Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dicentralization, Part Three

I’ve walked the Oconaluftee River Trail many times, but never saw it prettier than it was last week. It is hard to surpass a riverside blanket of Phlox and Fringed Phacelia (Phacelia fimbriata) for spring splendor.

The delicate cup-like flowers of phacelia are fun to photograph although their pure white color can be a challenge when trying to get the proper exposure. The purple anthers against the white of the flowers are a nice touch. The Fringed Phacelia is a winter annual, so next year’s crop depends upon the successful maturation and dispersal of the plant’s seeds this spring.

With so many flowers blooming, this walk reminds me how much I to learn about wildflower identification. A flower as distinctive as Dutchman’s-Breeches cannot be confused with anything else. However, the methodical taxonomist must take greater pains to identify other plants. Violets and phlox and yellow flowers in the aster family all have me flummoxed.

Phlox can be quite variable in form, making it more difficult to assign a specimen to a particular species. Certainly, the phlox I saw along the river displayed a wide range of colors, from blue to purple and pink. One plant I’ve seen before, and couldn’t identify, was growing alongside a patch of blue phlox. After some study I’ve concluded that it might be a phlox as well:

To get serious about wildflower identification, it’s not enough to study the blooms. Often, a positive I.D. is only possible by studying the stems and leaves of the plant, something I neglect in my haste to take pictures. On my next wildflower trip, maybe I'll leave the camera at home and take along a botanical key instead.

Here’s a frustrating example from the Oconaluftee:

In one of my field guides, I did find a perfect likeness of the bloom – Jerusalem Artichoke. But it is far too early for Jerusalem Artichoke to be blooming now. Could it be a ragwort? A closer examination of the subject would be required for me to answer that.

One habit I have tried to adopt is the use of Latin names for the plants. Common names can apply to many different plants. That Bloodroot is distinct from a plant generally referred to as “puccoon” I have seen puccoon listed as an alternate name for Bloodroot.

Among the rare plants to be found in the Appalachian wetlands is something called “swamp pink.” The Swamp Pink on my wish list is Helonias bullata. However, “swamp pink” also refers to another rare wetland plant, Arethusa bulbosa. At this point I would consider myself fortunate to find either.

I’ve learned, though, that scientific names are not written in stone. Even some of my field guides, just thirty or forty years old contain Latin names for plants that have since been abandoned. One instance of this involved the wild gingers, some of which have been shifted from the Asarum genus to Hexastylis. My trusty – old - guidebook might identify Little Brown Jugs as Asarum arifolia, but these days the correct terminology is Hexastylis arifolia…at least for now. (More on this at: http://gulahiyi.blogspot.com/2009/05/finding-piggies.html )

On the banks of the Oconaluftee, I saw hundreds of May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) but only one in bloom so far:

The flower will develop into a plum-sized fruit, and despite the toxicity of May Apple’s other parts, it can be used for jelly. Some people refer to May Apple as “mandrake”, not to be confused with the true Mandrake, Mandragara officinalis, a European plant in the nightshade family.

And May Apple is not to be mistaken for Maypop (Passiflora incarnata), another odd fruit of the Appalachian woodlands. Maypop, or Purple Passionflower, is the state wildflower of Tennessee. The Cherokee called the Maypop “ocoee.” Thus, the Ocoee River in Polk County, Tennessee is actually named after the Maypop…

...not be mistaken for May Apple, which is called Mandrake, although it really isn’t.

In Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons devotes a whole chapter to May Apple. He suggests mixing may apple juice with wine, and he provides a recipe for May Apple Marmalade.

He also attempts to describe the flavor of a ripe may apple:

I am reminded of several tropical fruits, the guava, the passion fruit and the soursop, but I can't honestly say that it tastes like any of them.

Finally, anyone who has recently consumed May Apple is hazardous to a garden patch of melons. According to James Mooney in Myths of the Cherokee :

One who has eaten a May-apple must not come near the vines under any circumstances, as this plant withers and dries up very quickly, and its presence would make the melons wither in the same way.

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