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A Pretty Weed

Every late spring a shady corner of the hayfield is bright blue with the flowers of a pretty weed.  The area is about 5 feet square and has not increased noticeably in size over the years.  Having learned my lesson from the yellow rattle about allowing pretty weeds in the hayfield, I decided to research this lovely blue flower.  Turns out it is Germander speedwell, Veronica chamaedrys, a member of the Plantain family.

Germander speedwell was introduced to New England and is native to Britain and Europe.  A perennial herb with rhizomes, it is termed a turf weed due to its tenacious ability to survive with grass.  The name Germander has nothing to do with Germany.  It is a corruption of the pronunciation of chamaedrys.  The herb has a long association with healing and was well known and widely used over 500 years ago.  The high tannin content of the leaves and stems makes an astringent tea that was favored for respiratory tract and nervous system ailments and as a treatment for stomach ulcers.  It was also used as a poultice on the skin, especially for itching.

The flowers are large for a turf weed, measuring a half-inch across.  Each flower lasts only one day and wilts quickly on picking.  This trait earned the plant the sobriquet Mannertreu or Men’s Faithfulness in Germany.  Apparently German men had a reputation for short-lived faithfulness.  During extended rainy spells, the flowers do not open.  They are able to self-pollinate.  In France the plant was often used as a substitute for Asian tea, due to a similar smell and flavor, and went by the name Europe Tea.  The seeds are said to be favored by birds.

Because this weed can out-compete grass, I will be keeping a close eye on it.  Should the size of the patch increase, I will mercilessly eradicate the little speedwell.  So far the plant has restricted itself to one shady spot under an ancient maple and causes no problem in the field.

 

Bloodroot

During a recent walk on our farm I found this patch of white flowers.  The single leaf has a distinctive growth habit of wrapping around the flower stem.  The early blooming spring plant is called bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis.  It is native to northeastern North America.  Bloodroot grows in moist to dry conditions, from woods to floodplains, in full sun to shade.  I did not detect any fragrance in the flowers.
Bloodroot has a rhizome that grows close to the surface. It sends out shoots in early spring and is pollinated by bees and flies.  The flowers produce pollen, but no nectar. The plant is spread by ants who carry the seeds away to their colonies to eat the attached elaoisomes.  After the flower is pollinated and the petals drop, the leaf enlarges and unfurls.  By the time the seeds develop, the leaves begin to yellow and die away.  The plant then goes dormant until next spring.

Bloodroot earned its name from the bright red juice in the rhizome.  When the root is damaged, it appears to bleed.  Bloodroot is poisonous.  The chemicals in the sap can burn the skin.  In times of old, people used the juice to burn away warts and even cancer.  It was a dangerous and somewhat ineffective treatment that often resulted in severe skin damage.  The plant extract was also touted as a cure all and sometimes ingested.  Its use has been linked to cancerous growth in the mouth due to skin damage.

So it is best to enjoy the fleeting beauty of bloodroot flowers from a distance.  Do not pick or otherwise disturb this wild spring beauty.

Monarch Butterfly Spotted!

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So excited to see a Monarch butterfly today!  I was mowing in the horse pasture and this one stayed around feeding from the golden rod flowers.  It waited five minutes while I climbed off the tractor and went to the house for my camera so I could get a shot.  Soon after I took this photo, the butterfly flew high in the air and left the area.

Growing up on the farm, these butterflies were common.  You could find a cocoon and admire the gold beading around the edges.  Or watch a brightly striped caterpillar devour milkweed leaves. In recent years my sightings have dwindled.  Last year I didn’t spot any Monarchs.  I am hoping this sighting is a sign they are returning to us.  I’ve been cultivating wild milkweed the past few years so the caterpillars will have plenty of food if adults arrive to lay eggs.g3

I’ve also sold milkweed seeds all over the country for a token cost to encourage others to plant milkweed for the insects.  The Butterflies and Moths of North America website keeps a record of insect sightings.  It is encouraging to see so many Monarch views recorded.  I submitted my sighting so there will be one recorded for Somerset County in Maine.

Here is a link to the Monarch butterfly page on that website to view the map and table of sightings: Butterflies and Moths of North America

8/18/16

A monarch butterfly visited today, too!  This one was on the butterfly bush by our front door.  Maybe the same insect as yesterday?  Who knows?  I hope not.  I wish there are many monarchs flying around the farm!  I wanted this one to spread its wings so I could photograph the tops, but it didn’t cooperate.b2b1

 

Mistletoe Myth

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As do many others, I like to hang a few sprigs of real mistletoe in my home every Yule season.  This year I acquired a nice big bunch with berries attached and adorned with a red velvet bow from an eBay seller in S. Carolina.  The mistletoe was harvested and shipped fresh.

I suspend the mistletoe from the pull chain of the ceiling fan in the livingroom, a perfect spot to catch the unsuspecting for a quick peck or to entice my husband for something a bit more romantic. I’ve often wondered about the origins of the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.

The plant is classified as hemiparasitic, meaning it is a tree parasite, growing on branches and trunks and sending roots into the host to take water and nutrients, but it also can live by its own photosynthesis. There are over 1300 species of mistletoe in the world.  The most familiar are the European and American species. My mistletoe is Phoradendron flarescens, from N. America.  While mistletoe grows on oak, it particularly likes apple trees.

