Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Wildflower Wednesday ~ More Edge Flowers

I think I could fill this blog post every week with just the flowers that bloom along the edge of our driveway, but I promise next time I'll share some flowers growing elsewhere. Today, however, more flowers of weedy, gravelly, edgy open places.

The first black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) opened up last Thursday. The proportion of different types of plants in our yard seems to change from year to year. We used to have tons of black-eyed Susans growing all over (some with really weird, flat stems), but they've scaled back to a smattering over the last few years.

The same day the Susans opened up was also the first day I noticed the fleabane. Fleabanes are like tiny daisies or asters with zillions of tiny ray flowers. 

These fleabanes are giving me fits (I realize that normal people probably don't have fits over fleabanes). I think the one above is annual fleabane (Erigeron annuus). The ray flowers have ever-so-faint a hint of lavender. 

And this smaller cousin (above and below) I think might be rough fleabane (Erigeron strigosus), but I think I need to spend a bit more time with these fleabanes and the flower key. Fleabanes are in the Asteraceae (composite) family.

I've been keeping my eye on these two mullein plants (Verbascum thapsus), waiting for the flowers to open up, which they just started to do this weekend.

They're not that tall (we had a mullein growing next to our house last summer that was taller than I am), but still, I love their weird, wooly growth. And this is the first time I've really looked closely at the flowers, which are lovely. When I first learned about this plant in Colorado, many years ago, it was referred to by the common name "Indian toilet paper." But it's an import from Eurasia, so if the Indians ever did use it for toilet paper, it was only post-contact. Not sure how I'd feel about all those tiny little hairs in contact with delicate bits. Mullein is in the figwort family.

I'm very excited to see milkweed starting to bloom. I spread the seeds every fall, in hopes of enticing the ever-dwindling populations of monarch butterflies to our yard. I think there are more plants this year. So maybe my efforts have paid off. Or maybe it just seems like more because surrounding plants haven't grown to their full height yet.

We have the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). The flowers smell divine. After I moved in to inhale the scent of this one, I noticed the flowers were full of ants and even a spider. Lots of life going on in these milkweeds. Milkweed is in the dogbane family.

Common St. John's-wort (Hypericum perforatum) just opened up this weekend also (a bit late--it's supposed to bloom on the Feast of St. John, June 24). Many people know of St. John's-wort from the fad of its treatment for depression a few years ago, but C used to make a beautiful red infused oil with it that was amazing on sore muscles. St. John's-wort has a family all its own (Hypericaceae).

On Monday, I saw the first goldenrod of the season, aptly named early goldenrod (Solidago juncea). I love the word "solidago." I have no idea what it means, but it has a nice ring to it. I never knew until last year that there were multiple species of goldenrod--I had always assumed that all nodding, shaggy yellow plants were just plain "goldenrod." I spent some time last year puzzling out the different species that grow around our house and while I by no means can name them all by sight, I can see the differences. Someone somewhere wrote "to name is to see" and it's so true! Goldenrod is also in the Asteraceae family.

I did briefly go off-piste (this is a word I learned from my friend David who made fun of me for tromping around through the woods and poison ivy in search of flowers) to see if the pyrola (Pyrola elliptica) I had seen getting ready to flower last week had bloomed yet. Only the very lowest flowers had opened up, but there were a lot more plants than I ever knew we had growing in this area (an area into which I don't usually go in the summer, once the poison ivy reaches a certain height). I wasn't dressed for stomping around in the mud and puckerbrush (and aforementioned poison ivy), so I wasn't able to see the extent of pyrola growth in that part of the woods, but I will go back out in boots soon!

The common name for pyrola is "shinleaf" which I think in no way does justice to these lovely, waxy little blooms. Pyrola are members of the heath family.

Finally, here is a picture of a bit of that long, long driveway along which so many of these plants grow.

What's blooming in your neck of the woods?

