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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Spring Beauties

Spring is like high school.  It is the beauties who get our attention but sometimes even beauties are overlooked.  A beautiful child is often ignored if she is dressed poorly, has bad manners, or his family history is unacceptable to our community.  Such is the fate of the lowly dandelion. It shows up in our yard uninvited, blocks our invited grass from growing well, In general, it doesn't fit in with what we have planned for our yard.
But the composite bloom on a dandelion is beautiful, especially when seen away from manicured yards. I found this lone flower centered in one of our woodland paths, perfect in its roundness, the way each petal is cupped and curled inward, loosening from a tightly wrapped center. If I had found it in my yard, or garden, I would have looked on it with disdain and may have pulled it out of the ground, missing what it had to show me.
The middle English, Dent-de-lioun is a give-a-way of the history of the French name, tooth of a lion referring to the tooth shaped leaves of the plant.  As far back as 1373 the dandelion was documented as a herbal medicine.  The young leaves are good in salads and the plant has been used to make wine for centuries.  I love an earlier name for dandelion which is a pretty strong diuretic, piss-a-bed.  As suggested by this middle English name, salads made of dandelion leaves are better eaten at the noon meal rather than close to bed time.
This morning, I again visited the bloodroot patch.  There aren't many blooming plants left.The leaves have fallen off and lay scattered on the ground beneath each plant.  This one plant, still wet with the morning's dew was a late bloomer.
For most plants, in place of the flower is a tiny tear drop - shaped fruit, subtile, yet pretty on its own with a tiny mustard tipped stem standing tall against the exotic backdrop of a bloodroot leaf. Beneath the plant is its dark red root that makes a nice red dye, but is toxic so best left alone.  Spinners who use wool dyed with bloodroot should always wear a mask which still might not be enough to keep the toxins from causing respiratory problems.
As I expected, the squirrel corn blossoms  have now replaced the fading bloodroot along the creek beds.  Unlike bloodroot, which currently sticks close to the stream, squirrel corn cover a much larger area. On our farm, they cover not only the area of the creek, but also the rich shaded hillside. It is interesting that they are spread by ants in a process called myrmecochory.  The ants eat the seed covering then place the seed in their debris pile where it is protected and allowed to germinate in a  nutrient-rich surrounding.
Squirrel corn is considered a spring ephemeral, a group of plants with high photosynthetic rate.  They bloom and store energy quickly before the overhead tree canopy blocks the sun from reaching them. Ephemerals also do not keep their folliage through the summer so thy aren't wasting energy needed for reproduction.

Their early bloom allows them to be pollinated when there is less competition for the attention of bumblebees and honey bees.  Bumble bees force apart the petal tips to reach the nectar with their long tongues.  The picture below shows a squirrel corn blossom that has been reached first by a honey bee which bored a hole into the petal tip to reach the nectar.
Some more perfect petals await full of nectar for the bumblebee.

My garden has its own share of beauties, each with its own story.  The goldenseal was saved from being buried by coal refuse.  Like bloodroot and dandelion, goldenseal Hydrastis canadensis has a long history of use.  It has been used for medical purposes as an anti-inflamatory or a laxative among other uses. Goldenseal was used by early native americans to treat cancer and has been documented to cure goiters.
I use it to make me smile.
 I first planted the plant in in the deep shade of my periwinkle bed, but but through the years the goldenseal has slowly walked forward so that it is in the morning sun.  The flower stems lean forward toward the sun so that its seeds are dropped a few inches closer each year.  My goldenseal is surrounded by periwinkle, trillium, wild geraniums and bee balm during the summer. This, my first flower bed has the most diversity of plantings and also includes Virginia bluebells, bloodroot, rue anemones and wood poppies.   The white trillium, Trillium grandiflorum  made its first appearance on Easter Sunday this year which is interesting as its distinctive three leaves have been used to represent the trinity in some stories.  When the flower is picked, most people also pick the three leaves which seriously damages the plant, stealing its power to reserve any energy for a whole growing season. The beauty of a the flower will not continue without the power of all three leaves working together to create it.

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