended with acceptance and compassion is an art. Even though I can’t say “Knock it Off” the way she does, I have learned from her.
Pam is also good with flowers. They abound every which way on the property, in beds along the driveway past the trailer to the barn, around trees, hanging from vintage contraptions on the barn itself. Huge barrels of dahlias guard the fence of the first pen. Though I was in a rush to get to my 8 am class, I stopped to admire a 4-foot tall dahlia, its flowers absolutely off the charts in size and pinkness.
“Hang on a sec. Let me grab a blossom for you,” Pam said. She picked the biggest, pinkest blossom, her large, work-hardened hands turning the flower to face upward.

One of Pam's dahlias.

One of Pam’s dahlias.

“But, do you like this lavender one?”

“Sure.” She plucked it.

“What about this rose one?”

“Sure.” She plucked it.

“You need this one with the ruffley edges.” She plucked it.

Soon enough I had a bouquet of 8-10 blossoms, all in different hues, pink lavender, pink white, red red, all with varying petal shapes, from frilled to square cut.
“Go, girl!” she said. I did. I dashed over hill and dale to the Writing Department at Ithaca College, found a vase in the copy room, and situated the bouquet in my office. I considered carrying the vase to my classes to freshen the blah bureaucratic ambiance of the classrooms in which I was teaching, but decided I couldn’t handle it as I am also a bag lady (a literary one, though).
Upon return to my office I found the bouquet alive and well. In fact, there was a large green and white caterpillar munching on the largest dahlia, making great inroads into a lovely pleated petal while producing sizeable chunklets of poop (technical term here is frass) one after another as I watched. And a demure ladybug, skimming lightly over an adjacent petal.

Pam's Bouquet.

Pam’s Bouquet.

Pam’s bouquet made me think of the little book I couldn’t resist buying (book jacket below) as a potential gift for someone, but have not parted with yet. I have always been attracted to the contradiction inherent in still lifes—the serene perfection of the still representation vs. the attempt to capture life in motion—the water droplet about to roll off a leaf, a caterpillar poised for the next bite.The Dutch still life painters of the 17th century, like Jan Van Huysum (1682-1749), often painted the insects that lurked on the bouquets they tried to capture so realistically. Anne T. Woollett, author of Miraculous Bouquets:  Flower and Fruit Paintings by Jan Van Huysum (The J. Paul Getty Museum) writes, “Although the brevity of life was not their primary theme, the curling petals and bent stems of Jan’s lavish bouquets, as well as the exposed fruit seeds and gnawed flesh, convey the passage of time.”

Book jacket of J. Paul Getty Museum's publication about paintings of Jan Van Husum.

Book jacket of J. Paul Getty Museum’s publication about still lifes of Jan van Huysum.

Painters from many cultures have labored over these kinds of still lifes, pushing technique to achieve ever greater perfection of representaton. Huysum painted on oak and copper, had special minerals ground for his paints, and overlay the images with yellow glazes.  James J. White and Autumn M. Farole in their commentary for the exhibition catalogue shown below (given to me by a friend, which I can’t part with either) describe how Mahaveer Swami, a painter of natural-history miniatures in Jaipur (the Pink City of Rajasthan, India), uses a paintbrush that is just a single squirrel hair to achieve precise details. I love the work of these natural-history artists, while hoping that each brush stroke is a tribute to the life form, bug or flower, that posed as model.  In writing here I realize that I am engaged in representation, when the true gift of the bouquet was life in motion.

Book jacket of exhibition catalogue published by Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, 1994. Cover, by Jaggu Prasad, is titled "Cluster of Apples with Insects."

Book jacket of exhibition catalogue published by Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, 1994. Cover, by Jaggu Prasad, is titled “Cluster of Apples with Insects.”

I rushed home with the bouquet, placing it in my garden to liberate the caterpillar and the ladybug. I watched it age day by day. The water grew green with algae. The petals lost color, drooped, and fell. The bouquet did not look less beautiful to me. It represented a gathering of experience: dogs scampering along the fence line trying to figure out what the humans were doing, Pam’s large but gentle hands turning each blossom this way and that, and the surprise of the caterpillar and the ladybug.

Caterpillar found on Seven Fields in Enfield, Ithaca, NY.

Caterpillar found on Seven Fields in Enfield, Ithaca, NY.

The “Locust-Tree of Virginia”: May-June, Ithaca, New York

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Black Locust at Seven Fields in Enfield, NY (Photo credit: Charlotte Whalen)

In 2007 black locust trees (Robinia pseudoacacia L.)  in Ithaca, New York, flowered profusely. I walked about admiring them, did some research, and wrote an essay, which I stored on my computer because I had nowhere to send it. It has happened again. The flowering of all of the black locusts in Ithaca in 2013 is noteworthy, divine in fact I would say.

