Monday, November 7, 2016

Wildflowers on the Menominee River

Dear George,
I was surprised a while back when I ran across a newspaper article that said that recent editions of the Oxford Junior Dictionary have deleted about 50 items referring to nature and replaced them with contemporary, often technology-related words.   According to an editor, references to various aspects of nature in earlier editions had been included “because many children lived in semi-rural environments…Nowadays, the environment has changed.”*  Newly added words include things like blog, broadband, cut and paste, voicemail, and chatroom.  Words deleted by the Oxford Junior Dictionary include: acorn, beaver, beech, blackberry, bluebell, brook, buttercup, clover, dandelion, doe, fern, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark,  minnow, otter, pansy, pasture, porcupine, raven, starling, sycamore, thrush, tulip, vine, weasel,  willow, and wren.  What is that about, Oxford Junior Dictionary??? 

Having grown up in the country in Michigan’s U.P., I’ve often realized how much nature provided the context for much of our everyday lives.  Lacking TV, the internet, electronic devices in general, and attractions of the big city, we spent most of our leisure time in outdoor play in the forest or river.  I’m often struck by how different our rural childhood was to what kids experience nowadays.  There’s a cartoon in the paper today showing a little kid in a sandbox, screaming hysterically, “iPad!  iPad!”  Being addicted to the computer, I can easily relate to that.  However, I’m equally aware of how immersed our childhood experiences were in the world of nature.  Here are some of the wildflowers at our family property on the Menominee River that were important parts of our everyday activities.  

Trillium, one of the first wildflowers to bloom in the spring, was among my mother’s favorites.  It grew at Brewery Park, several hundred yards to the east of our house along the river shore.  Trillium have three petals, no odor, and their seeds are transported by bumblebees and white-tailed deer.  Miss Elsie Guimond, the principal of our grade school, also loved the trillium.  When each of the children in our family reached the sixth grade, he or she would bring Miss Guimond a trillium plant when it first bloomed.

Trailing Arbutus
The arbutus was another of my mother’s favorite forest plants.  It grows in early March, spreading along the forest floor and forming a mat about 4 to 6 inches high.  The flowers are white or pink and very fragrant.  Then they’re replaced by white berries.  Native Americans used arbutus to treat rheumatism, indigestion, and kidney problems. 

Ox-eye Daisy (or Common Daisy)
Ox-eye daisies grew in the field just to the west of the garden wall that ran along our front lawn.  Daisies can grow up to three feet high, and they bloom from late spring until autumn.  We and the O’Hara kids would pick a daisy, and then someone would tear off petals one after the next while reciting, “She loves me, she loves me not, she loves me, etc.”  Finally you got to the last petal and learned whether she (or he) does or does not love you.  This game elicited gales of laughter, especially when the other children insisted that the petal-picker announce beforehand who he or she was inquiring about. 

Black-eyed Susans
Black-eyed Susans are similar in shape and size to daisies.  In fact, they are sometimes called yellow ox-eye daisies.  They inhabited the same field next to our house as did the daisies, and we used them as well to play, “She loves me, she loves me not…”  Black-eyed Susans bloom for a month or two between mid- and late summer.  Their leaves are covered with coarse hair.  Native Americans traditionally used them as a medicinal herb for colds, swelling, and even snake-bite.

Queen Anne’s Lace
Many of the wildflowers on our property were entities that we played with or did things with, e.g., pulling off the petals or scattering the seeds in the wind.  Queen Anne’s Lace, though, was simply a flower that we admired for its beauty.  It’s said to have received its name because Queen Anne allegedly pricked her finger and stained her lace with a drop of blood (symbolized by the single red flower surrounded by lacy white blossoms).  The flowers roots are edible, but its appearance is quite similar to hemlock whose poison is reputed to have killed Socrates.  Queen Anne’s lace was prevalent in the field next to our lawn as well as in our back pasture.  It was definitely the most beautiful wildflower on our property.

Blue Violets
Blue violets were among the prettiest and most delicate flowers on our property.  It’s also known as the lesbian flower, the name deriving, according to Wikipedia, from the practice of lesbians in the early 1900’s of giving blue violets to women they were wooing.  Blue violets have five blue or violet petals, and their flowers and leaves can be eaten.  It’s the state flower of Wisconsin. 

The dandelion’s name comes from the French word “dent-de-lion”, meaning “lion’s tooth”.  Dandelions are rich in Vitamins A, C, and K and have been used as human food over the eons.  Dandelions grew all over our front lawn and were another of our outdoor playthings in the summer and fall.  When they’d turn into balls of puffy white seedlings, we’d carefully break off the stalk, hold the flowering portion up to our face, and blow all the seeds into the wind with a mighty breath.  They were sort of like miniature fireworks or tiny parachutes. 