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Weekend Things ~ More Rainy Sunday Projects and a Finished Sleeping Bag

After a nice, lazy, sunny day loafing lakeside at a birthday party Saturday, we had another rainy Sunday--perfect for getting some work done inside the house. I worked on the sleeping bag I started last weekend. The kit is from here. I found the directions very clear and the sewing, while a pain in the neck dealing with such a large object (I had to co-opt the kitchen table for it) and feeding such thick layers through the machine, not terribly difficult. I didn't keep track of the time it took, but I spent a couple of hours cutting it out last Sunday, a few hours Saturday working through the first few steps, and then much of the day Sunday. Maybe 12 or 16 hours? About half of which was spent refilling the bobbin (I think I refilled it six times, including about eight inches from the end of my last seam) and un-jamming the bobbin thread. I think this is the project that will finally push me over the edge into buying a new sewing machine. It can't possibly be normal for the bobbin to jam so much, can it?

Meanwhile, E and Z assembled the birthday projects their grandfather sent them.

Every year my dad puts together kits of woodworking projects for the boys to make. This is their only real chance to get in any woodworking practice, since that's not really my thing and C is more of a "get it done with as few distractions and interruptions as possible" kind of woodworker. Which is not really conducive to ten-year-old assistance.

This year they made tool boxes, which they'll be filling up with tools for more projects in the future.

After dinner, Z made scones for strawberry shortcake (C picked 30 lbs of berries Friday morning!!!). He's made this recipe enough now that he can pull the cookbook off the shelf, find the recipe and all the ingredients and put it all together with minimal parental input. Which I love. E has almost reached this point with banana-chocolate-chip muffins (though he called me at work about eight times while he was making them last week). I also discovered that whipped cream keeps in the freezer from Christmas to strawberry season. Excellent.

I finished my sleeping bag just minutes before Masterpiece Theater came on Sunday night. (Photos taken Monday afternoon.) This is me telling C how to use my camera: "Hold down the button halfway until it beeps. Then push it down the rest of the way. No. Halfway. Yeah, it didn't focus because you didn't hold it down halfway. Wait till it beeps and you see the red dot. Did it beep?" Cell phones have corrupted the photography skills of a generation.

It's really a sleeping "quilt," not bag, because there is no zipper; you just drape it over yourself, like a comforter. The idea is that in a traditional sleeping bag, you compress all of the insulation beneath your body, so it doesn't do you any good anyway, and gets worn out sooner. Also, there is minimal ventilation, so you sweat and then get cold as the sweat dries. 

And, of course, it's much lighter weight than a sleeping bag (though I forgot to weigh it, so I don't know exactly how much less it weighs), so less to carry when backpacking. It's also fluffy and cozy (I snuggled under it while watching Poldark), and all of the boys want one now (Who are you making that for? Can I have it?), except for C, who is extremely skeptical of all my lightweight backpacking endeavors. My plan is to test it on an upcoming car-camping trip to see how I like it, and then make them for everyone in the family if it works out as promised.

Friday, June 26, 2015

In a Tree

I arrived home from dropping E and Z off at baseball practice to a quiet house--C was working late and M, the nocturnal teenager, was asleep. I considered following suit, but my conscience does not allow for 6 p.m. naps (it doesn't allow my children to take them, either, and I prodded M awake). I thought about some writing projects I've been wanting to work on, but the task-master on my left wrist told me I still needed to walk 4,500 steps that day, so I pulled on a pair of red rubber boots and headed outside.

As I neared the top of the driveway, I heard an incessant, insistent peep-squawk-scraw sound. I had heard the same sound the previous day and had traced it to a thick aspen tree with leathery fungus growing from every knob where a branch had once been, but I hadn't been able to see the source of the cacophony on or in the tree.

I climbed a bank of gravel at the edge of the driveway and quickly located the tree. From the top of the bank, overlooking a low area where the tree grew, I was eye-level with a spot 12 or 15 feet above the ground, about the height from which the noise emanated, but still I could see no nest or hole or noisy animal. I decided to wait and watch and see if the source of the noise would make itself visible. 

I only had to wait a minute or two before a female yellow-bellied sapsucker came and landed on the side of the tree, dipped her bill toward its trunk and flew off again, leaving the noise undiminished, if not slightly louder, A minute or two later she returned and did the same thing again. I made my way along the ridge of the gravel embankment until I faced the side of the tree when she had landed. There, just a foot or two above my eye level, was a hole in the tree about the size of a walnut.

