Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Wild Wednesday ~ Goldenrod

Goldenrods are members of the Asteraceae, or aster, family, meaning their "flowers" are really composed of many flowers working together to create a flower-like inflorescence that attracts pollinators.  Other flowers in this family include sunflowers, daisies, fleabanes, zinnias, dandelions, hawkweeds, chrysanthemums. If you have any of these flowers handy, you might take it apart and study it up close. Many, like the daisy or sunflower, have both ray and disk flowers. The rays are the "petals" and the disk flowers cluster to make the center circular shape. Others only have one or the other (e.g., dandelions have only ray flowers). Goldenrods have both, but each inflorescence, or capitula, is very small, so it's harder to see the "sunflower" shape with the naked eye. 

I only had time to i.d. two goldenrods this weekend (no, that's not true; I had plenty of time to pick and i.d. flowers on Saturday, but I spent the whole afternoon lying in the hammock, reading. Seventy-nine degrees, sunny, breezy, no bugs--we don't get many days like that in a year and it would be a shame to waste one being productive). This first one has been driving me crazy all summer:

Things to look for when identifying a goldenrod are the arrangement of the leaves (are they basally disposed--with rosettes of basal leaves--or all stem leaves? Do the leaves decrease dramatically in size moving up the stem or are they roughly the same size?) and the flowers (does the capitulescence--the cluster of capitula--nod? Do all of the capitula growing in a single plane--secund--or are the stems upright with the capitula arranged around the stem?).

This goldenrod has basally disposed leaves and upright, non-secung capitulescence, with slightly hairy leaves and stem. But the flower I kept identifying it as doesn't grow north of Connecticut.

And then I looked at it through the hand lens. The ray flowers, which I had been certain were pale yellow, were actually white! This made for an easy i.d. of white goldenrod (Solidago bicolor).

The second goldenrod I identified grows quite commonly along the edge of our driveway and in our fields. The flowers on many of the plants are already going by, but I found a few specimens still in their prime.

Other things to look for with goldenrod include whether or not it grows in a crowd (colonial), the texture of the stem and leaves (smooth or hairy?), the shape and edge of the leaf (toothed or entire?), and whether there is one prominent central vein or three.

This specimen was growing fairly alone, but looked like a much smaller version of the goldenrods growing in a nearby colony (but whose flowers had already gone brown). In other ways it was very similar--tiny capitula (as you can see in the next photo with my pen tip for scale), rough, toothed leaves arranged in kind of a spiral around the stem, hairy stem, secund capitulescence.

You can see the hairy stem of this specimen in the next photo.

And the stems of the larger specimens in the next.

These are the capitula of the larger plants. I'm going with rough goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) for both my specimen and its larger neighbors. Go Botany declares this species highly variable, and I think the differences between my smaller specimen and the larger plants in the colony fall within the range of natural variation, and may be due to my plant's size or relative age.

After investigating these two goldenrods, I cam across a flock of turkeys in the neighbor's field. Unfortunately I only had my phone with me (to take the close-ups with my macro rubber band), so it's not a great photo, but a wild one. I love the little turkeylets that can be seen waddling after their mothers this time of year.

And when I went back out a couple of days later to get whole-plant shots with the real camera (the phone really does a poor job on those), I had a little face-to-face with this guy in my pin oak. He clacked his teeth together to let me know he wasn't pleased to have his photo taken.

What's wild in your neck of the woods?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


When my children were small, I found the repetitive nature of the tasks required to keep them alive and healthy and happy--change a diaper, wipe a nose, fix a snack, clean up a mess, change their clothes, make a meal, clean and clean and clean--to be wearying. In fact, the unsatisfying, endless tedium of doing so many things that only had to be done again made me downright depressed.

