Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dame's Rocket

In keeping with my tradition of encouraging native plants to grow on my property, I long ago scattered the seeds of dame’s rocket, Hesperis matronalis.

A place along the railroad track, overlooking a tidal river in Belfast, Maine, was alive with pink, white and blue dame’s rocket. This typically flowers in June and as summer progresses, is pretty much forgotten by casual observers. So I took pains to note the exact location of the plants and in late summer, harvested dozens of ripe seedpods. These were the genesis of the rocket that presently grows outside my office and around my front yard.

Of course this year, 2010, has seen things get a little skewed. The schedule of blooming and ripening is several weeks early. Consequently, the rocket that would normally cheer my senses in June is in full bloom now, in late May. Along with rocket are wild lupine and chives, all of a bluish hue. I used to call June the “blue time,” but again, that feature has been pushed forward by a considerable length of time.

Anyway, rocket looks very much like garden phlox, but it isn’t. Phlox has five petals to the flower, while rocket has only four. Rocket properly belongs in the mustard family, a showy example of what that group offers.

In addition to striking color, rocket releases a powerful, sweet scent at night and also on overcast days. The aroma has such an effect on me that when it wafts past my nose, I am a child again, carefree and totally happy. I’m not an aroma therapist, but it’s easy for me to see how scents and aromas can play on our emotions and well-being.

Anyway, if this has you interested in rocket, just keep a sharp eye out and if you see what looks like phlox (actual phlox comes around well after rocket has faded away), take note and mark the spot. Return in late August and bring a small bag. The seeds are borne in a typical, mustard seedpod. Hold the bag under the ripe pod and pull it from the stem. If it breaks, that only means that the seeds are fully ripe, ready for dispersal.

Then go home and envision where a three-foot, showy flower would look best and scatter the seeds. Wet them with a hose or watering can and with that, the “jobbie is deen,” as the Scots would say.

Don’t expect much the next year, but after that, watch out. These plants spread on their own after becoming established. Even when they show up in places I would prefer they avoid, I have never felt the need to pull them. They are simply too pretty, too deliciously fragrant and too ethereal. Soon, rocket will fade and other wild plants will take center stage.

But for now, dame’s rocket says it all. I just love it and hopefully, you will too. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Plant Succession Elicits Question

The different varieties of wild plants appear in a set order, a kind of succession that never varies. In other words, ostrich fern fiddleheads always appear before common milkweed. And common milkweed always shows prior to wild, daylilies.

All well and good. But something bothers me about this season. Everything is early, in some cases, two or three weeks early. So what happens if everything runs its course and the last plants of fall come and go, but it is still summer?

Picture New England asters in July and goldenrod in June. Since the next flowering plants to appear are those of spring, might we have a second bloom on some of our familiar, springtime plants? Might we go fiddheading in October?

This, of course, doesn’t take into account whatever plants may need as a period of cold stratification. But perhaps, some plants don’t require set, sub-freezing period.

It’s all interesting stuff, for sure. All I can say is that it will pay to keep a weather eye on wild plants as the season progresses.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wild Plants of Late May

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

By the third week of May the forest canopy has grown dense, a sign of another step forward for the change of seasons. Now, plants that thrive in the filtered sunlight of early and mid-spring have grown to maturity and set flowers and in many cases, seeds.

This week and the next carry many possibilities. Killing frosts are still possible. On the other hand, so are heat waves. In other words, we can’t count on much, at least not weather-wise. Still, hopeful gardeners set out tender crops and hope for the best. And wild food foragers set their sights upon a whole, new group of plants.

Lamb’s quarters, a plant that thrives on cultivated ground, becomes available for harvest. Also, common milkweed offers the first pickings of its tender tips.

So it’s a case of out with the old (fiddleheads and dandelions) and in with the new.

Folks who have never tried the above-named plants owe it to themselves to do so now. Lamb’s quarters rate as one of my favorite, leafy vegetables. Sweeter and milder than spinach (I just had some of my own spinach last night, and while delicious, it could not compare to lamb’s quarters), lamb’s quarters takes only a brief time to prepare. Just boil for perhaps a minute, simmer for another minute, drain and serve.

Common milkweed tips have a season of approximately two weeks, before the plant develops into the next stage. Don’t confuse this plant with toxic, butterfly weed, a type of milkweed that lacks the white, milky latex sap that distinguishes common milkweed. Also, butterfly weed sports erect, flat clusters of bright-orange flowers. The difference between the two is considerable, but still it pays to take heed.

Pick the tender tips, usually consisting of four, erect leaves, and boil for at least five minutes. This makes a fine, cooked vegetable.

These represent only a small fraction of the delicious, wild plants coming to a field, lawn or garden bed near you.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Legacy to Cherish

I went grocery shopping yesterday, the first time in nearly one month. The increase in food prices in that short stretch of time shocked me. In fact, the usual price of $1.29 for a 2-pound bag of onions had just about doubled. Ditto for a slue of other items.

My diet has not varied much since fishing season opened and wild plants became available once again. Trout, fiddleheads, dandelions, dock and groundnuts truly rate as epicurean fare. Yet, I longed for some store-bought food. And so when my paycheck arrived, I visited the local superette.

I wonder what other shoppers thought when they overhead me blurting out my astonishment. “My gosh, no way,” or “That’s robbery.” But that just illustrates the degree of my astonishment. At the same time I thought of others, people who depend upon grocery stores for their sustenance. I wondered what low-income types would do, now that food prices are on a par with luxury items.

My reason for mentioning this lies in the release of my latest book, Wild Plants of Maine, A Useful Guide. It seems to me that people who spend hundreds of dollars a month (I spend about $40, if that) on groceries, can save bucks and eat healthier by taking advantage of the free, wild plants that grow all around. Given the unreasonably-high price of food, the time for getting back to the free bounty provided by nature has surely arrived.

In fact, were it not for foraging, gardening, fishing and so on, I don’t know how I would survive. Of course these things are more than just cost-saving measures…they are passions, part of my life that become more dear and important with each passing year.

So just maybe, in some small part at least, I can have some input in people’s lives through my writing. And that rates as a legacy to cherish.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Trademark of Maine Spring

I love the pink-to-magenta blossoms of azalea. They seem a trademark for mid-spring. But consider those still-raw, new settings where people cut all the trees, build a house and throw a few shrubs in the ground almost as an afterthought. Most of the time the shrubs they (or their landscapers) choose are azaleas. It all seems so artificial and contrived.

Enter rhodora, Rhododendron canadense. These have similar-colored flowers and bloom at exactly the same time as the azaleas that people plant. Rhodora has some interesting points, too. The flowers set on before the leaves fully develop, giving the plant a singular beauty when in full bloom. A close look at a flower reveals the top three petals are joined, forming an upper lip. The two bottom petals are nearly or completely separate. And the 10 stamens add a bristly, flowing appearance.

By now, readers may guess what form of “rhody” grows at my place. Of course, it is rhodora. These wild, native shrubs thrive in wet ground and my place has plenty of damp areas. My one shrub grows fuller and bigger around each year. The only drawback, and this we can hardly call a drawback, is that the flowers drop their petals all too soon. But that only means that we who so love these hardy plants must make sure to take time out and enjoy them while in season.

Maine has lots of wild plants that easily compete with their cultivated counterparts. In a future blog, I’ll give a description and photos of some of our native, flowering dogwood. Meanwhile, if they are still in bloom where you live, why not make it a point to get out and enjoy rhodora?