Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Pony has Arrived

Cover Newcomb's
Wildflower Guide
(see note below)
Did I say the other day that the anticipation of this spring made me feel like a kid expecting a pony for his birthday?  Good news!  The pony came.  Well … actually it wasn’t a pony.  It was even better, the discovery of five woodland wildflowers I didn’t know we had.   And they don’t require me to feed and water them. 

So here’s how these discoveries all took place.  The other day I noticed a patch of flowers in the woodlands across our small backyard ravine.  Knowing I had to learn how to identify these plants on my own, I grabbed my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, slipped on my boots, and leapt across the ravine’s narrow band of running water in a single bound.  I think it was a single bound.  Eagerly running up the hill, I knelt on the ground, alongside the small patch of flowering plants.  OK, using Newcomb’s Guide and working through the identifying questions: 
  • Does it have regular flowers (symmetrical flowers)?  Answer:  Yes
  • If regular flowers how many distinct parts (petals)?  Answer:  4;   This makes it a group 4 flower type
  • Is the plant type a wildflower, vine, or shrub?  Answer:  Wildflower
  • If a wildflower, is it without leaves, or if it has leaves, are they all at the base of the plant, or arranged singly on the stem (alternate), or are they opposite one another or whorls?  Man, this is getting tough; Answer: it definitely has leaves, and they are definitely alternate, and that makes this a plant type group 3 
  •  And finally, are the leaves even (unbroken and even edges) or are they toothed  or lobed or divided?   Answer:  they are certainly not even, leaving answer:  toothed, lobed, or divided.  I don't which, but certainly one of the three.  So this makes put it in a leaf type 3.
  • Combining the groups into 433 and referring to Newcomb's key, he makes me pick among a number of choices.  This really gets confusing now.  Among the choices, I chose "White,pink or purple flowers, and  leaves with an arrow-shaped base, which clasp the stem".  Therefore the plant is page 136. 
Dang, page 136 doesn’t have anything like it.  I look at page 134, and 138.  Nope.  Nothing.   Well double dang.   OK, so now I pull out my secret weapon.  Take out the cell phone, shoot a picture, and text it to my native plant mentor, Jan.  “Hey Jan, need an emergency plant id.  What is this?”  Reply:  “I’ll be there in 15 minutes.”  Whoa!  With the price of gasoline, I thought I better let her know it wasn’t really an emergency, just trying to be funny.  “I know.  I’ll be near you anyway.”

Fifteen minutes later, the smiling face says “where’s your mystery plants”. 

“Follow me.” 

“Got your book?” 


“Ok, let’s go.” 

We start down the hill on the backside of the house and I stop dead in my boots.  A flash of white blooms nearby has caught my attention. 

“Hey Jan, look, the Waterleaf are blooming.” 

“No they aren’t.” 

“What?  Sure they are.” 

“Got your book?  Let’s look.” 

Cutleaf Toothwort
Carefully treading over the muddy ground we arrive at the blooms.  She says, “What do you see?”  “Hmmmm, ahhhh, guess those aren’t Waterleaf are they?”  “No they aren’t, let’s look at your book.”  Making a long humiliating story short, I’ll tell you they are Cutleaf Toothwort.  This is a new species to list on our property.  Pretty cool.
Spring Cress
Picking up my pride, I guide her to the site of my great discovery.  “Ok, open your book and let’s start with his identifying questions.”  I show her how none of the book’s drawings matched what we saw.   Looking at my assessment of Newcomb’s characteristics, she questions me as to whether this is really an arrow shaped leaf, and is it really clasping the stem.  Ahhhh, she's right.   The leaves aren’t really arrow shaped, and on closer look aren't really clasping the stem.  So that now probably puts it on page 138.  Nope not there either.   She grins and says “turn one more page”.  And bingo!  There it is.  This is Spring Cress.  Another new one for the property plant list.  We revisit Newcomb’s key and I learn some of the identifying characteristics can overlap a little.   So perhaps the key to identification is, when you don’t find what you’re looking for, turn one more page.  (I don’t feel so bad remembering a talk with a local Park District Naturalist.  She told me when she was a new Naturalist using Newcomb’s identification guide, no matter what the plant, she always came up with the same answer – poison ivy.  She said it took her a year to get really good at plant identification.) 
Rue Anemone
Once I get a few pictures, we turn around and start walking along the ravine on the gently sloping hillside, drawn by an expanse of small flowers.  She quizzes me on a few and fortunately, I pass.  There are loads of Trout Lily, untold numbers of Spring Beauty, dotted spots of Bloodroot, and of course now I recognize the Cutleaf Toothwort.  Then she tosses me the stumper – “What’s this little one?”   I don’t recognize it but it sure is attractive.  “It’s pretty easy to key through the book, but I’ll save you the time.  You can study it later.  It’s Rue Anemone.”  Nice!  Add another one to the list. 

Invasive free Woodland
But there is something unusual about this very serene, peaceful setting.  What is it?  We look at each other and suddenly realize there are only a very few Honeysuckle, an occasional Garlic Mustard, and no Multiflora Rose.  Where are the exotic invasives seen in the rest of this woodlands.   Turning around a few times, I realiz we had walked onto a neighbor’s property.  Seeing Ray, the gardener who tends our next door neighbor’s property, I ask him if he had been keeping this area native.  He tells me no.  (Later, he and I walked both properties talking about the native wildflowers, and the invasive plants.)  None of us can come up with any logical explanation for this anomaly.  Nonetheless, it is fascinating to see a landscape that is as it should be. 
And the fun isn’t over yet as my teacher spies a group of plants growing nearby.  There is a large, long dead tree laying on the ground and thoroughly decayed.  At the base where the rotten wood has spread out the most, a population of a dozen plants sport leaves that are vaguely familiar.  They aren’t blooming yet and I don’t know it is.  Ahhaa.  Wild Geranium!  Add another one to the property list. 
Time is up and Jan says she has to go.  On the way back to the driveway, she hands me a smashed, rolled up leaf.  The smell has a gentle onion aroma.  Ramps!  These are also known as Wild Leek or Wild Garlic, a vegetable prized by chefs on the culinary food shows.   Book another native plant to our list.
As she opens the door to her truck, a little butterfly flits by.  As the little creature tilts in the dappled sunlight, it turns a striking iridescent blue.  “It’s a Spring Azure.”   We watch for a few minutes as it flits about the yard.   It suddenly strikes me that this conversion to native plants is really working.  It’s no longer just a philosophy on gardening. 
I’m loving my new pony.  Thanks Jan.

(Note:  Newcomb's Wildflower Guide is probably the first book naturalist's go to for Wildflower identification.  If you want to own a copy, consider buying it from Amazon through the Wild Ones bookstore.  By clicking through the Wild Ones bookstore to Amazon, it doesnt' cost you a cent more than otherwise and it gives a very small commission to the national not for profit native plant organization.  In fact anything you buy that way (books, electronics, appliances, etc. will help to support Wild Ones.)


Heather Holm said...

Great discoveries! How interesting the difference between the two properties too. What a great template to have nearby.

the Native Plant Neophyte said...

Yes Heather - very, very interesting. But the puzzle is haunting me. Why is that neighboring landscape free of invasives? Must be little gnomes tending it at night. Take care.