Now that I have a blog, which is in part for me a place to admire, explore, and lament upon (not too often I hope) topics that interest me as a naturalist and writer, I have updated my previous piece, and in doing so experienced the black locust in unexpected ways.

Botanists have long studied and described noteworthy flowering patterns in trees. One pattern for a flowering individual is the production of flowers over an extended period, while another pattern is the production of many flowers all at once over a short period of time. The latter is called mass flowering. A plant’s flowering “strategy” makes a difference when it comes to attracting pollinators. Pollination is necessary to ensure survival of the species that relies on seed production to reproduce.

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Black Locust Blossoms and Trunk

Sometimes all the individuals in a population of a species inhabiting a wide area flower all at the same, and this is also called mass flowering. The term is often particularly applied to the very tall dipterocarp trees of Southeast Asia, which display communal, synchronous flowering. What is unusual in this behavior is that many different species of dipterocarp trees flower at the same time. It is an interspecies rather than an intraspecies phenomenon. (An analogy might be that it’s like a group of ethnically diverse people in 10 counties in New York State deciding to get married at the same time? I have not thought this analogy through, but offer it as a stimulus to further thought on the reader’s part.)

An even more unusual, and different, case of mass flowering occurs in bamboos, which wait a long time to flower (sometime 100 years), flower all at once, and then die, which is not a good time for the panda bears.

The case of the black locust in 2007, and now in 2013, doesn’t fit any of these scenarios—because the flowering period is normal, i.e., not a short burst or a long burst. It is simply a very good year for flowering and all the black locusts are into it. Whether the physiological basis relates to optimal conditions in the fall (when many flower buds are “set” in plants), or to optimal conditions in the spring, is beyond my botanical knowledge at this point. What I have observed now is that ALL the black locust trees are flowering, from gaunt, misshapen “elders” to graceful, young “adolescents.”

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Note profusion of black locust blossoms

The black locust is a true American hero. Native to the southern Appalachians and the Ozarks, it was the first North American tree species to find its way to Europe via seeds sent from Louisiana by either Jean Robin, herbalist to Henry IV of France, or his son Vespasien Robin, between 1601 and 1636. Donald Culross Peattie, one of the very best writers about North American trees, gives an informative account in his A Natural History of North American Trees, originally published in two volumes in the 1950s and reprinted by Houghton Mifflin with an introduction by Verlyn Klinkenborg in 2007. Everyone in the United States should have a copy–and read it. The trees of North America have sustained an immeasurable part of American culture and civilization.

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Photo credit: Charlotte Whalen

Peattie, who made an interesting transition in his educational life, from being a student of French poetry at the University of Chicago to being a student of the botanist Merritt Fernald at Harvard, describes the ways in which the history of trees and people intersect. America could not have sustained itself without native trees offering support to the early colonists, who were a curious mixture of the privileged and the down and out, according to Peattie. Not a handy lot as far as the building of shelters.

He writes that the early settlers at Jamestown had no idea about how to construct a log cabin (that was an innovation we owe to the Swedish apparently).  A century after the founding of Jamestown, the early Virginians were still struggling. Peattie quotes Mark Catesby, a British naturalist, who described what was going on at the time: “ ‘ Being obliged to run up with all the expedition possible such little houses as might serve them to dwell in, till they could find leisure to build larger and more convenient ones, they erected each of their little hovels on four only of these trees (the Locust-tree of Virginia), pitched into the ground to support the four corners; many of these posts are yet standing, and not only the parts underground, but likewise those above, still perfectly sound’” (Peattie, p. 336).  The black locust, a tree that supported a country in its imperfect infancy: hovels supported by posts of stout heartwood.

Black locust trunks are almost entirely heartwood, which is of very high quality in terms of stiffness, durability and strength. Peattie writes, “It is the most durable of all of our hardwoods; taking White Oak as the standard of 100%, Black Locust has a durability of 250%.” Unfortunately, in this country a little boring beetle (Megacyllene robiniae) has ruined the reputation and usefulness of black locust lumber. Populations in Europe are free of the infection, however.

Contentious William Cobbett became the great black locust seed entrepreneur of the early 1800s. He started a plantation on Long Island to supply the British Navy with treenails.The wood makes supremely durable treenails, which were used extensively at the time in shipbuilding. In water, they swelled into a tight fit and never rusted. The winning of the War of 1812 has been attributed to the strength of the winner’s treenails.  Farmers today still fight over a good source of black locust posts for fences. Read Peattie to find out why Cobbett had to flee the United States and why he took the coffin, and corpse, of Thomas Paine with him.

