Veronica's Garden

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

Tag: wildflowers

Snow In May

Dear friends, it is I, Veronica Speedwell. Perhaps you thought you’d heard the last from me; But no. Spring positively requires poetry about flowers, and that is a job for me, whether Rachel likes it or not.

Snows of the Prairie

White fluff falls from the sky
of a glorious early spring day.
Cottonwood seeds catch the breeze:
Snow in May

The sunflowers peak and die back—
summer’s last ember.
White heath breaks into bloom!
Snow in September.

white heath by fence

Lambsquarters, Christmas Tree, Feline Birdwatching

With the Christmas tree in the patio door, Wildfire and I can watch the birds in the yard without being seen. Normally, they see me through the door and scatter. Today I got a good long look at four juncos (Junco hyemalis) and a sparrow, which I think was most likely an American tree sparrow, Spizella arborea.

Somewhere on the internet, I once saw a story about an old farmer who lamented the fact that his son, in taking over the farm, had hired someone to spray all the lambsquarters (Chenopodium album). The old man said that there had been bad years when the crops failed, so lambsquarters were all they had to eat. But they survived because of it. (In another reading of this story, we can imagine why the son, in the brash way of youth taking over from the older generation, would be inclined to destroy all lambsquarters in a violent and toxic manner.)

With this story in mind, I’ve let lambsquarters grow in my back yard. The first year or two, it was because they’re such a terrific source of nutrition. They’re really only tasty in the early spring, though I could still steam a few leaves with spinach through the summer; but we don’t actually get much overall from this so-called weed. Maybe I should be like the sensible gardeners, who take out even nutritious weeds to make space for the more desirable cultivated vegetables. But then, in winter, I saw the black-capped chickadee return day after day to munch on lambsquarters seeds, while perching on stems that poked up above the deep snow. The fantastic source of nutrition for humans is also a lifesaver for birds.

That was all the impetus I needed. I let lambsquarters have part of the vegetable patch. When I took them out in the fall, instead of tossing them into the compost, I bundled them up and tied the bundle to the leg of the treehouse. Naturally, this year I had a nice patch of lambsquarters under the treehouse, and at this very moment, four juncos and an American tree sparrow are having their way with it. Why buy birdseed when you can just let the weeds take over?

Sure, it’s a bit chilly lying here on the floor under the Christmas tree, but true birders put up with way worse conditions than this.

Happy winter, dear friends.

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.

Fair Warning

It’s a good time of year to tell everyone: I brake for butterflies. I slow down for wildflowers, and I skid to a stop for a turtle in the road.

Unknown butterfly

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.

 

Gardening, Rachel-style

I usually give all the gardening and nature posts to Veronica, but this one isn’t worthy of her master gardening skills. It’s very much a Rachel kind of project, starting with, not surprisingly, a prominent bed where nothing could grow.

When we came here nine years ago, it was full of irises and day lilies. Very nice flowers, but they were over crowded, not having been tended for who knew how many years, and they only flower for a short time in spring. I wanted to stretch the bloom time through the summer. Right away I took out the bulbs, leaving only a few that were hard to get out. I had a vision of native prairie wildflowers and grasses, approximating a little patch of prairie on the lawn in front of our motel, highlighting the sign which rises up out of the bed. But the first year I just put in inexpensive annuals, because I didn’t have time just yet to manifest the whole vision.

Everything died. Plant food did nothing. A soil test showed normal acidity. Over the years I did everything short of taking out all the soil (which I have concluded was actually construction dirt) and replacing it. I was thrilled to start composting, but failed to maintain proper balance and after a couple years I was adding more bugs to the dirt than nutrients. I know people say that roly polies cannot eat live plants, but I guarantee you it is not true. When we die and leave our bodies, we will be one with everything and have access to all knowledge. Then we will know without doubt two things: where all those socks went, and that roly polies eat flowers.

My friend John Queen invited us to take some perennials from his garden, and for a few years we had a very nice echinacea. The butterflies loved it. I tried transplanting weeds from the cracks in the parking lot to join it. Surely if they could grow in gravel, they could grow in this stuff; but they didn’t. Eventually the echinacea died too.

I gave up on native plants and put in anything I could think of. Ice plant shriveled. Ornamental grasses were seeded but never appeared. Year after year, all that grew there was buffalo grass, bindweed, and the few scattered irises I’d never managed to remove. Last year we got in some queen anne’s lace, which was kind of pretty for a short time and looked like the untended weed it was for most of the summer.

Spring rolls back around, though, every year. Most years I get that itch to give it one more try. Rodeo was coming, the one weekend every year when we know we can rent every room suitable to rent, and turn some people down. It had been a couple years since I’d added the pest-infused compost, so maybe they had gone somewhere else. I decided to put in an assortment of cheap annuals and throw down some mulch, in the spaghetti method (throw it at the wall and see what sticks). If it all dies in 2 weeks, I won’t have invested much.

Of course I couldn’t resist adding a few weeds from the parking lot. So far the daisy fleabane is doing much better than last time. This year was the first time I’d seen salsify here, and it doesn’t transplant well generally, but hasn’t died yet, so I’m considering that a success. In fact, rodeo is over, everyone has checked out, and every plant I put in is still alive, so my first goal has been reached. I have pictures to prove it.

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.

First Veronica Persicas of 2013

One must be willing to look very closely to see the brilliant, tiny Veronica.

One must be willing to look very closely to see the brilliant, tiny Veronica.

Veronica persica blooms today.

For more on my favorite wildflower, see the post I wrote last year.

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.

Spotted in the Flint Hills in the Last Week

This year for the fourth time I spent mid-May commuting to White Memorial Camp, north of Council Grove. It’s a bit of a drive, but mostly on National Scenic Byway, KS 177. The remainder is gravel, through pastures to the end of a little peninsula surrounded by Council Grove lake. I go there for a job, which is to massage the attendees of Kelley Hunt and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s wonderful Brave Voice songwriting workshop and retreat. It’s a beautiful group whom I love to work with. The bonus is that this remote drive has incredible diversity of wildlife, particularly birds. So every year I am equally excited to do this job as to get there and back. Here’s a list of the many species I saw, most without even getting out of the car.

Butterfly milkweed, not yet blooming.
Wild blue indigo, in luscious bloom.
Cobaea beardtongue, plentiful this year.
Daisy fleabane, blooming rather early, I believe.
Lots of Arkansas rose.

several scissor-tailed flycatchers
one turkey
dozens of turkey vultures
one nighthawk
lots of killdeer
brown-headed cowbirds
meadowlarks
Franklins gulls
barn swallows
kingbirds
one indigo bunting, which thoughtfully landed in a tree in easy view. I actually stopped the car for this one.
redwing blackbirds
upland sandpipers

rat snake
yellow-bellied racer
five-lined skink
The last two reptiles were here at the motel, but I love them so much I didn’t want to leave them off the list.

Since I was a child I’ve wanted to see a zebra swallowtail butterfly, but never did, until this week.

And mustn’t forget — this one doesn’t belong on my list because I didn’t personally see it, but several of the musicians saw a mountain lion, and got pictures. Don’t tell Fish and Wildlife, they still don’t want to admit that mountain lions are in Kansas.

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