The woodpecker returned to the tree two or three more times while I stood their watching, each time feeding something in through the hole to her noisy babies, but their squawking never let up. I walked on, through the woods, up the driveway, around the field, and back, and, 4,000 steps later, the babies were still at it. I felt for this mother, with her hungry brood and the never-ending task of trying to fill them up. I know how she feels.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Rainy Sunday Projects

All the rain that didn't fall in April, May, and the first half of June decided to come this week, all at once, starting Sunday. I got out and about a little between downpours that day, but spent the rest of the time inside working on a few projects.

First, E and Z and I tried making a marble/car run with a few dozen toilet paper tubes I've been saving for ages. It ended up using a LOT of tape and not being terribly successful (I was picturing something with more twists and turns and drops, but even a straight run was hard to pull off and marbles and cars got stuck in the wads of tape and overlapping tube lips). I'm putting it down in the category of "it's all about the process, not the product," and hoping the boys at least had some fun putting it together and know their mom is still willing to sit on the floor with them for an hour or two playing with tinker toys and cardboard tubes.

I also started making a sleeping bag (because that's how I roll). I didn't get too far because measuring and cutting always takes so much out of me, I can't face the sewing part once I've got the pieces ready. (If you're curious, the kit is from here. I'll post more about how it turns out and how it works once it's done and in use). I hope to have it finished for an upcoming trip, so I need to get cracking.

I also dusted off my sewing machine, which has been lounging around doing nothing for months, and threw together a clothespin bag as a bonus Father's Day present for C, since he does most of the laundry and had complained about the state of the previous one, which you can see here (when it was new). I didn't take a before picture, but the previous bag was not in quite as bad of shape as its predecessor. 

I'm of two minds about whether 4 1/2 years is a good life for a clothespin bag or not long enough. The problem is, we leave it outside exposed to rain and sun, so it's gonna wear out. The new one I made from two layers of red polka-dot canvas which a friend had given me when she de-stashed. It's nice and festive and should inspire cheer in the heart of anyone who's hanging laundry (right?). Also, I'm hoping the canvas fabric will give us another year or two of bag life before I have to make another one.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Wildflower Wednesday ~ June 24, 2015 ~ More Flowers of Fields and Edges

This week, I'm looking at more flowers that grow in the open--in fields, on the edges of the driveway, and in disturbed areas. Several new flowers have just opened up in the last week or two on the drive that leads down into our gravel pit--you can't get more disturbed than that. This sweet little flower is yellow, or palmate, hop clover (Trifolium aureus).

Another clover among the several that grow in that gravelly area is the alsike clover (Trifolium hybridum). I love its pink-tinged flowers. Clovers are in the pea family.

 Newly blooming in the last week or so in the same gravelly areas is the common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), a fragrant medicinal. I was surprised to see yarrow is in the Asteraceae or composite family. The flowers don't appear to look like your typical sunflower. A good reminder that this large family has a great deal of diversity.

This tiny flower grows close to the ground and is easy to overlook, but has lovely pale lavender flowers, the common speedwell (Veronica officinalis). Speedwells are members of the plantain family.

When I first saw the pale-yellow flowers of this plant, I thought "evening primrose." But when I crouched down to take a picture, I thought, "Why does this evening primrose have five petals?" And then I looked at the leaves, palmately divided with serrated edges on the leaflets. Ahh, of course, not an evening primrose at all, but a cinquefoil. This one is sulphur cinquefoil, (Potentilla recta).

Its relative, the much smaller common cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex), makes its home throughout our yard and gardens. Notice how the leaves look a bit like strawberry leaves with two extra leaflets. Cinquefoils, like strawberries, are members of the rose family.

Our field along the road is a wet meadow, with large patches of standing water most springs and into the summer. Those wet areas usually abound with blue flag, or iris. But this year has been so dry (up until this week, which has been a bit too wet for my taste), that only the very lowest spots had any water in them Sunday, after several hours of pouring rain. As a result, we have very few blue flag (Iris versicolor).

