What Wildflower Begins Blooming This Week? (June week 4)

This week, I’m featuring Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea lutetiana ssp. canadensis or Circaea canadensis) as one of our local wildflowers that begins to bloom at this time.

The species name, Circaea lutetiana, is a recent reclassification from the older name Circaea quadrisulcata, which has resulted in 2 sub-species (or some botanists refer to them as two varieties of C. lutetiana) being adopted. Scientific names for plants are typically based on one (or more) of that particular plant’s parts. Neither of the scientific names for this plant refer to any of its parts, which may help explain the dichotomy of camps of professional plant taxonists and botanists each choosing a different means of how to classify this plant. The genus name Circaea, is named after Circe, the powerful sorceress in Greek mythology who has abundant knowledge of herbs and magic. The species, lutetiana, is derived from the old Latin name for the city of Paris – Lutetia – which supposedly was known at one time as the ‘Witch City,’ possibly a reference to L’affaire des Poisons during the reign of Louis XIV. So, both names refer to enchantment or more darkly, bewitchment, but nothing about the plant seems to cause any such ‘enchanting’ effects. Therein is the mistake, says John Gerard:

“There is no use of the herbe either in Phisicke or chirugerie that I can read of, which hath hapned by the corruption of time, and the errour of some who have taken Mandragoras [Mandrake – Mandragora L., which plant can produce hallucinogenic, and hypnotic effects.] for Circea, in which errour they have still persisted unto this daie, attributing unto Circea the vertues of Mandragoras; by which meanes there hath not any thing beene saide of the true Circea.” – FROM The Herbal, 1597, page 280, by John Norton, London.

Identification Tips:

This perennial plant grows up to 2 feet tall usually as an unbranched stem. The stem frequently has white hairs especially in the upper part, although it may become hairless with age. The opposite leaves are up to 5″ long and 3″ across; they are oval with teeth along their margins.

The central stem terminates in a cluster (called a raceme) of flowers up to 6″ long. The raceme elongates as flowers open from the bottom of the spike to the top. The small flowers are sparsely, but evenly, distributed along a stalk with slender outward spreading branches (called pedicels) up to ½” long. Each flower consists of 2 notched white petals. Each flower is short-lived and replaced by a small bur-like fruit, which readily attach themselves to animal fur or human clothing for seed dispersion. When a plant’s seed pods have evolved for dispersion by such means, the process is called epizoochory.

Folklore:

The meanings associated with the flowers of this species are sorcery and witchcraft.

Culinary and Medicinal Uses:

There are no known culinary uses of this modest plant.

Traditional medicinal use of this plant is predominantly as an anti-inflammatory agent for the external treatment of skin conditions and wounds.

Wildlife Value:

The nectar and pollen of the flowers attract small bees, including sweat bees and small carpenter bees, as well as hoverflies and bee flies.

Where Found Locally:

 

What Wildflower Begins Blooming This Week? (June week 3)

This week, I’m featuring Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) as one of our local wildflowers that begins to bloom at this time.

It was the Greek writer of the 1st century, Dioscorides, who provided the Greek name “apokynon” from which comes the genus name Apocynum and means “away from dog” in reference to the plant’s toxic nature if eaten by dogs. Thus, ‘Dogbane’.

Some American Indian tribes used dogbane fibers from the outer section of the stem (best harvested in the fall) to make fine thread, which they used for sewing and for making twine, nets, fabric, and bowstrings. Dogbane fibers are said to be finer and stronger than cotton.

Identification Tips:

This native perennial grows upright to a height of 3 feet on stems with many branches containing a hazardous milky juice. Stem color ranges from green to reddish where exposed to sunlight. Generally, the leaves are widely spreading or they have a tendency to droop along the stems and they are opposite, oblong to oval, with smooth margins. The main vein and lateral veins are prominent and contain the same milky juice as the stems.

