Category Archives: Environment

The Yellow Flower “not in Gray”

By Corinne H. Smith

When Henry Thoreau came upon a plant he didn’t know, he described it as best as he could in his journal or field notebook. He counted leaves and petals and other parts, and he noted the habitat where it grew. Sometimes he drew a picture of it. Sometimes he could later identify the specimen by consulting his botany books. One of his favorites was “Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States,” compiled by Asa Gray of Harvard. Amateur scientists from all over the country sent samples of the plants in their region to Professor Gray, so he could include them in his next edition. Still, well into the 1850s, not every American plant was known or classified. At times Henry had to admit in his notes that something he had found on his own was “not in Gray.”

I thought of this phrase back in late March and early April, after I saw a patch of beautiful early Spring wildflowers that I didn’t recognize.

I had to deliver flyers to a home-run business in our area after hours. The place was in the midst of having its front steps rebuilt, so the main path was condoned off. I had to make a detour and step across two lawns to reach the sidewalk leading to the porch. That’s when I saw them: dozens of low yellow flowers covering most of the front lawn. They were wonderful! They were new to me. And I probably would have walked right past them if the steps hadn’t been broken. I tiptoed around the plants, took care of business, then came back to look at the flowers again. With no camera in my pocket, I studied them as closely as I could. I wanted to memorize them and burn their images into my brain. Surely once I got home, I could figure out what these flowers were.

But once I drove away, other tasks intervened, and I was distracted. I hoped to go back and to take a good picture of the flowers. By the time I did this a week later, the petals had closed up and they had turned dull. I took some photos anyway, thinking I could match the distinctive leaves with the guidebooks in my home library.

winteraconitemine

This time I took action. I gathered all of my references together – the Grays of today – and I searched for these yellow flowers on the pages. I thought I had an advantage over Henry Thoreau because his guidebooks didn’t include photographs or even line drawings. Mine did. And some were even organized by the color of the flower. Surely I could just turn to the yellow section, and I would spot my new discoveries there.

But I didn’t. Nothing on any of these pages matched these flowers. They were “not in Gray,” so to speak. How could this be? They were growing profusely in that yard. They couldn’t be unique or endangered or rare.

Maybe the owner could tell me what they were, I thought. I found the e-mail address of the business, and I sent a message asking about the flowers in the front yard. A woman named Claire replied a day or two later. “Those little yellow flowers have been popping up every year for at least as long as we have owned this house. (38 years),” she wrote. But she obviously couldn’t offer any more advice.

I was frustrated. How could something this easy become so difficult? I casually searched online for “yellow flowers ground cover.” None of the results looked good. This was exactly the wrong way to go about this investigation. Gradually the right approach came to me: When in doubt, ask.

A passel of my Facebook friends are naturalists or gardeners. I figured someone online could help. On April 7, I posted my photo and posed the question to the group. “Does anyone know what this ground cover is? It had brilliant yellow flowers (multiple petals, more than 4 or 5) two weeks ago. Now they’re gone. But I still want to know what this plant is. It’s growing on a shaded bank of someone’s yard in southeastern Pennsylvania. And the owner doesn’t know what it is. She says it’s been coming up each spring for more than 30 years, though. It’s not swamp buttercup. I can’t match it to anything in my plant books. Darn.”

Bingo! By the end of the day, I had my answer. After several questions from others and a few miscues, Thoreau Farm master gardener Debbie Bier stepped up and supplied the correct name. My new yellow friends were called Winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis. I had never heard of this species. But the online photos matched what I remembered seeing. Yes!

 

Winter-Aconite: Courtesy www.plant-and-flower-guide.com

Winter-Aconite: Courtesy www.plant-and-flower-guide.com

I went back to my reference books and looked up the flowers again, thinking I had missed them the first time. I hadn’t. None of the books listed Winter aconite by common or by scientific name. It’s a European native, which may explain its absence in American books. I was lucky enough to learn of Winter aconite only by sight, by being inquisitive, and by knowing someone who knew its identity.

It’s too bad Henry Thoreau didn’t have access to digital photography and Facebook to help him identify his own stash of unknowns. Using our connections today, he could probably solve the mysteries of every one of his plants that during his time were “not in Gray.”

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A Bear’s Notebook

First, a disclaimer: our Commons, though satisfyingly treed and amply berried, has no bears, though some of us may hope for the odd transient, who has a mind to summer at the coast. Still, the nuts and berries found there bring on the mindset of a bear, and so, today I am his or her stand-in; this is my bear’s notebook.