But then I found that if I accomplished something that could actually be finished, with a real, tangible end-product that I could enjoy and admire--paint a chair, knit a gnome, bake a loaf of bread, redecorate or reorganize a corner of the house--that I could pull myself out of a funk and lift my mood. At about the same time I had this realization, I started reading blogs by mothers who were also crafters, cooks, gardeners, and home decorators. I was seduced by the siren song of domesticity and I threw myself into the work of creating a beautiful life wholeheartedly.

That's kind of a weird sentence to write, as a child of the seventies, reared on "Free to Be You and Me." But during a phase of life that can feel so very thankless and unsatisfying, there's real succor in holding in your hands the results of your own creative efforts. Homeyness was not entirely a blog-driven desire, out of character for me--my paternal grandmother knit bales of slippers, my maternal grandmother crocheted afghans and sewed quilts and kept an enormous garden, my aunts crocheted and cross-stitched and sewed, my mother knit, sewed all of our dresses, and dabbled in a range of 1970s-inspired back-to-the-land-type crafts from weaving belts on inkle looms to beading jewelry to stained glass to spinning wool to cake decorating to canning and jam-making. They all cooked and baked from scratch, skipping over the Jiffy Mix and Bisquick the rest of their generation depended on. I had always had a crafty side, and after college I taught myself to knit and sew, cook and garden, with some guidance from my mom, and a lot from books (back before online tutorials and videos).

Finding fulfillment in the domestic was part of my genetic makeup and upbringing, so it was in some ways natural to dive into that world more fully after I had children, and it served the purpose of creative outlet and emotional ballast when the redundancy of motherhood and housework and a boring job threatened to unmoor me. Until it didn't.

Maybe it was the schedule of older children that made cooking real meals impossible. Maybe it was years of hearing "I hate that!" when I put dinner on the table. Maybe it was the realization that even tasks that feel like accomplishments are never truly done--knit a hat, kid loses it, knit another; sew an outfit, kid outgrows it, sew another; paint a chair, paint gets chipped, kid outgrows it, put it out by the road; bake a loaf of bread, bread gets eaten, bake another; can a dozen jars of jam, jam gets spread on toast, buy some at the store until next summer when you can start again. Maybe it was my kids getting old enough that I don't have to serve so many of their endless needs anymore. Maybe in the internal struggle for my creative energy, writing is finally winning out over homemaking.

Whatever it is, I don't want to do it anymore. Dinner? How about frozen pizza again, kids? Sewing project? Dang, the machine's all jammed up. Garden getting overtaken by weeds? Sorry, I'm busy reading in the hammock.

I let rhubarb, strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, and blackberry seasons all go by without making a single jar of jam. I finally dragged myself to the stove when a bag of plums from our own plum trees threatened to spawn a new species of fruit-fly. I made the jam by rote--boiling water, one-to-one plums to sugar, some candied ginger, boil, jar, boil, cool. Pop. Pop. Pop. The jars sealed. Plums rescued. Beautiful, jewel-toned jars on the shelf. Jam weirdly astringent from the skins. Sense of accomplishment? Nil. Mood-enhancement? Nada.

Maybe this is just a stage. Maybe I'm just really tired from trying to do too many things for too long. Something had to give. I'm still laboring over words--which is not exactly satisfying, but it feels necessary. I currently get more of thrill from identifying a flower than from cooking a meal. And, well, as long as we manage to get something to eat, and as long as the house doesn't get overrun with cobwebs, I guess that's okay.

Friday, September 18, 2015


On our property we have an old, small gravel pit, which I've written about here many times before. It usually has a good-sized, murky pond in the bottom, where I've seen two otters, a snapping turtle as big as a trash can lid, and fox tracks.

It's a good place to listen to frogs, watch painted turtles sun, and catch dragonflies.

A kingfisher nested in a sand bank last year.

I once watched a bobcat as big as a German shepherd walk down the road into it.

During the winter, the pond make a modest ice-skating rink. 

Last year, the pond served as my study site for the Master Naturals class; I came down here once a week or so to observe seasonal changes.