The flowers form in a branched cluster at the tip of the stem and branches. The fragrant white flowers resemble a bell with 5 lobes, whose outer lips recurve outward. There are pinkish-red lines inside the corolla, which serve as guides to insects to help them find nectar deep inside each individual flower.

Fertile flowers produce a pair of long, thin pods and when dry split along one side and release seeds which have white filaments attached for easy transport by air currents.

Spreading Dogbane fall color

In autumn, the spreading branches present the plant’s highly visible fall colors – bright yellow leaves attached to red stems.

Folklore:

A chewed piece of root was used as a charm for protection against evil influence.

Culinary and Medicinal Uses:

The medicinal part of the plant is the root. The chemicals in the root work on the central nervous system. The main compound is cymarin, a cardiogenic toxin. Other chemicals are apocynin, apocynamarin, and androsin.

The chemicals found in this plant are major cardiac stimulants – more toxic than the milkweeds. As such, this plant should never be used as a food in any quantity. The root has cardiotonic, cathartic (causes the evacuation of the entire colon), diaphoretic (induces perspiration), diuretic (causes increased urination), and emetic (induces vomiting) properties and has been used as an expectorant (helps clear mucus from the upper and lower airways).

In folk medicine, the roots were used to cure sore throats, headaches, nosebleeds and irregularities of the heart. The sap of the plant has been applied externally to get rid of warts.

Wildlife Value:

The flowers attract Monarch, American Lady, Spring Azure, Great Spangled Fritillary, Common Buckeye, Silvery Checkerspot, Northern Crescent, and Pearl Crescent butterflies, small bees, and also Hummingbird Clearwing moth.

Where Found Locally:

 

Summer Solstice Arrives Saturday

With the extended daylight that the summer solstice brings, it offers the best opportunity of each year to get out and enjoy the outdoors.

Want to observe the solstice from the comfort of your home? View this live streaming event, beginning at 5:30pm (Eastern) on Saturday. Or, if you prefer to add some history and culture to your viewing experience, you could alternatively watch the summer solstice live from Stonehenge; you can view that on Facebook. Or, if you wish to sit back and enjoy a full day celebration online, then check out the virtual summer solstice celebration that Harvard Museums of Science and Culture will conduct, beginning at 10am (Eastern) on Saturday.

Observe nature at a local preserve.  Listen to the calls and songs of birds in your backyard.  Go fishing.  Forage for some wild edibles.  Take a tour of any of the area bike trails.

To celebrate and enjoy all those hours of daylight, we all should consider the opportunity to observe nature in a variety of sunlit settings: dawn, mid-day and twilight. Each will offer unique lighting (great for photography) as well as contrasting opportunities to view wildlife.

With the ongoing pandemic and the need to maintain social distancing, there were no in-person nature observation gatherings scheduled for the next few months at the time of this posting. Nevertheless, to supplement whatever outdoor activities you choose to explore on your own, please consider these upcoming online events this summer (some are live streaming events):

Happy trails!

What Wildflower Begins Blooming This Week? (June week 2)

This week, I’m featuring Common Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis) as one of our local wildflowers that begins to bloom at this time.

PLEASE NOTE: Culturally Significant Plant = Ethnobotanic Uses: Edible berries and flowers are used for medicine, dyes for basketry, arrow shafts, flute, whistles, clapper sticks, and folk medicine. Read more.

The common name for this plant is believed to come from the Anglo Saxon æld, meaning fire, because the hollow stems of the branches were used as bellows to blow air into a fire.

Identification Tips:

This deciduous shrub typically grows between 4-12′ tall. It is usually multi-stemmed with an arching habit, creating a relatively loose broad crown. On larger and older woody stems, the bark is light grayish brown and warty in appearance from scattered lenticels (air pores). Branches exhibit pairs of opposite compound leaves, about 6-12″ long and a little less across. These compound leaves are mostly simple-pinnate (2-4 pairs of opposite leaflets and one terminal leaflet). Individual leaflets are lance-like or elliptical and serrated along their margins. The stalks of the compound leaves are light green to purplish green, narrowly grooved above, and convex below. Crushed foliage and shoots have an unpleasant aroma.