(Disclaimer #2: Henry Thoreau had no experience of bears in shorn Concord, though he liked to imagine his way back to a time when bears were native there.)

These paw-scribed pages are rife with record of what we bears care most about: food. Or the promise of it. Enough food leads to fat, and fat is winter’s warm sleep enabled. So this spring walk looks forward to: food. There is, of course, the time-honored, all-season grubbing for insects. That’s reliable in the way grain may be an everyday part of your diet.

But today, I’m not interested in tearing up logs or clawing into burrows; instead, I have sweetness in and on mind. The wide spacing of this pitch-pine forest leaves plenty of light for the brush beneath the pines, and that light spurs the brush below. And each year, that light concentrates in blueberries that begin to ripen in early July, and then come on for that month’s remainder.

Taking notes and naps in new growth. Credit: Bigstock

Taking notes and naps in new growth.
Credit: Bigstock

But each year brings also variation – last year’s primo patch is often sparse, and creeping undergrowth can crowd out the low bush blueberries, or spreading crowns can shade out the high bush ones. There’s no burning over the brush of the Commons, and so each summer any berry-intent being needs to scope out the best patches. When is that best done? Now.

How so, you may want to know. Later, when the berries are first green, they blend with the leaves, and, from any distance they are hard to see. Then, even as they go purple and blue, often the best clusters are beneath leaves that have grown dense with summer. But now, amid the pollinating whirr of bees, the patches thick with white flowers are easy to spot. There, given the annual bee-brought miracle, will be the thickest gatherings of berries.

July's bounty

July’s bounty

And so, as I amble here, then there in these woods, my head swinging first to this side, then to that, I make a bear’s map of these white bursts amid the new green. I’ll be back to each bush in 6 or 7 weeks.

As Robert Frost once wrote, “You come too.”

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Attention – Lions and Apples

Said as the French do – ah’ton’cion – P-22 is back in the news.

Forgive me my ongoing fascination with Los Angelinos’ ongoing fascination with mountain lion P-22, who recently turned up tucked in under the deck of a house. As ever with this celebrity feline, this was big news – type P-22 into your search engine for a gander at it.

P-22 looking at you Photo: LA Times

P-22 looking at you
Photo: LA Times

As the only known successful migrant across a broad freeway, P-22 has come to represent the way the wild insists, even when it arrives at the edge of a wide asphalt river full of people intent on being there… now. And our media attention to him has come to represent – well, what does it say about us and our relations with the wild?

Even as we hem the wild in, and point our various inventions its way, we crave its return. That verb, crave, is intentional. It represents the deep linkage we have with wildness, a current that runs within our bodies at levels far deeper than our Platte-like rational rivers. We would howl (or snarl) at much we encounter daily – the many others who crowd our lives, their presence constant in our peripheral awareness, and, other times, in our faces.

So, when an apex example of that wild shows up under a deck from which we like, perhaps, to contemplate life, the symbolism is irresistible – not far away, ready to emerge from the shadows is a toothy part of self intent on hunting the day; the remnant hairs on our necks and backs rise.

It is a long amble from lion to apple (another recent fascination), but lions had been chased so far from New England in Thoreau’s day, that an apple will have to do as stand-in. And, because it is walking season (every season is, of course, but spring invites more), Easterbrooks Country (Estabrook Woods, today) seems the right destination. If a lion were to be anywhere in the Concord area, Estabrook would welcome it. Here then is Henry Thoreau in his essay Wild Apples:

Some soils, like a rocky tract of the Easterbrooks Country in my neighborhood, are so suited to the apple, that it will grow faster in them without any care, or if only the ground is broken up once a year, than it will in many places with any amount of care. The owners of this tract allow that the soil is excellent for fruit, but they say that it is so rocky that they have not patience to plough it, and that, together with the distance, is the reason why it is not cultivated. There are, or were recently, extensive orchards there standing without order. Nay, they spring up wild and bear well there in the midst of pines, birches, maples, and oaks. I am often surprised to see rising amid these trees the rounded tops of apple- trees glowing with red or yellow fruit, in harmony with the autumnal
tints of the forest.

Fruit of such wildness rising seems a constant yearning for all of us, even as we might shy from having a feline version right beneath us.

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