Winter Wildflowers

(This column was first published in the November 29, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    After the Bills' loss to the Jets a week ago I went out to walk off some of my built up aggravation. My hour-long late afternoon stroll took me north along the Hopkins Road bike path into the state's Great Baehre Swamp State Wildlife Management Area and Amherst's Margaret Louise Park.

    Several chickadees, a crow and a red-tailed hawk were the only birds I saw, four gray squirrels the only mammals, and a few nondescript tan moths the only insects. I often observe some of the town's overflowing deer herd there, but they were not to be found on that day. However, the remnants of last summer's wildflowers were everywhere, almost all with dead browns having replaced their living colors.

    It immediately occurred to me that here was an opportunity to make use of my two books about winter wildflowers. The first is an artist's rendering: Season of Promise: Wild Plants in Winter by June Carver Roberts (Ohio University Press); the other a field handbook: A Guide to Wildflowers in Winter by Carol Levine with illustrations by Dick Rauh (Yale University Press). I didn't have the books with me so I picked a bouquet to take home for identification.

    As I began my collecting, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of wildflower species that could easily be identified without recourse to field guides. The most plentiful plants along the path at first were goldenrods, easy to tell by the shape of their fronds even though they had lost their rich yellow. (I would leave for another time determining which of the dozens of goldenrod species these were.) Scattered among the goldenrods were a few tall common mullein spires and big bushes of burdock, their collections of spiny spherical balls every ready to grasp our clothing. I was reminded once again of the Swiss engineer, George de Mestral, who modeled Velcro on the way the burdock's tiny hooks grip.

    Four other plants were easy to identify. Chickory hardly changes with the seasons. Yes, the weak blue daisy-like flowers are gone, but the almost leafless plant skeleton remains much the same in appearance. The dark brown spires of curly dock and the gathered umbels of Queen Anne's lace also remain distinctive. And there too were my enemies since childhood -- teasels -- their egg-shaped pincushions surrounded by those menacing curved needles. I hope never again to have to clear a field of these villains whose stems tear skin even through protective gloves.

    Farther along in wetter areas these plants were replaced by cattails, their dark brown, hotdog-like tassels already beginning to dissolve into fluffy seed carriers. Unfortunately, unless something is done, these native plants will be crowded out by the rapidly encroaching alien tall beach grass.

    I was left with only a few plants to collect and check out at home. One that I will not soon forget is moth mullein, whose erect stalk is surrounded with pea-sized capsules, each on the end of a half-inch twiglet. I should have known bull thistle, like the teasel another spiny monster. Tougher IDs were catnip and water-hemlock. The opposite branching and rough flower remnants gave away the first and the shape of the few remaining leaves helped with the poisonous cowbane.

    That left me with just one bushy collection of erect twigs, each of them covered with plantain-like seedlets. I finally decided that it was blue vervain. I will look for it there next summer to see if its delicate flowers confirm my judgement.

    My tension relieved, I was ready once again to hope that the Bills will go all the way.-- Gerry Rising