Veronica's Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland on writing, living, the Flint Hills, and the Post Rock Limestone Caryatids

Category: Veronica

Veronica on Winter’s End

Rachel’s had a difficult week, and doesn’t feel like writing tonight. There’s so much writing to be done, but so many expectations to fulfill (though, strangely, when I ask her who holds such expectations, she can never seem to provide a name). She didn’t have a vehicle much of the week, and she’s been trying to get someone to dig up her sewer pipe and replace it, with snow on the ground. So she asked me to write tonight in her stead.

At first I thought, not much happening this time of year. Every creature is still holding its breath, waiting for the days to get just a little longer, just a little warmer. But that’s really not true at all. The juncos (Junco hyemalis), also called snowbirds, have been active and visible all winter, and they are still here for a couple more weeks. The cardinals are nesting, as evidenced by their cheery song. A flock of snow geese (Chen caerulescens) flew over, in a northwesterly direction, marking the full moon. I’ve always wanted to see them on the ground, but to date they have invariably eluded me, rising up and continuing their long migration before I arrive at whatever avian rest area they’ve been reputed to frequent. Nevertheless, it’s a privilege to see them over my head, as they fly to the far north to nest.

And the garden? Well, if you’d leaned close to the ground at just the right moment, after the snow melted, you might have been injured by a garlic sprout shooting up so fast you wouldn’t see it until it poked you in the eye. They’re fully two inches tall now. Well, they were yesterday afternoon, who knows, by now they may be two or three times that height. When the year is winding down, I have to force myself to plant garlic; but its appearance in the early spring brings tears to my eyes, it’s such a relief after the interminable winter.

So that’s what we have this week. Rachel will be back next week, one way or another. The current difficult lunation will pass, she’ll get her meds straightened out, and spring will save us all, eventually, as it always does.

What signs of life are stirring in your neighborhood?

I don't have any bird pictures. I did receive a macro lens for Christmas, and it worked for these ants scavenging the remains of a butterfly which had been a meal for a gecko the night before.

I don’t have any bird pictures. I did receive a macro lens for Christmas, and it worked for these ants scavenging the remains of a butterfly which had been a meal for a gecko the night before.

Diamond Rain

One shouldn’t choose favorites, but my favorite planet might be Neptune. WordPress informs us that lots of people are reading about Neptune these days; I don’t know why. Maybe their attention was arrested by the thought of 1300 mph winds; or by its mysteries: the unknown source of Neptune’s intense heat (5000º C near the solid core), or its pure, piercing blue hue, much bluer than would be explained by the small amounts of methane near the surface. Maybe it’s the diamond hailstones falling into a liquid diamond ocean.

Ah Neptune, you invite us to dream, whether of the day or night sort makes no difference. Still, Mars and Saturn are calling us to activity on this sunny day, so we will leave off dreaming until night.

Reader, what is your favorite planet?

Wes Jackson on Earth As Organism

Driving Into Sunset

“I don’t think that it is proper to say that the earth is an organism. An atom is an atom. A molecule is a molecule. A cell is a cell. A tissue is a tissue. An organ is an organ and an organism is an organism. Going up the hierarchy, we can say an ecosystem is an ecosystem and the earth is the earth. I believe that those who insist on calling the earth an organism are doing so because they happen to be organisms.”

–Wes Jackson, Altars of Unhewn Stone: Science and the Earth

Waves of Autumn Migrants

Monarch butterflies have come and gone, on their journey through Kansas and on to Mexico. It’s been perhaps two weeks since I’ve seen a live one. The lepidopterists say that any stragglers at this point would be unlikely to make it.

They’ve been replaced by Franklin’s gulls, making their semi-annual flyover. They don’t come down, so I never get a picture. But I love to see them every fall, on their way down from the Canadian plains. I wave to them as they pass, and call out, “Have a good winter in Texas! See you next spring!” I saw hundreds at a time this week, but only a couple dozen today. I think their migration has peaked.

They’ll be followed, maybe next week, by the turkey vultures. Turkey vultures like to warm themselves and stretch their wings in the sun of a morning, but days are getting shorter, and the mornings are getting chillier. One of these sunny days, soon, they will rise up, fly south, and keep going.

Whenever I search for information about vulture migration, I find some sites about the west coast, and some, such as this one, from the east. But if anyone in Kansas is watching turkey vultures, s/he is keeping her observations to herself. I watch for them, take pictures if I can, and will report to you, dear readers, when I see them leaving.

The Latest Bloomer on the Tallgrass Prairie

One of my favorite prairie wildflowers is white heath, or heath aster, scientifically known as Symphyotrichum ericoides or Aster ericoides. It is a hardy perennial, easy to transplant and grow, but, though it is said in books to bloom August-October, I’ve never seen a hint of a bloom before mid-September. Until that magical moment, white heath looks like an unsightly weed, towering above the polite cultivars blooming prettily through the summer.