The upper stems terminate in umbel-like clusters of flowers that span 3-10″ across. Immature panicles are flattened above, but later become more dome-shaped. The intricate branches within each flower cluster are initially light green, but later become bright reddish purple when the fruits become mature. Each regular flower spans about ¼” across, with 5 spreading petals. The flowers have a rather strong fragrance that is sweet, but with musty overtones. The flowers are replaced by small fruits that mature during mid- to late summer and are each a little less than ¼” across, dark purple to black, and globe-like in shape. Each mature fruit has a juicy interior that is sweet, although with a slightly bitter aftertaste.

Fruit of Common Elderberry

Folklore:

A German belief, brought to this country with the colonists, was that an elder stick burned on Christmas Eve would somehow reveal all the witches in the neighborhood. A similar American belief was that if a small piece of elder pith was cut, dipped in oil, lit, and then floated on water, it would point to any witch present.

This plant is said to symbolize judgment, transformation, death & regeneration, fate, and the inevitable.

Culinary and Medicinal Uses:

Both the flowers and the berries have a long tradition of culinary use, primarily for cordial and wine.

The ripened dark blue or purple berries are mildly poisonous if eaten raw. Unripe berries, the seeds of the fruit, and all green parts of the plant are poisonous, containing cyanogenic glycosides. The ripened berries become safely edible after cooking and may be used to make jam, jelly, or chutney. In Scandinavia and Germany, soup made from elderberry fruit is a traditional meal known as Fliederbeersuppe (see recipe below).

The flowers may be dipped into a light batter and then fried to make elderflower fritters.

Both flowers and berries may be made into a variety of alcoholic beverages, such as wine, brandy, cordial (e.g., St-Germain, beers vlierke, etc.), or even as a sparling alcoholic beverage similar to champagne.

Consider these recipes –

From flowerheads:

From ripened fruit:

In folk medicine, elder berries have been used for their diaphoretic (induces perspiration), laxative and diuretic (causes increased urination) properties and to treat various illnesses such as stomachache, sinus congestion, constipation, diarrhea, sore throat, common cold, and rheumatism. The flowers are said to have diaphoretic, anti-catarrhal (rids the body of excess mucous), expectorant (helps clear mucus from the upper and lower airways), circulatory stimulant, diuretic, and topical anti-inflammatory actions. Some of these properties seem justified since elderberry fruits contain tannins and viburnic acid, both known to have a positive effect on diarrhea, nasal congestion, and to improve respiration. Leaves and inner bark have also been used for their purgative (strong laxative), emetic (induces vomiting), diuretic, topical emollient, expectorant, and diaphoretic action.

The potential to use elderberry in medicinal applications arises from its antioxidant potential, a property shared by numerous phytochemicals. As shown in the figure below, this species had the highest antioxidant capacity potential of various small fruits, even higher than cranberry and blueberry, two fruits praised for their high antioxidant capacity.

Source: “Elderberry as a Medicinal Plant,” by D. Charlebois IN Issues in New Crops and New Uses. 2007. J. Janick and A. Whipkey (eds.). ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.

Here’s a recipe to help put that antioxidant capacity to good use:

Wildlife Value:

The flowers attract a variety of insects, including honeybees, little carpenter bees, sweat bees, hoverflies, bee flies, house flies, long-horned beetles, and tumbling flower beetles.

Birds that eat the small fruits include American Robin, Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Bluebird, Gray Catbird, House Finch, Northern Cardinal, Northern Mockingbird, Red-eyed Vireo, Ruffed Grouse, White-throated Sparrow, and Wood Thrush. Animals that consume the fruits include Red Squirrel and White-footed Mouse, and also Eastern Box Turtle and Eastern Mud Turtle.

