Mostly this spring seems to have lost its spring, sluggish under the weight of cold weather and snow clouds, reluctant to unfurl for only the occasional glimpse of warm sun. But as the daylight increases and the earth tilts, there is hope and promise on even the dullest of days.
Waste is not just another word for trash. It’s a place, abandoned, uninhabitable and barren; as an action, it means the destruction, withering away, and purposeless consumption of something (or someone) valuable; as an adjective, it describes something rendered useless. We have waste grounds and waste lands. We waste our time, or our money, or ourselves. When we’re sick, we waste away. At war, we lay waste.
One of the wildflower guides that I use describes the location in which some plants grow as “waste places,” while another refers to the same type of terrain as “disturbed.” Both names evoke a sense of wrongness and unease. Biologically, ecologically, environmentally, this feeling of wrongness is absolutely correct. The plants that grow in these places are “alien,” “non-native,” and even “invasive.” Why would I want to have anything to do with a wasted, disturbed space full of aliens, like these?
I’m not sure. (But maybe it’s because of these very same aliens, or, as I like to call them, wasteflowers). At any rate, I go, and make the best of the disturbance and waste, which, as a human, I am responsible for in the first place. I clean what I can, appreciate what I can, and hope for the best. We cannot undo everything that we’ve created and destroyed, but that doesn’t mean we should waste it, either.
UPDATE: For a comprehensive guide to invasive (not simply non-native) plants of the mid-atlantic see this guide by the National Park Service:
At this time of year, I could take you on a 3-hour flower tour of my favorite Monocacy River island. While you wouldn’t see many species, I would bore you to death amuse you with multiple views of the same flowers, particularly the Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), which nod in clusters of pink, periwinkle, and baby blue, forming a soft carpet over the cool, silty ground. “Look!” I might say, “A bluebell with a bee!”
Or, “Aren’t bluebells colors perfect just before they open?”
Or, perhaps, “Oops! I let go of the leash! Rosie, get back here!”
I get distracted by other flowers, as well. Lesser celandines (Ranunculus ficaria), bright yellow flowers of the buttercup family, are an invasive species that thrive in the riparian environments of Maryland, and, as they appear before any other spring ephemerals, they have an advantage, which you can witness by the fact that they are in nearly every picture that I take of other flowers. For instance, they make a cheerful background for the emerging Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) in the photo that opened this post, and it is their leaves that surround the lovely moss I was photographing when Rosie, set loose by the boys, photo-bombed me. (Yes, she runs off leash much too often, but that grin was just too irresistible for me to get too angry).
Virginia spring-beauties (Claytonia virginica), delicate white-and-pink petaled native flowers, do their best to raise their heads above all of the lesser celandine, and I crouch low, lifting their blossoms to the camera, in order to record their fairy-like loveliness.
Another flower that competes with the lesser celandine is the common blue violet (Viola sororia), which, despite its name, is white as often as it is blue.
Violets are such reliable flowers, as likely to grow in the yard as in the forest, but Toadshade (Trillium sessile) far more elusive. Last year I saw two or three before they faded at April’s end, but this year I’ve counted at least seven, and they’ve all yet to open.
For some reason, perhaps because of their names or concurrent blooming season, I associate toadshade with trout lilies, which also seem to be more numerous this season. The toadshade, of course, would be a distant, smelly cousin, as far as the trout lily is concerned. Despite the emergence of more trout lily leaves, it may still be years before I see a bloom on some of them; trout lilies don’t bloom at all the first 4-7 years of life, when often there is only one leaf sprout instead of two leaves and a flower stalk, as we see here:
Of course, being who I am, no tour along the Monocacy would be complete without pointing out the trash in bloom. It competes with the lesser celandine, too.
The goldenrod has gone to seed, its cheerful yellow blooms turned to heads of gray. It is as if a gentle frost has covered the fields. Or they have gone into mourning for the coming winter, when even the flowers’ seeds will drop away, and everything will be laid bare. It will look like death, but it won’t be. Winter, no matter how harsh it may appear, is only temporary. And even during winter life teems beneath the frozen earth. Take heart.
As a beginner armchair botanist, I can hardly claim any expertise in the identification of asters. They come in such a high variety, with only the slightest differences between them, that I have wasted hours trying to distinguish one sort from another. Am I seeing a bushy aster (aster dumosus), a calico aster (aster latiflorus), a little of both, or something else entirely? After several doubtful attempts to label a few of them properly on my Wildflowers of the Monocacy page, I’ve decided to dump pictures of them here, in a despairing blog post.
Despair aside, however, asters really are as bright and lively as the stars for which they are named. Right now, they are constellations of white light in yellow fields of goldenrod; delicate pinpricks of color.
The milkweed is just beginning to bloom now, both in the open spaces along the river, highways, and farm fields and in my small garden in the backyard. There are many kinds of milkweed, but the sort that I see on my walks is Asclepias syriaca, or Common Milkweed, a dusty plant with broad, green leaves, a vein of magenta, and large, drooping clusters of pale pink, surprisingly intricate flowers. In my garden I grow Asclepias incarnata, a more slender-leaved native commonly known as Swamp Milkweed, and Asclepias tuberosa, a more delicate, orange-flowered variety called Butterfly Weed.
A few years ago, we managed to host a Monarch caterpillar in our Swamp Milkweed. The rubbery-looking creatures are fascinating and even quite beautiful. Perhaps it’s not a big surprise that they grow to be one of the most identifiable butterflies in the world. Let’s keep it that way.
As I walk by the river these days, I am overwhelmed by itchy green things. Poison hemlock plants tower over me on their purple mottled stalks, their delicate white flowers opening like tiny parasols over their broad, finely-cut leaves. They are as poisonous as their name suggests (it’s the extract of this hemlock, conium maculatum, in fact, that likely killed Socrates), which might strike me as ominous if I wasn’t so busy avoiding the Japanese hops spreading their itchy tendrils all over ground. Both of these plants are invasive aliens, crowding out the less rigorous (and, quite literally, less irritating) native plants, like the nodding pale touch-me-nots pictured below. Native or not, I photograph and identify every flower I see on my Wildflowers of the Monocacy page, which I hope will help others who wander the trails by the river.
Well, not really. North America’s Common Fleabane, or erigeron philadelphicus, will not repel fleas, whether you dry it, burn it, or steep it in hot water. It is, nonetheless, a striking flower, its bold yellow disks wreathed in narrow, pale pink rays, and it is thriving by the river now. Fleabane. I just like the way it sounds. Slugs, squirrel tails, wet socks…and fleabane. Say it one more time and it might be an enchantment.
Teasel is what is called a “noxious weed.” Spiny throughout, from leaf to stem to seed pod, it grows tall, branches out, and lasts through winter as a brown, hollow version of itself. Even as I trample it, it catches and tears at me, scratching my hands, pulling at my boiled wool jacket, yanking my hair. It shreds holes in my garbage bag, too, forcing me to abandon my trash-gathering task earlier than planned, but it’s hard to resist venturing into the thistle, when tattered plastic flaps from its bones like a poor man’s banner.