White clover
Lots of white clover grew in our front lawn, interspersed with the grass and various other weeds.  It’s been used for centuries as an additive to salads and other meals.  When we ran out of other things to do, we’d lie down on the lawn and search about for a four-leafed clover.  My recollection is that usually we were eventually successful.  This is probably faulty memory though, since there are about 10,000 three-leaf clover for every single four-leaf clover. 

Wild strawberry
Some of the flowers and plants on our property were good to eat, and that was particularly true of the wild strawberries that grew in the field in back of our house and in nearby forests.  They have a sweet taste, and commercially grown strawberries are actually relatives of the wild strawberry.  Wild strawberries have white flowers in the early summer, followed by red berries that are smaller than their commercial cousins.  Lots of animals and birds eat wild strawberries.  According to Wikipedia, archeologists have determined that human beings have eaten wild strawberries since the Stone Age. 

Wintergreen was another edible plant in the forests near our house, and we liked to chew wintergreen leaves because of the similarity of its taste to chewing gum.  The plant is actually used to produce chewing gum, mints, candy, mouthwash, and even smokeless tobacco.  Native Americans used it to treat headaches, fever, and aches and pains. 

Goldenrods were plentiful in our back-yard field and the pasture across the road from our house, and their brilliant yellow color brightened up our property when they bloomed in late summer and early fall.  We always thought that Goldenrods cause sneezing and sniffly noses, but it turns out that that those problems are mostly due to ragweed which blooms at the same time.  Goldenrods are a favorite source of nectar for butterflies and bees. 

Tall Buttercup
Tall Buttercups are another yellow beauty that grew in fields on our property.  They have long stalks, from one to 3 feet high, and leaves that are about 4 inches long.  Their flowers, about an inch wide, have five or more shiny yellow petals.  Each plant has from several to many separate flowers.  The tall buttercup has a chemical that can cause dermatitis and vomiting.

Red Clover
Red Clover also was widespread in our back pasture.  It’s a favorite of cows, though we didn’t have any in the neighborhood.  Interestingly WebMD lists red clover as a medication, indicating that it has been used for cancer prevention, indigestion, high cholesterol, whooping cough, asthma, bronchitis, and sexually transmitted diseases.  WebMD is neutral about whether or not red clover  works. 

Some of the flowers on our property were practically like toys to us, nothing moreso than the milkweed.  Milkweed gets its name from its milky juice (messy on the hands when one opened them up).  Its seeds are arranged in overlapping rows and have white silky hairs.  By the end of the summer the follicles ripen, split open, and the seeds are blown by the wind.  We would wait till they were fully ripened in late summer, then break the pod off, open it up, wave it in the air, and watch the seeds float about and flutter to the ground like little parachutes.    

Field horsetail
Despite our frequent commerce with field horsetail, I never knew its actual name until I worked on this blog posting.  In childhood we called it “Indian tobacco” because we could break the stalk into its separate cigarette-sized segments, hold it between our lips, and pretend we were smoking.  Horsetail has been used as medicine and for polishing wood.  Apparently it was once the dominant plant on the planet, with some varieties growing as tall as pine trees.

Cattails grow in wet areas like the ditch which bordered our property on Riverside Boulevard.  They can reach ten feet high, though ours were more in a range of five or six feet.  Their long slim stalks are topped off by sausage-shaped spikes that are formed by dense tiny brown flowers.  In the autumn the flowers ripen and turn into a cottony fluff which eventually blows away in the wind.  Birds use their seed hairs to line their nests.  Cattails were a thrilling part of our childhood.  In mid to late summer my father would have us gather a dozen or so cattails along the road.  We would store them in the garage for six to eight weeks until they were dried out.  Then, on the appointed night in the autumn, we’d come out, soak the cattails’ fluffy heads in kerosene and set them ablaze, racing in circles around the driveway.  I can think of few events more exciting in life.

I’m sure there were many other wildflowers on our property that I’m not remembering, but this is a sampling of the major ones.  Now I’m nostalgic about our outdoor world.

*, “Children’s Dictionary Dumps ‘Nature’ Words” (Feb. 4, 2009);, “Dictionary Drama” (Sept. 24, 2015)

SOURCES:  Google Images; (“Michigan Wildflowers”); (“Upper Peninsula Native Plants”);; (“Common Wildflowers of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula”)

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