from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
January 27, 2002
Wednesday afternoon the thermometer inside my Waxmyrtle tree registered 84° (29°C) so you can imagine that there are plenty of signs of spring here. For one thing, in the gardens luxuriant mats of Chickweed sprawl over spots that have gotten away from me, and sprinkled among the green masses are tiny white Chickweed blossoms. You can see a Chickweed flower at my nature-study site halfway down the page, pictured next to a shiney penny for scale, at http://www.backyardnature.net/magglass.htm
I have a soft spot in my heart for Chickweeds not only because their blossoming is an early harbinger of spring but also because of a specific memory from my college days.
Back in the late 60s my first plant identification course at Western Kentucky Univeristy in Bowling Green took place during a spring semester. By late February during that term I'd already realized that plant identification and taxonomy were to be great passions in my life. Like a little chapel echoing with beautifully structured Bach fugues, my head reverberated with concepts of blossom geometry. What a revelation it was discovering that the jungly plant world was so methodical and precise in its details and its essence. That February I ached to be afield and to confirm this crystalline nature of blossoms I was learning about.
Finally one day on the southern side of a tombstone in the Bowling Green cemetery, where I often carried my Walt Whitman to read in solitude (I had hermetic tendencies even in those days), I found an unassuming little weed with spring's first blossom. I "happened" to be carrying my Gray's Manual of Botany, the Bible of technical plant-identification for northeastern North America, so for the first time in my life I set about identifying an unknown plant using technical "keys."
When you "key out" something, in a systematic fashion you answer questions about technical details of the unknown organism, and once you answer enough questions then you have an identification. You can try using a very simple key at my nature site at http://www.backyardnature.net/keys.htm
The plant next to the tombstone revealed itself as the Chickweed, STELLARIA MEDIA, and I do not think any fellow has ever been pleased so greatly by being introduced to a little weed. In the Chickweed's blossom I met with unforeseen symmetry and perfection as the key focused my mind into that area inside the blossom where stamens were counted, stigma configuration noted and petal attachment below the ovary examined. Again, this was during the late 60s when there were riots in the streets and the country was at war abroad and with itself, and I was a fat, pimply farm kid finding it hard to get used to living in town. That day, a little Chickweed's elegant simplicity sensitized me to esthetic, intellectual and even spiritual realms I had not known could even exist.
Today my identification manuals are very dog-eared and soiled. For many years plant-identification has been a pure joy for me. In many lands untold hours of plant naming using technical keys has been for me as much a form of spirit-focusing meditation as it has been a never-ending intellectual and esthetic gratification.
I am indulging in this recollection in the hope that someone reading the Newsletter might be encouraged to try serious plant identification for themselves. With spring coming on, it's the perfect time to begin. Learning to name all the flowering plants in one's neighborhood is a very inexpensive "hobby" that can enrich you for many years.
If you're interested in knowing more about identification techniques, take a look at the "Names and Classification" section of my nature-study site at http://www.backyardnature.net/names.htm, as well as the "Tools" section, which describes the use not only of keys but also of illustration-based field guides, at http://www.backyardnature.net/tools.htm
If you decide to try plant identification this spring and you have questions about it, drop me a line.
CHICKWEED AS MEDICINE & FOOD
One extra benefit of plant identification is that once you have a name you can look it up and find out what's interesting about the thing you've just identified. For instance, once I had the Chickweed's name I learned that Chickweed is considered by some to be an important medicinal herb. My "A Modern Herbal" from 1932 says "The plant chopped and boiled in lard makes a fine green cooling ointment, good for piles and sores, and cutaneous diseases... A decoction made with the fresh plant is good for constipation, and an infusion of the dried herb is efficacious in coughs and hoarseness."
Because I enjoy fine health I have been unable to confirm these claims, though I do know that when a mass of Chickweed of the kind in my garden is boiled, a pretty liquid with a deep yellow hue results, with a medicinal taste that seems like it ought to cure something.
Looking up Chickweed in my "Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America," I read that tender young Chickweed sprouts can also be boiled and eaten at this time of year. I find it rather tasteless and a bit stringy, but you might keep in mind its edibility for "when the revolution comes."
FALL FLOWERS/ SPRING FLOWERS
There's a spot along the road I jog each morning where last fall's Drummond's Aster, ASTER DRUMMONDII, with its dense head of pale blueish flowers, stands next to the spring-flowering Butterweed, SENECIO GLABELLUS, with its bright golden blossoms. In the October 21 Newsletter I reported the Drummond's Aster blossoming next to my outside kitchen. So here is a fall wildflower blossoming next to a spring-flowering plant. This far south, there is simply no clear boundary between fall and spring, and a hermit can be forgiven for outlawing winter from his calendar.
You should know this Butterweed, also called the Golden Ragwort. It's very common here along roadsides and in moist or wet soil. Sometimes it's so abundant in moist fields before farmers plow that for a few days in early spring entire fields are bright yellow with its blossoms. You can see pictures of this pretty plant at http://www.biologicalresearch.com/plants/web_html/s/se nec_gla.html
CARPENTER BEE EMERGES
In that same Newsletter of October 21 I described how, as I was building a box around my computer to keep it warm during the cold months, Carpenter Bee tunnels were found in the lumber I was using. This Wednesday, when it was 84° and I was typing the above Chickweed entry, a groggy Carpenter Bee emerged from one of the holes and tumbled onto my lap. I suspect that it will not be the last bee to emerge, and also I suspect that this one was a little early in coming out. On Saturday morning thin ice encrusted my water buckets.
On Monday the season's first Stinkhorn, MUTINUS ELEGANS, a weird but fairly common sort of mushroom, appeared among the leaf-mulch in one of our organic gardens. It's called a stinkhorn because it stinks, and if you look at a picture of one at http://www.sunflower.com/~pilott29/Mutinus.htm you'll see why country folks sometimes call it Dog-pecker Mushroom, or some such honest name. Some books call it "Devil's Dipstick," but I think that that's just a made-up name to get around the fact that it looks so unsettelingly like a dog's penis.
Stinkhorns secrete a disreptable-smelling, greenish goo. Flies and other insects attracted by the stench walk over the goo's surface. In doing so the fungus's spores stick to the feet, and when the insect flies away it carries those spores to new locations, thus serving as the mushroom's dispersal mechanism. This strategy must be effective because stinkhorns are found worldwide.
A curious part of the stinkhorn life cycle is that the part aboveground "hatches" from a distinctly egglike structure that forms in the ground. The first such "egg" I shoveled up in the garden I thought was surely a turtle egg. It had a somewhat leathery "shell" and a more or less gelatinous interior, just like you might expect a turtle egg to be like. However, stinkhorn eggs are strictly fungal, and you can eat them, too -- just slice and fry. I've read that you can eat the aboveground part, too, but it's mostly hollow and it stinks, so I can't imagine it being very appetizing.
Stinkhorns teach that just because you CAN do something, that doesn't mean that you SHOULD do it.