Where Found Locally:

National Black Cow Day

Among my favorite childhood memories, I remember getting excited on any given summer evening when we would take a short drive to the local drive-in restaurant and return home with a full gallon of root beer. Shortly afterward, the vanilla ice cream would come out of the freezer and each of us would plop a couple of scoops of vanilla ice cream (‘cuz 2 is better than 1) into the largest glass we could find from the kitchen cupboard.

With that being said, let’s celebrate!

National Black Cow Day (June 10th of each year) recognizes a particular ice cream float beverage made with root beer and vanilla ice cream that is called a Black Cow.

Frank J. Wisner of Cripple Creek, Colorado, is credited for inventing the Black Cow on a summer evening in August of 1893. Wisner was owner of the Cripple Creek Cow Mountain Gold Mining Company as well as a local tavern where he produced carbonated soda waters. One night, as he was pondering the makings of a tasty beverage, he happened to gaze out the tavern’s window and the light of a full moon illuminated a snow-capped Cow Mountain, which reminded him of a scoop of vanilla ice cream. He then hurriedly added a spoonful vanilla ice cream to the children’s favorite flavor of soda, Myers Avenue Red Root Beer. After tasting it, he thought it was quite good!

Wisner named the new creation, Black Cow Mountain, but local children shortened the name to ‘Black Cow.’

Got root beer? Got ice cream? Well then, enjoy!

No root beer? No ice cream? You could make your own of each by following the recipes listed below.

For root beer, you’ll first need to find…

Root of Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) Photo credit: http://the3foragers.blogspot.com/2011/11/sassafras.html

…which grows under a sapling with…

Leaves of Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)

Process the roots in preparation of making your own root beer or a concentrated syrup from which to make root beer in future separate batches.  The following recipes discuss the processing of the root(s).

CAUTIONARY NOTE! – Please read and consider the following regarding the consumption of homemade root beer.

Safrole may be ingested in edible spices, including sassafras, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, star anise, ginger, and black and white pepper; all of these substances contain naturally occurring safrole at low levels. Safrole was once used extensively as a seasoning in soft drinks, but has been prohibited in the U.S. since the 1970s after being categorized as a potential carcinogen.

According to the 14th Report on Carcinogens released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in November 2016: “Safrole is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in experimental animals.”

According to Meyler’s Side Effects of Drugs: The International Encyclopedia of Adverse Drug Reactions and Interactions, Sixteenth Edition (2016), “Sassafras albidum (sassafras) root contains 1–2% of volatile oil, which in turn consists largely of safrole, a weakly hepatocarcinogenic agent in laboratory animals. Some metabolites of safrole have mutagenic activity in bacteria and weak hepatocarcinogenic effects in rodents.” [NOTE: Hepatocarcinogenic = producing or tending to produce cancer of the liver]

If you decide to not use the “root” in your homemade root beer recipe, then consider these alternative recipes:

However, making homemade vanilla ice cream should be far less worrisome.  Consider these recipes:

Vanilla Ice Cream –

Cheers!

What Wildflower Begins Blooming This Week? (June week 1)

I will endeavor to post an article each week during the growing season to feature a local wildflower that begins blooming at that time. To kick-off these weekly articles, this inaugural post is featuring American Bittersweet (AKA Climbing Bittersweet) (Celastrus scandens).

American Bittersweet (AKA Climbing Bittersweet) (Celastrus scandens)

PLEASE NOTE: New York Protected Status: Exploitably Vulverable = Native plants likely to become threatened in the near future throughout all or a significant portion of their ranges within the State if causal factors continue unchecked.

Identification Tips:

This perennial plant is a woody vine up to 30′ long that branches occasionally. It often climbs fences and adjacent vegetation by its twining stems, otherwise it sprawls across the ground. Young stems are green and hairless, but they eventually become brown and woody. The alternate leaves are up to 4″ long and 2″ across (excluding their petioles, which are up to 1″ long). They are oval, finely serrated, and hairless; each leaf tapers gradually to a point at its tip.

