Spring this year in northern New Hampshire has been pretty much on the cool and rainy side with only fleeting glimpses of sunshine. However that hasn’t stopped trees from leafing out and wildflowers emerging. So I thought I would go about taking pictures of the flowers that pop up around where I live. (Please bear with me on the quality of my pics. Ansel Adams I am not.)
Bunchberries are members of the dogwood family. They are a common wildflower with four white ‘petals’ which are actually leaf bracts which frame the tiny flowers in the center. Come fall they produce a small compact cluster or bunch of red fruit. They are edible though relatively tasteless to many who are more accustomed to the more pronounced flavor of domestic fruits. Bunchberries do have mild medicinal properties and were used as both food and medicine by Native Americans.
Starflowers (Trientalis borealis) are common in my area though they are becoming rare in places like Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee. It prefers acidic woodlands and spreads via rhizomes. While it has little in the way of medicinal value, its main appeal, at least to me, is the unexpected appearance of this simple but lovely delicate flower on the forest floor where you mostly would expect to find dead pine needles, sticks and leaves. The Japanese have a word for this: shibui.
The pink lady slipper or moccasin flower is the state flower of New Hampshire and while it is still fairly common here, it is regarded as ‘of special concern’. Because it requires forested areas and is nearly impossible to transplant, I strongly recommend that you not attempt to dig them up in a misguided attempt to introduce them to whatever patch of woods you happen to have, especially if the plants are not specifically native to your area. Trying to dig up lady slippers almost invariably kills them. Contact your state forest department who will be able to steer you in the right direction of how to get these members of the orchid family started. Otherwise you are better off just leaving them where they are, which is really all they would ask of you if they could talk.
I had a dickens of a time getting my dinky little camera to get a reasonably focused picture of this particular flower: the wild sarsaparilla. Its tiny nondescript flowers are easy to miss, overshadowed as they are by the large compound leaves and I often see ants climbing around on them. However I don’t know if they are attracted by the flowers or play any role in their pollination. The plant itself has an interesting medicinal history which may be what is drawing them.
Wild sarsaparilla spreads all over the place around the edges of the woods about my house which I don’t mind as it is often hard to get anything to grow well in the shade. The berries are said to be edible but I haven’t tried them yet so I don’t know if they taste any good or if they fall in the Steve-don’t-eat-it category.
Jack-in-the-pulpits are members of the arum family and are related to skunk cabbage, a plant I talked about in the previous post. They prefer woods and moist areas but can be grown in your garden. There are a number of online sources for acquiring this distinctive looking plant. Like skunk cabbage, the fleshy root can be eaten but must be cooked first as it too contains oxalate crystals which can only be destroyed by cooking. This also is the sort of plant you would really only consume in hard times anyway. Far better to leave it be and just enjoy the funky flowers and the bright scarlet berries that appear later on.
There has been a growing interest in cultivating native flowers and plants as more people become aware of the importance of biodiversity. Too many plants sold at the nursery prove to be invasive or provide no benefits to local animals and birds. Wildflowers, particularly the native ones, have their own special subtle beauty which can be overshadowed by the garish overbred blooms often found in so many nurseries and plant catalogs. Local plants are already adapted to the area they live and require little if any maintenance.
Compare this to a typical house lawn which is targeted by commercial lawn fertilizer companies that use the classic weed and feed scam convincing you to kill off the clover in your lawn because it’s a ‘weed’ while neglecting to mention clover is nitrogen fixing which eliminates your lawn’s ability to fix its own nitrogen. Hey, but that’s ok. The Weed and Feed guys also include the fertilizer to make up for that. They separate you from your money and you wonder why your lawn gets crappier every year. So you buy more weed and feed and – well you get the picture.
Mother Nature has been at this way longer than we have and has it all down to a fine art. All we have to do is follow Her lead. The benefit of that is getting to see more wildflowers and enjoying their unobtrusive elegance.