This one was growing in a different area, and I'm not sure if it's slender blue iris (Iris prismatica), or if it just looks different because something has been nibbling its petals. Unfortunately I did not take a good look at the leaves--I was too entranced by the flowers, and the goldenrod crab spider hanging out on it. These spiders have the ability to change their color between yellow and white, depending on the color of the flower they are on. I guess purple is not in their repetoir. Iris are in the Iridaceae, or iris, family.

And finally, not a flower, but a little butterfly (another Harris' checkerspot) hanging out, drying his wings after the rain.

What wildflowers are you seeing this week?

Thursday, June 18, 2015


M's first day of kindergarten...
...and last day of eighth grade.
What can I say, Mamas, but hold onto your babies tight. And if your little boy has a fluorescent green Oscar the Grouch fleece sweatshirt, don't give it away when he outgrows it, because you're gonna wish you'd saved it to make into a pillow you can cry into.

Super proud of this kid. He's worked hard all through elementary and middle school, never lost his spark and love of learning, and accepted his accolades with grace. I'm excited to see what the next four years bring, but still wondering how the last nine (er, fourteen) went by so fast.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Wildflower Wednesday ~ June 17, 2015 ~ Weeds

The land where we built our house was once old farm fields that partially grew back up into forest that was partially again before we came to it. There's an old gravel pit (with our very wild pond in the bottom of it), a long driveway, wild apple trees, stone walls. We built our house into a ridge of sand and gravel, like a giant toe, left behind by the glaciers. There was a line of scrubby field pine, in line with a barbed wire fence, and not much else when we put our house here 13 years ago. It's land that was disturbed very long ago (by the glaciers), and long ago (by the original woodcutters and farmers), more recently (by whoever owned the land before my father-in-law bought it), and very recently, by us. As a result, a lot of the plants growing around our house and yard and property are of the "weed" variety--early pioneers that take root in disturbed soil and prepare it for the next round of plants. Many of these plants are imports from other places, some of them are useful (as food or medicine), all of them are beautiful.

Common blackberries (Rubus allegheniensis) grow all along our driveway, thriving in rocky soil that was pushed out of the way in order to smooth our little road. They tend to be an every-other-year producer of fruit, and this year looks like it's going to be a good one. Blackberries are members of the rose family.

Red clover (Trifolium pratense) grows in the driest, scrubbiest, most compacted dirt--the road into the gravel pit, the edges of the driveway. Bees love it, and I even saw one of our resident hummingbirds probing the flowers with her slender beak. Z likes to eat it as well. The flowers are just beginning to fade (I'm not sure if it will have another round or not) and some other clovers are coming into bloom--white clover, yellow clover, rabbit-foot clover, and alsike clover, all members of the pea family. 

Growing in the same scabby places alongside the clover is cow vetch (Vicia cracca), also a member of the pea family.

Our driveway is long and winding, passing by fields and through woods and along the old gravel pit. Different plants grow on the edges of it along different parts. The next two grow on the edge of the driveway as it passes by a large field near the main road. This spindly plant is a bedstraw--wild madder (Galium mollugo), aka whorled bedstraw.

For some reason I can never remember this little guy's name from year to year--grass-leaved stitchwort (Stellaria graminea), a member of the pink family. It looks like it has ten petals, but really only has five deeply cleft petals.

A whole bunch of these plants grow a little farther along our driveway, alongside a row of apple, birch, and aspen trees. I failed at identifying it and handed it over to C, who figured out what I missed--that it's a woody plant. I should have known, from how hard it was to snap off a stem, but it grows very low and doesn't much resemble a shrub. In any case, it's bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera), a native honeysuckle.
We have another field between our house and its surrounding woods and the river. This time of year brings this field alive with the bright yellow dots of tall buttercups (Ranunculus acris).

This is the first bittersweet--or climbing--nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) I've seen growing on our property (it's in the gravel pit, right on the edge of the pond). It's such a pretty flower, but slightly sinister-looking, too. Or am I just projecting. Last year, Z told a friend of mine, "You can tell the nightshade because it has purple flowers, the berries look like clusters of tomatoes, and the leaves are shaped like the arrows of the Elves of Lothlorian--not the Elves of Rivendell." So keep that in mind. And don't eat it!

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