The balls of mistletoe shrubs in trees make good nesting places. The flowers are visited by insects.  The berries are eaten by many species of birds and mammals.  These berries contain a sticky substance that causes the animals’ feces to adhere to tree branches, spreading the plant.  Mistletoe also employs forceful seed ejection.  A touch will scatter an explosion of seeds, allowing some to catch in crevices of bark.

Mistletoe has been an honored plant since at least the time of the Greeks.  They associated it with fertility and life and used it in marriage ceremonies.  The Celts also bestowed these magic qualities on mistletoe and the most revered plants were taken from the sacred oaks.  Druids harvested mistletoe for use during solstice rites.  Frigga, Scandinavian goddess of love, favored the mistletoe.  It is interwoven in the tale of the death and rebirth of the sun god (the winter solstice.)  Truces between battling war lords in Scandinavia were made beneath the plant.

With all the connotations of love, fertility, life and peace, it is small wonder that mistletoe was used by Europeans as part of holiday celebrations.  Couples who kissed beneath sprigs or balls (kissing balls) of the plant were said to be bound for marriage.  (If they were kissing, it’s a pretty good assumption they would wed anyway!)

Traditions migrated with people and the mistletoe myth came to America.  So that today, we can enjoy a laugh and a quick peck or a good snog under the leathery leaves and tiny white berries of this venerable plant.

 

Pearly Everlasting

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As I was cutting the pasture with the rotary mowing machine to keep the weeds down and encourage the grass, I spotted one of these plants.  It is a pearly everlasting, a native Maine wildflower. Some quick maneuvering saved the plant from disaster.

The scientific name is Anaphalis margaritacea and it is related to asters.  It is a perennial with either male or female plants.  I can’t tell the sex of this plant by looking so will wait to see if it produces seeds.

As the name suggests, this flower works well for dried arrangements, retaining its pearly white bract color rather than fading to beige.  The foliage has a silvery cast with a pleasant scent when crushed.

Pearly Everlasting has medicinal uses for native peoples including sore throat, headache and diarrhea relief. The plant parts can also be used to create yellow, gold, green or brown dyes.  Its most valuable use after dried arrangements is as a favored food source of the Painted Lady butterfly larvae. I will be looking for seeds to collect from this plant to spread in my wildflower insect reserves.

Wild St. John’s Wort

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These plants grow wild in the unmowed areas of our farm.  I decided to identify them because the little red berries they produce are intriguing.  I wondered if they were edible.  Turns out this plant is St. John’s Wort. There are two native species in my bouquet:  Hypericum boreale or Northern St. John’s Wort, a wetland variety, and Hypericum punctatum or Spotted St. John’s Wort that grows in drier locations.

The boreale is smaller and near the center of the photo with the red berries.  Its flowers are bright yellow and it is common in cranberry bogs.  At first I mistook this plant for some sort of odd cranberry.  The spotted variety has golden-yellow flowers. The leaves of both plants have tiny transparent pores.  The pores are visible on some of the leaves in the foreground of my photo.

I had difficulty telling the Spotted St. John’s Wort from Hypericum perforatum, Common St. John’s Wort, that thrives as an introduced plant in Maine.  The spotted has more black dots and lines on the petals than the common.

The plant is recognized for its medicinal qualities and is used as a remedy skin injuries and muscle aches, even depression.  It is actually labeled as a poisonous plant because it contains strong compounds including an anti-inflammatory.  Some are sensitive to the plant’s oil so care should be taken when handling.

Crushing the flower leaves a reddish resinous stain on the fingers.  The red juices contain the medicinal elements.  The plant is recommended by herbalists to treat such a wide range of ailments that it sounds like a panacea.  The flowers and tender leaves are infused in olive or other fine oils to create a red-colored medicinal oil.  I will not be eating the little red berries the plant produces!

Room For Wild Insects

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Wild bees and butterflies thrive on the abundance of flowers from what many would consider weeds.  Field flowers like clover, daisy, Black-eyed Susan, milk weed, aster, dandelion, bindweed vetch, and the flowers of the grasses provide a banquet of nectar and pollen to support the insects.  Song birds also use the wild plant seeds and nectar and eat the insects.  Compared to a wild field, a lawn is as sterile as a desert for the bugs. Cultivated flowers don’t produce the plethora of nutrients provided by wild plants.

g3With the dire reports one reads of the decrease in the populations of wild bumblebee and other bees and butterfly populations, I’ve decided to dedicate areas on our farm for these insects.  Places that are difficult to mow have now become insect sanctuaries.  The steep side of our septic system has always been a problem to mow.  I once had the horses crop it for me.  This year I fenced it so that the area was allowed to grow naturally.  Wildflowers quickly filled the space.  Another rough area is now dedicated to jewelweed, the hummingbird’s favorite flower.

I also let wildflowers like milkweed, mullein, thistle and wild carrot grow along the fencelines and the edges of the orchards and hayfields.  To produce hay, pasture and apples, grass and wildflowers must be mowed.  But they do not need to be entirely eradicated.  There is plenty of space around the edges for flowers and butterflies.  I wish all farmers, gardeners and lawn owners could find room for the wild plants and not pull all the weeds or dose everything with weed killer.g1