In my research I found a Hungarian website with an article by Bela Keresztesi, Director-General of the Forest Research Institute at Frankel Leo University in Budapest. He writes that black locust and poplar are tied for second place as most extensively planted in the world (eucalyptus is in first place). There are about a million hectares of manmade black locust forests on the planet (a fact I gathered in 2007, but have not verified in 2013).

But what is new in 2013 for me and the black locusts? Although having lived more than 30 years in Ithaca, my heartwood was formed in Virginia. Maybe that is why I feel such an affinity to the “Locust-tree of Virginia.”  I do know from my experience growing up in Vinegar Hollow in Highland County, Virginia, that locusts often seed themselves into groves. In other words, the peas from their pods (they are a leguminous species) don’t stray too far from the parent trees. The seedlings grow up in near proximity to the parents, and thus groves are formed. The farm in Vinegar Hollow has a very old locust grove, with trees gaunt and blasted by time and weather, and a young grove high on Stark’s Ridge where slender young trees vie for the sky light. I remember walking in the old grove with my father. He loved the locust trees. I see his fingers touching the places where sheep rubbed their rumps against the deeply ridged trunks. He pointed out to me how the lanolin of their wool burnished the bark. That is the grove that will live in my memory forever.

In 2013 I decided to do less Internet research and more gathering of information from direct experience, having been influenced by a recent reading of naturalist Robert Michael Pyle’s essay “The Rise and Fall of Natural History,” whose subtitle is “how a science grew that eclipsed direct experience.” He laments the loss of bodily experience outdoors in the company of other species in a nonmanufactured landscape. Somehow I had to get closer to the black locusts of Ithaca.

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Black Locust Grove on a Bright Morning (near corner of Bundy Road and 96).

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Black Locust trees from a distance at Seven Fields in Enfield, NY

There is a grove that I have admired for years at the corner of 96 and Bundy Road. This past Saturday morning I decided to try a little paparazzi-style photography. At 7:30 am I drove up a long driveway to get an overview of the grove, realized it was a personal residence, and so retreated to the main highway, 96, and parked in a pull off area and clambered into a ditch and up a steepish hillside, and thence to a closer view. The light played over the grass at ground level and the trunks of the trees, creating sinuous bands of dark and light. Graceful and commanding, the trees owned that hillside and the landscape. The land was theirs, and the sky also, it seemed as from my vantage point the branches grew up, up, and up into the blue sky and white clouds. I stood there in awe, though I was awkwardly situated, worried that I might have touched poison ivy in the ditch. I don’t mean to undercut the beauty of my direct experience; it was exhilarating, but a case of poison ivy causes me to lose my sanity so I had to cautious. That was Saturday, early morning.

The end of the story concerns another kind of first-hand experience. Sunday night my husband came home with an armful of branches full of racemes of black locust flowers. Their fragance filled our kitchen. David was late for dinner as usual because he had been in the country mowing. Tractoring along the hedgerow beneath the black locust trees, hungry, he grabbed clusters of blossoms and ate them.  Caution set in quickly, however. Worried that he might be poisoning himself, he consulted Google on his cell phone and found that locust blossoms are edible! Our dinner of rice and leftovers took on a festive air. We threw handfuls of the blossoms on everything. Douglas, who is 20, refused to eat any on principle, but Charlotte, who is over 20 and interested in herbal remedies, began ingesting flowers enthusiastically. She even found a recipe for black locust soup! They say one way of understanding a species is to eat it—with reverence and with love.

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Black Locust Flower Salad (Photo credit: Charlotte Whalen)

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Black Locust Blossoms (Photo credit: Charlotte Whalen)

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Black Locust Blossoms Nicely Packaged for Future Use (Photo credit: Charlotte Whalen)

The next thing I must do is wander at night in a locust grove with a flashlight. Peattie writes that “Among the Locust’s numerous familiar charms, most famous is the so-called sleep of the leaves. At nightfall the leaflets droop on their stalklets, so that the whole leaf seems to be folding up for the night.” He has more to say on the subject, and I will too after some direct experience!

Note:  The noted naturalist Marcia Bonta (read her column “Flowering Trees of Spring” available on her website, http://www.marciabonta.com) writes about a fine display of black locust flowering on her Pennsylvania mountain top in 1999, the finest then in 27 years.

My Sword Garden!