Each flower is about ¼” across, consisting of five same-sized yellowish-green petals hence a five-part regular flower. The petals spread outward from the center of the flower. Each petal has a margin that is often jagged or undulate, rather than smooth. The blooming period occurs from late spring to early summer and lasts about two weeks. Each flower head, located at the end of branches, is a panicle up to six inches long consisting of stalked flowers. Plants are usually dioecious (each plant exhibits either female or male flowers), but some plants have perfect flowers (have both male (stamen) and female (pistil) reproductive structures).

Each flower is replaced by a seed capsule about 1/3″ in length. The resulting cluster of capsules gradually turn from green to yellow to orange over the season. Upon ripening in late autumn, the capsule splits open along three division lines revealing a scarlet fleshy berry inside.

Fruit of American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) Photo credit: http://www.kansasnativeplants.com/guide/plant_detail.php?plnt_id=255

 

Berry-laden branches are prized for use as indoor decorations as garland and wreaths. Collection of its branches has significantly reduced wild populations in some areas and hence its New York protected status as “exploitably vulnerable.”

How to Distinguish it from Asiatic Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus):

  • American Bittersweet has oval leaves with gradually tapering tips, flower petals with undulating or jagged margins, and short side branches with clusters of flowers at the end of them.
  • Asiatic Bittersweet, on the other hand, has nearly circular leaves with short broad tips, flower petals with smooth margins, and clusters of flowers that develop from the axils of the alternate leaves.
  • Flower petals of Asiatic Bittersweet are usually narrower than those of American Bittersweet.

These are the only two species of the genus Celastrus found in North America.

Folklore:

The usage of the word ‘bittersweet’ comes from colonists in the 18th century because the red fruits were compared to those of familiar nightshades whose fruit they knew tasted ‘bitter and then sweet’ (which is a common characteristic of toxic materials). This plant is said to symbolize honesty and truth and to possess the power to ward off witches and evil magic.

Culinary and Medicinal Uses:

CAUTION!Toxic plant

American Bittersweet was employed medicinally by a number of North American Indian tribes, though it is scarcely used in modern herbalism.

The root is diaphoretic (induces perspiration), diuretic (causes increased urination) and emetic (induces vomiting). It is a folk remedy for chronic liver and skin ailments (including skin cancer), rheumatism, diarrhea, dysentery and menstrual suppression. A concentrated compound infusion, usually combined with raspberry leaf tea, has been used to reduce the pain of childbirth. A poultice of the boiled root has been used to treat obstinate sores and skin eruptions. Externally, the bark is used in an ointment on burns and scrapes. Extract of the bark is believed to be cardioactive (having an effect on the heart).

Wildlife Value:

The flowers attract sweat bees, plasterer bees, mining bees, and mason bees, all of which suck nectar and collect pollen. Other occasional visitors of these flowers include ants and wasps (which suck nectar), and beetles (which probably feed on pollen). Caterpillars of the moth, Common Tan Wave (Pleuroprucha insulsaria), feed on the flowers. Birds that eat the seeds or buds include American Robin, Eastern Bluebird, Ruffed Grouse, and Wild Turkey. The foliage and stems are an attractive source of food to various mammals, including Cottontail Rabbit and White-Tailed Deer.

Where Found Locally:

Vischer Ferry Nature and Historic Preserve (1840 Erie Canal Overlook)

Zim Smith Trail (Underpass Road to Oak Street segment)

Strawberry Full Moon tonight

American Indian tribes used moon phases and cycles to keep track of the seasons by giving a distinctive name to each recurring full moon. The unique full moon names were used to identify the entire month during which each occurred.

The most well-known full moon names come from the Algonquin tribes who lived in the area of New England and westward to Lake Superior. The Algonquin tribes had perhaps the greatest effect on the early European settlers in America, and the settlers adopted the American Indian habit of naming the full moons.

