Prairie in Blue and WhiteSUNDAY, JUNE 23, 2013
Hot and muggy are two words which could rightfully be applied to last Sunday’s weather … but that didn’t discourage our touring group of seven.
The prairie is in its blue and white color phase right now. Most of what is blooming is one of those two colors – with touches of yellow added. The latter hues are hints of what is to come; the midsummer prairie will be a gaudy one, featuring vibrant yellows and brilliant fuchsia shades.
But for right now, most of what we see is white: white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), tall beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), yarrow (Achillea millefolia), and in some places an early bedstraw (Galium sp). Even the predominant flowering shrubs have white blossoms – gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) and common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis(_Tradescantia ohiensis).
Spiderwort is such a fun plant! Not only does its thick, glue-y sap spin a glistening thread like spider silk; its flowers have many interesting features as well. Like lilies, each individual flower opens for one day only and then closes forever.
Probably my favorite of the white flowers currently in evidence is the tall beardtongue. Another of its names is ‘false foxglove’ … you may have noticed in the second paragraph above that in Latin it goes by Penstemon digitalis; true foxglove is Digitalis purpurea. Sensing a relationship here?
And digitalis, or Digoxin, is a medicine which affects the heart – a cardiac glycoside. Like all powerful cures, it is toxic in the wrong amount. It is present and potent in true foxglove … hmm … does that mean our beardtongue has it as well? Most sources say no, that the name simply reflects the plants’ similar appearance. Still, I wouldn’t test the theory.
There are many different explanations of the ‘foxglove’ name. They range from ‘fox glew’ (fox music), due to the bell-like shape of the flowers, to ‘folksgloves’, as in ‘fairy folk’. One authority even suggests that a botanist named Fuchs had something to do with it! But the ‘digit’ part is easy. All flowers in this group have long, slender flowers which would fit snugly around a finger. Gee, there’s that ‘glove’ image again.
Peering inside a beardtongue flower with a
I said there were a few yellows, and there are. Cinquefoil, which I often call simply ‘potentilla’ for its genus name, is in considerable evidence.
If you’re curious about that Potentilla label, it does in fact relate to the plant’s legendary medicinal and spiritual powers. In Old Europe it was considered a potent cure for many ailments, especially sores in the mouth; the root bark is said to have a styptic effect.
And speaking of 5-petaled yellow flowers currently in bloom that were said to have magical powers … St. John’s wort opened right on time again this year.
Like the cinquefoils, St. John’s wort comprises several species, some of which are native here and some of which are not. The genus name is Hypericum. In medieval times, the plant was thought to be a powerful medicine against witches and evil spirits; people hung it from their doors and windows to protect their households. Sensing an opportunity to turn a pagan tradition into something aligned with their own doctrine, the early Catholic Church simply ‘re-branded’ it. And you thought that practice was something new!
I have mused before about the coincidental blooming of these two plants, both with yellow flowers, both with 5 petals, both coming into flower right around the summer solstice, both with magical and/or healing properties ascribed to them. I see a potential association between the number of petals and the pentagram symbol, often linked to witchcraft; also, in the time before written calendars and clocks the solstices and the equinoxes were regarded as ‘hinges’ of the seasons, times when the boundaries between the physical and spiritual worlds were thin and permeable. A plant which comes into flower and becomes fertile at such a time might be thought of as especially significant.
As for yellow, it is the color of the Sun, clearly understood to be the source of light, heat, and life itself. Along with red, with its association with blood and vitality, I could see yellow as being a color of great intrinsic importance. Of course, then there’s green, the color of living leaves; brown, the color of the earth whose surface we walk and to which all will go in time; and blue, the color of water—so necessary to the survival of living things—and of the overarching sky.
The above are the idle musings of an amateur naturalist … take them for what they are worth. In the meantime, please enjoy our beautiful green prairie, spangled with blossoms of white, blue, and yellow.
Kathy Miner, UW Arboretum naturalist