An Old Wildflower Book


(This 997th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 2, 2010.)



Dutchman's Breeches


I have many wildflower books on my shelves, but my favorite is Wild Flowers of the Northern States and Canada by Arthur Craig Quick. It was published in 1939. Sometimes old is also good.


What attracts me about this book is its organization. Quick runs through the season week by week, introducing the wildflowers that are coming into bloom that week. I take it out each spring to compare my observations with his, since Quick's are based on his experiences in Palisades Park near New York City and in Van Buren County, Michigan.


But a problem arises every time I try to do this. I get so interested in Quick's commentaries that I lose time that I should be spending out looking for the flowers. Here are a few of his comments about flowers blooming at this time of year. Hopefully they will add to your delight in seeing these flowers as they have mine.


Dutchman's Breeches or White Hearts. "The nectar being secreted in the depths of the long spurs, the long-tongued female bumblebees are the only insects abroad so early in the season that can reach the sweets. As she hangs onto the flower, her weight bends the flower so low that her hairy body, covered with pollen from a former flower, comes in contact with the flower next below, which receives the dust on its stigma. Sometimes bees, rather than undertake the labor of reaching to the bottom of the spurs, will nip a hole through the spur and soon drain it from the outside."


Red-berried or mountain elder. "The generic name Sambucus comes from the Greek name of an ancient musical instrument supposed to be made from the hollow stalk of the elders; just as we boys used to make whistles from elder stalks by first pushing out the pith and then partially plugging up one end, and cutting round air-holes in the sides, like a flute. We made wonderful pop-guns too, by plugging up one end with wet paper wads, and in the other end inserting a wooden ramrod or plunger, bound with wet cloth to make the piston air tight. We would force the piston inward until the air became so compressed that - Pop! - the paper wad would fly out with a report like a pistol."


Blue flag, blue iris or fleur-de-lis. "Ruskin called this 'the flower of chivalry, with a sword for its leaf and a lily for its heart.' The name Iris came from the ancients, who named this beautiful flower after Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, and aptly named we must admit."


"The false spikenard is entirely dependent upon the insects; for it has protected itself from the danger of self-fertilization by having its parts mature at different times. In the little newly-opened flower the stigma is found to be fully developed and at once receptive to the pollen that is freely carried to it by the bees and flies abroad in the early spring. Its own anthers are still closed; but in a day or so, after cross-pollination has taken place, then they expand and contribute pollen to the bodies of their guests to carry along to other blossoms that have just opened."


Solomon's seal. In the fall the stem withers and loosens from the rootstock, leaving a round scar where it grew. As the ages of trees may be told by the number of rings showing on the stumps, so the ages of plants that grow from rootstocks may be told by the number of leaf scars on the rootstalks. Years ago some fanciful person undoubtedly thought these scars bore some resemblance to impressions made in wax by letter seals; and there being then no common name for this plant they saddled it with the name of the wisest man on record, and let it go at that."


At 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, May 6, Donald Leopold, Distinguished Teaching Professor at the Environmental Science & Forestry College in Syracuse and author of another excellent book, Native Plants of the Northeast, will be speaking at the Buffalo Botanical Gardens. The meeting is co-sponsored by Erie County Master Gardeners and 8th District Garden Clubs. Tickets are $24.-- Gerry Rising