But this summer the biggest change of all has taken place--the pond has almost completely dried up.

It's been years since this has happened, and it's such a strange sight to see--grass growing where usually there is water.

The drop in water level has revealed the past use of this property by the farmers who once lived down the road.

A few frogs still make their home along the edges of the remaining water, and various mammal tracks crisscross the mud, but I wonder where all the turtles have gone.

We have had a very strange visitor for the last few weeks: a single pectoral sandpiper (can you see it in the left-hand side of the picture below?) has made its home in the wet mud along the edges of the dwindling water.

It's fascinating to see what is revealed beneath when familiar layers are stripped away.

Edited to add: It's been a dry summer, with many bodies of water well below their high water mark. Once the leaves fall from the trees, the pond will probably start filling up again, and by next spring it should be back to its usual self. But I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Wild Wednesday ~ Learning Asters

The aster is one of the first wildflowers I learned when I first came to Maine, many long years ago. It was pointed out on a natural history hike I went on as part of college orientation. I remembered its name using the mnemonic "ask her"--not very original, but it stuck (I apparently didn't know that "aster" came from the Greek for "star," which would also have been a handy way to remember it). It was even more recently that I realized the great range of different species of aster, and just last summer that I first started trying to puzzle them out. Over the weekend, I attended a naturalists' conference (not to be confused with a naturists' conference), the highlight of which was a field workshop in identifying asters and goldenrods (more on the latter next week). I took my new-found knowledge and applied it to our property, identifying all of the aster species I could find. There were six:

Lance-leaved aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum)

Tall White Aster (Doellingeria umbellata)

Heart-leaved aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Calico aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum)

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Awl aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum)

Asters belong to the Asteraceae, or aster, family, sometimes known as composite or sunflower family. You can see their resemblance to sunflowers--with a disk in the center and rays that resemble petals around the outside. Each ray and each little dot inside the disk is actually a whole flower in and of itself, but they all work together to create an inflorescence, or capitula, that looks like a single flower and acts like one in that it attracts pollinators (lots of bees on the asters this time of year). To identify asters, you use many of the same characteristics you use in other flowers--leave shape and attachment; leaf and stem texture; plant, flower (capitula), and leaf size; and color of flowers and stem. Another important identifying characteristic in the asters is the involucral bract--those little green thingies that cradle the base of the flower. Note how they vary among species--some all green and leaf-like, some with a distinct green-and-white pattern, some curling outward, some clinging close. 

I know this seems like a lot of fuss to go through to find out who a plant is, but I find it deeply satisfying to put a name to a flower I pass by every day, like making a new friend, and now that I know who these six asters are, I never need peek under their rays at their involucral bracts again; I can look at them and recognize them like old friends, by gestalt. Of course, there's no pressing need to know the names of the flowers, and you can be perfectly happy knowing them simply as "aster" like I did for more than twenty years.

Note that flora refer to asters in the Symphyotrichum genus as "American aster," but I've never heard anyone use this phrasing in real life, so I'm sticking with just plain "aster" here.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Weekend Things ~ Camp

We spent Labor Day Weekend at C's stepmother's camp, as we have every year for the last eight years.

Our summers vary from year to year.

Some years we go camping, some we take a big trip, some we go to one beach, some to another, others we spend more at the lake.

But we always start summer with our May weekend at Hermit Island.

And finish it with Labor Day at Toddy Pond.

The two trips make nice bookends to the season.

And both places serve as growth charts for the boys.

This year we had hotter weather than usual, and the lake warmer than the Y pool where I swim every other morning.

We spent more time swimming than ever.

There was also snorkeling (by people other than me who actually want to see what goes on under that dark water...I prefer remaining ignorant).




I read two whole books (just-for-fun mysteries that were oh-so-good).

And did a little water color painting.

I even knit a row before the weekend was through (which I had to undo on the drive home because I knit the wrong row).

(Photo by Z to prove I actually exist).

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