Most vigilant gardeners I know cannot bear to wait that long, to tolerate a spiky plant doing nothing whatsoever useful before the autumnal equinox. Their hands itch to take up that weed and toss it prematurely in the compost. Do not try to talk them out of it. Nobody likes that, and nobody likes this plant. Let it have a forgotten, less conspicuous location, an out-of-the way place that most people don’t see. A place nobody bothers to trim the weeds because the public won’t know they’re there. That’s the kind of place where white heath flourishes, out of sight and out of mind, until its very late moment of glory. Long after you’ve forgotten about it, when some odd errand calls you out behind the fence or over by that last tree, you’ll be startled by the explosion of white. It’s too early for snow, so that can only be the glorious white heath, at last -at long, long, last, finally, blooming!

White heath and its relatives, such as New England aster, were used by several Native American tribes for a variety of purposes. White heath in particular was used as a smoke-producing plant in sweat baths, as well as for reviving an unconscious person. See Kindscher, Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie, for more on medicinal uses of asters.

And if you’re out in the Flint Hills, do look for this lovely flower. It’ll be around for us to enjoy until the frost.

 

Lepidoptera, and Their Cousins

We’ve had spring rains this year, which means that it’s turning out to be a good year for butterflies. They deserve it, after the last two years of extreme heat and drought. In my last post about butterflies, I showed the three I see most commonly; the American lady, the pearl crescent, and the buckeye. I have since confirmed the white lepidopteran shown in that post to be a cabbage white, Pieris rapae.

Since then, I’ve caught a good photo of the other white butterfly who visits the flower garden. This one is similar to the cabbage white, and related, but not altogether the same; that is, the checkered white, Pontia protidice.

The American lady has a cousin who resembles her, whose common name is the red admiral. They are both Vanessas: the lady is Vanessa virginiensis; the admiral is Vanessa atalanta.

When the spectacular great spangled fritillary, Speyeria cybele, drops in, she’s usually pleased to show off her lovely silver spots.

But I’ve had the most difficulty identifying her cousin, who is much more shy of the camera. I barely get an aim, much less focus, before she’s off to some other bloom, leaving me, far more often than not, with nothing more than a picture of a flower. After perusing at length my antique Nature Library Volume 6, Butterflies, I finally found a picture that matched the bits of wing I managed to get into some of my photos; and learned that the variegated fritillary, Euptoieta claudia, takes her Genus name from the Greek word meaning “easily scared.”

None of these lepidopterans are particularly unusual, or remarkable, as butterflies go; they’re just little bits of the daily miracle that is life here in the Flint Hills, Kansas, on this lush and living planet, Earth.

Butterflies!

Salsify Seeds

Salsify seedhead

When a fairy wishes to make a journey by air, one might hitch a ride on a salsify seed.

Two days after I posted about transplanting salsify to a flower bed, one of the buds opened into this stunning seedhead. I’d seen them before but hadn’t ever taken a closer look. I probably photographed it a bit early, because later every one of those seeds had put out its own parachute. Fully open, the seedhead has a graceful symmetry, more complex and lovelier than the dandelion to which I previously compared it. A few hours yet later, and they were all gone.

Salsify, Tragopogon dubius

Today’s pretty flower is another of our guests here in North America, and, as far as I can tell, not one who makes herself particularly useful. Salsify is considered to be edible, though other species are more commonly eaten than dubius, which I’ve concluded is the one I have here. It does have a thick taproot, which is the part one would eat; the greens are sometimes considered edible as well. As for medicinal value, I believe this is the first plant I’ve researched for which I find none whatsoever.

I transplanted one to a flower bed today, just because I find the bloom pleasing to look at, and the seeds will be displayed in a manner equally striking. If you imagine a dandelion in her explosive seedy glory, perhaps mutated to be several times typical size, then you approximate the salsify seedhead.

This specimen was growing in a gravelly matrix, hardly worthy of the word soil. She was with some daisy fleabane, which you can see in the pictures. I put them together in the flower bed, so they wouldn’t miss each other. I don’t yet know if they will like their new home; I’ll have to wait and see.

Update: Two days later, this plant opened a seedhead. It’s as exciting as the bloom. See the picture here: Salsify Seeds.

Flint Hills Geology

I just came across this wonderful post on the geologic history of the Flint Hills.

Site Research Part 1: A Natural History of the Flint Hills

Don’t you just love geology? Oh, well, I suppose that’s another way that I’m odd. Take a look and see if you catch the bug.

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