Rex Fernandez the cat detects signs of life in amaryllis bulb

Rex Fernandez the cat detects signs of life in amaryllis bulb

 

The Red Lion is out! He has sprung, finally. It is a brief moment, considering the year of care that he required of me in order strengthen him for this burst of movement upward. Though, I confess that I was not thinking of him every day of this past year. And he is not the only Red Lion. I have others and I am loyal to them all, and to his relatives who go by other names—Vera, Clown, and Novella.  They are everywhere in my house—six in the dining room, three in the study, three in the kitchen, three in the alcove, and eight in the basement, where four on the washer and four on the dryer gyrate to the sudsing and tumbling of clothes to no ill effect apparently. They comprise my bevy of amaryllis bulbs, and they are too many–a true plethora, a surfeit, a glut. Why so many amaryllis? It’s not my fault. My husband runs a landscape design/garden center business. In early January he brings home the amaryllis bulbs that did not sell during the Christmas season.  We give them away to friends, but still there are more. I pot up the orphans because I cannot resist what I know they will do with just a little soil, water, and light.  I moisten potting soil in my biggest mixing bowl and pot up the fat brown bulbs, taking care to stuff down their wiggily spongy roots (unlike the roots of tulip and daffodil bulbs, amaryllis roots remain living all year, whether potted or unpotted). The bulb planter then becomes a bulb watcher, looking for signs of life. Just when one is ready to state that this is the bulb that will not do it, just then it does! The tip of a green sword emerges. From then on the bulb watcher should not leave the premises. The large flowering bud at the tip of the green sword opens in a ballet dance of shimmering, iridescent seductive curves. Individual flowers join petal tip to petal tip, forming ring-like umbels.

 

The Red Lion

The Red Lion

The Red Lion posing!

The Red Lion posing!

 

I carry the Red Lion from room to room, hoping to find the perfect spot for the perfect photograph, but my efforts do not do justice. Several writer photographers have done so, however—Starr Ockenga, author of Amaryllis, and Ken Robbins, author of A Flower Grows—in very different ways. Ockenga ordered 90 kinds of amaryllis bulbs and spent a year documenting their growth in her greenhouse. Robbins follows the growth of just one bulb in hand-tinted photographs. Finally, standing on a table, I view the Red Lion from above.

 

Red Lion seen from above

Red Lion seen from above

 

The scientific name of the amaryllis is Hippeastrum, or horse star. In 1837 the Honorable Reverend William Herbert, Dean of Manchester named the genus thusly perhaps after a holy water sprinkler, whose shape had its antecedents in a medieval weapon used by knights, known as the “morning star.” The common name, amaryllis, has a more troubling origin. A lovely nymph named Amaryllis fell in love with a handsome shepherd named Alteo, who was impervious to her love. He said that all that he desired was a flower—one that was new to the world. Amaryllis wished to comply with this desire. She consulted the Oracle of Delphi who advised her to dress in white, plant herself at his doorstep, and pierce her heart with a golden arrow for 30 nights. She did this. When Alteo finally opened his door, there was a red flower. Her blood, so slowly dripped, had become the amaryllis.

 

The Red Lion again!

The Red Lion again!

 

The Scottish poet and garden writer Muriel Stuart (1885-1967) writes in her book Fool’s Garden (1936) that “There is a sex appeal in flowers, no less than in human beings. Unguessed, unexplained, but present, shown by the garden lover’s preference for rose or magnolia, for orchid or gillyflower, for tree or rock plant. Strong and irrestible, the wherefore they know not, the mysterious drawing power is there, some potency distilled from stem or stamen, curved petal-lip or watching eye. And so we are drawn to certain flowers by some sex appeal of growth and colour, no less than to certain people by hand or eye, or wayward toss of hair or turn of chin. Show me a garden and I will show you the gardener’s soul” (p. 195). Stuart, more English than Scottish, wrote poems, whose themes were sexual politics and horticulture, that were admired by Thomas Hardy. Her gardening book is full of sweet stories about the “whimsies” that she and co-worker, her young son Adam, contrived in their garden, one being a special “sword garden,” for plants whose leaves are “swordy and austere.” Their vision was a garden full of “stately spears” and “tiny daggers” and “lance lifters.” Muriel  writes that she and Adam, the fools of her title, learned much in the planting of their “unorthodox” garden.

It occurs to me that my collection of amaryllis is a sword garden–and what could have more sex appeal than the Red Lion? For me, however, the sex appeal is not so much in the flower, but in the tip of green just beginning to show itself from the brown bulb, like the spire of a cathedral in a dull place. Every year when it’s warm enough I carry the tired bulbs outside to replenish themselves in the shade. The slugs, leaving trails of silvery slime, nibble them to shreds,  and the resident groundhog and rabbit may feast a little as well. I splash water on them in the droughts of August. By fall their tattered leaves have yellowed, but the bulbs are plump again with stored food reserves made by the leaves. Just as frost arrives, I carry them inside and wait for the tip of the green spire to appear. Many gardeners consign amaryllis bulbs to the compost pile, but they can live and flower for 75 years. Perhaps I will be nurturing my fool’s garden of amaryllis for some time to come.