The name of Strawberry Moon originated with the Algonquin tribes who knew it as a signal to gather the ripening fruit of wild strawberries.

Locally, we have two species of native strawberries:

Fruit of Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) – leaves are above the blooms/fruits; also, seeds are embedded in the fruit; most often found in fields

Fruit of Woodland Strawberry (Fragaria vesca) – blooms/fruits are above the leaves; also, seeds are on exterior surface of fruit; most often found in open woods and rocky pastures

See if you can find a handful of these tasty morsels before the birds and chipmunks devour them all.

Good luck!

Thoughtful column…and a “thank you” to those who inspired it

Trail sign – Historic Champlain Canalway Trail

Folks,

I was alerted to this very thoughtful Times-Union article and I whole-heartedly concur with its author; please read it.

And, please join me in a virtual toast to all those selfless unnamed souls who were so insightful as to create the many local trails we each enjoy as part of our routine lives – THANK YOU!

Sign at trail crossing on Lower Newtown Road

Trail sign – Ushers Road State Forest

Trail signs – Mooney Carrese Forest trail, Veterans Memorial Park

Trail sign – Ballston Creek Preserve

Trail sign – Ann Lee Pond Nature and Historic Preserve

Trail sign – Shenantaha Creek Park

Since I have listed elsewhere on this blog a number of area destinations where I’ve wandered about a time or two enjoying the many curious wonders of nature, I’d also like to specifically thank the stewarding entities of those destinations:

  • Albany County
  • Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy
  • New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
  • Saratoga County
  • Saratoga PLAN
  • Town of Ballston
  • Town of Clifton Park
  • Town of Halfmoon
  • Town of Malta
  • Town of Stillwater
  • Town of Waterford
  • Village of Colonie

Happy trails!

Lovely woodland orchid

During my recent visit to Ann Lee Pond Nature and Historic Preserve, I was pleasantly surprised to find a couple of Early Azalea blooms that had opened, but disappointed that I saw only a couple of Pink Lady’s Slipper plants.  Thinking that they should be blooming at this time, I headed to a different destination today (and had a couple of other back-up sites in mind as well) to hopefully see some in bloom.

I was not disappointed on this outing!

I strolled the one-mile loop trail at Ushers Road State Forest in the Towns of Clifton Park and Halfmoon and found several of these beautiful orchids in full bloom.  Magnificent!  See for yourself –

Pink Lady’s-slipper

View a very brief video of a showy pair of blooms.

Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule), also commonly called Moccasin Flower, is widely distributed across the eastern United States.  It produces two basal leaves and a solitary flower with purplish brown to green petals and sepals.  The distinctive flower, called a labellum, is an inflated pouch, often light pink with darker pink venation.  A slit with inwardly rolled edges marks the front of the labellum, which resembles a moccasin. It is found in forests and woodlands, often near pines or conifers.

Despite its widespread distribution, one rarely sees numerous blooms in any given spot and often not in any given year.  For me, that’s what makes finding any of these beautiful plants in bloom a real visual treat.  It can take three years from germination before a seedling first appears above ground.  Another three to five years may pass before it’s mature enough to flower.  Once the plant is established, it lives for an average of two to three decades, flowering every few years or so.

I also observed these blooming beauties along my route –

Yellow Clintonia

Painted Trillium

Indian Cucumber Root

Indian Cucumber Root

These sunny days will not disappoint if you can find time for even a short hike at any of these other destinations where I’ve also observed Pink Lady’s Slipper.  Enjoy!

Happy trails!

Virtual wildflower walk at Ann Lee Pond

Today’s sunshine beckoned me to go look for Painted Trillium and other spring season wildflowers at Ann Lee Pond Nature and Historic Preserve in the Town of Colonie.  My hunch did not disappoint!

Join me for a virtual wildflower walk at Ann Lee Pond Nature and Historic Preserve from this afternoon.

Happy trails!