Veronica's Garden

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

Tag: honeybees

The Bees Know

I know I’ve said it before, but white heath is my favorite late-season native wildflower. When all the other flowers have spent themselves, white heath is just getting started. White heath keeps going till the last minute, when the themometer hits 32 on some early morning in October. White heath is always the last flower to leave the party of the tallgrass prairie summer.

Everybody hates white heath, except me. I have finally convinced the people who wield the weed whackers around here not to whack it, but I keep a few in out-of-the-way places, just in case. There’s a big patch this year by the compost, and it turns out I’m not the only one who loves it, after all. The honey bees appreciate it. There aren’t a lot of flowers left, and most of the others peaked a week ago, or more. It’s a glorious, sunny, warm day today, but there won’t be many more of these, and the bees know to make the most of every bit of pollen they can gather before the cold sets in.

I am not so industrious. I struggle to match my energy to the time available. I have gotten some good work done on my studio renovation this week, but it’s far from ready, and I didn’t really get anything done today.

Tomorrow I’ll take a lesson from the bees, I promise. The bees know.

Dandelion Syrup

Prairie Fire driveway

I have a strange way of gardening, which would surely drive most gardeners crazy. It turns out that, when you get to know them, a good number of weeds are edible, even wildly nutritious, if not downright medicinal. Hence, I don’t weed much. In fact, year after year, I get the best yield from the least interference with the ways the plants grow, whoever chooses to show up, whatever ways they are useful.

Sometimes it takes a while for me to discover their properties. One annoying, invasive plant appeared one year, and I let it grow big so I could study it. I couldn’t find it in any of my books, and the leaves didn’t look appetizing. It’s a tall, kenspeckle thing that doesn’t look pretty anywhere. In the fall it turned reddish brown and produced a strong seed stalk, which would look nice in dried flower arrangements, so that’s something. But still, it could not be mistaken for anything but a weed, so finally I gave up and tried to pull it, which was impossible, so I started digging. I found an enormous tap root, which was a brilliant yellow inside. Now that got my attention. A root this big had to have some kind of power. I left some of the plants for next year.

Eventually I happened to get in my hands a book on medicinal weeds, and I looked for this one in particular. It turned out to be yellow dock, also called curly dock, and other names, and it has dozens of purported uses. I harvested most of them, leaving some in what I hoped would be less-than-conspicuous places.

I’ll tell you more about yellow dock later. Today’s post is really about dandelions. Normal people are supposed to get rid of them. Would you stay at a lodging with a lawn that looked like this one above? If a business owner is this inattentive to the first thing a potential customer sees, what on earth might be inside? A dripping faucet? A cricket in the bed? If a customer pulls into the driveway and turns around and leaves, I can’t blame her. She doesn’t know that I loathe herbicide, that I’m no stranger to a dandelion digger, but that I’m very intentionally saving these dandelions, and not just for the honeybees.

Last year I read about dandelion syrup, also called mayhoney, though honey isn’t necessarily part of it. It is a European tradition (naturally, since that is where dandelions are from, after all). Dandelion syrup can be used as a sweetener, like other syrups and honey, and it can also be used medicinally as in cough syrup. But most of the recipes I read called for about a quart of dandelion petals, no green parts. The smallest recipe I could find required four cups of petals. That seemed like an awful lot of dandelions. I didn’t think I had enough, but I kept thinking about dandelion syrup all year, and never got around to doing anything about all those weeds. They’re one of Kiran’s favorite flowers, after all.

Well, not surprisingly, there are more of them this year, and that time has come around again. I hunted up a recipe for dandelion syrup today, and found one that could take as few as one hundred blossoms. Now, that would be easy. The kids and I gathered roughly 150 in a few minutes.

dandelion blossoms in a basket

Then I had to separate out the petals. Kiran loved caressing them.

dandelion petals

Our 150 blossoms yielded three and a half cups of petals, enough to double the recipe. The petals simmer and infuse overnight. They told me they wanted to be in the sun, so I’m putting them in a sun tea jar outside. Tomorrow I’ll strain, add sugar and lemon, and cook it all down to a syrup.

Next time you pull up to a motel, and you see what looks like an unkempt property, think of all those weeds as raw materials, medicines, and foods. It’s hard to partake of them and control them as well. That picture at the top of the page? I took it after we had harvested the 150 blossoms from that very spot. I couldn’t even see a difference. Kevin intends to mow them today, but of course we all know the bees will get their fill from the new blooms that pop open tomorrow.

And isn’t that exactly how it should be?

The Autumnal Prairie Dons Her Yellow Dress

It was an exceptionally dry, hot summer. Weeks without rain, coupled with record-breaking heat, dessicated the earth. Gardens failed to produce food. The deer were getting skinny. Everything seemed to be dying.

Finally, late in the summer, we had a couple rains. We’re still well below the “normal” amount of rainfall for the year, but that boost seems to have redeemed the prairie. Somehow, when everything appeared dead, some plants must have been living and growing, preparing to take advantage of whatever water might find its way to their roots. When it came, they burst into flower.

First it was the compass plants, Silphium laciniatum. From the bloom, they could easily be mistaken for a sunflower, but if you look at the foliage, you can see a base of large leaves, while the sunflowers have leaves up the stem. This is one of my favorite native wildflowers, and one day I’ll dedicate a post just to this awesome perennial with a taproot which is often said to reach fifteen feet.

Next come the sunflowers, Helianthus annuus. There is no more cheerful face to be seen on the prairie, and once again this year she has proven herself able to “keep a good face” in spite of the most fearsome drought. The hills burst into brilliant yellow bloom. If you don’t know this flower, she is the same species as the iconic giant greystripe sunflower, but the greystripe was developed in Russia from annuus stock. If you see a greystripe, it is one which has traveled the world and come home. The homebodies exhibit a habit more like a bush, with many blooms reaching out in all directions from the stem.

Annuus has peaked, but her day isn’t done yet. She’s just making room for her sister, the Maximilian sunflower, Helianthus maximiliani. She comes a bit later than annuus, and a little smaller, but just as cheerful.

You’ll notice that all our friends du jour are yellow. Other colors are present, but yellow predominates at this time of the year. Who pollinates yellow flowers? It turns out, according to the Xerces Society, that bees are the primary pollinator. They also tell us that the European honeybee is not the best pollinator of sunflowers. The honeybees tend to specialize in either nectar or pollen gathering, which leads to little crossing from male to female plants. The native leafcutter bees, bumblebees, and sweat bees not only cross from male to female plants, but it appears that they harass the honeybees into doing the same, thereby increasing pollination on both counts.

Let me not neglect the monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus. They have been scanty in number this year. The lepidopterists’ grapevine has indicated that they were farther north, in places they don’t normally go, even into Canada. I wonder what force told them to go where there might be more hope of finding the nectar which sustains them? Here in Kansas, I’m not sure I saw a single one, until the last week or so. I saw three in one tree one day, and a few singles on other days since, but not enough to establish a pattern of migration. Today a neighbor reported a tree in the area which was filled with them, perhaps a thousand. It is a relief to me, that even after such a dry and desolate season, the migration continues. I wish them godspeed on their long journey to Mexico, and hope that their mountain habitat has not come to a worse fate than their prairie home.

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