Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: My childhood's ever-changing nosegay
Every spring throughout my childhood, my mother would regularly collect a little nosegay of wildflowers and place them on the kitchen table. There would be bluets (which she refers to by their colloquial name “pee-a-bed” only she uses the even less polite term for “pee” and giggles every time she says it, even now at 84 years old), star flowers, purple and white violets, and my favorite of the little guys, the fringed gentian with their purple tubular flowers each ending with a clump of white stubble. There was a nosegay on mom’s porch when I visited a couple weeks ago.
I never quite picked up the nosegay habit (“nosegay” defined by Oxford English Dictionary as a “small bunch of flowers, typically one that is sweet-scented”; Wikipedia includes the synonym “tussie-mussie”). Occasionally a small bouquet lands on the porch table but I tend to go in for the bigger, showier flowers that come later in the season — black-eyed Susans, daylilies and irises, sometimes with a touch of non-wild flowers like blue hydrangea. But I do keep tabs on all the wildflowers throughout our woods.
On walks on our woods loop, I check on the changing nosegays au naturel through the season. The bluets as well as the purple and white violets are abundant along the path itself, not seeming to be very fazed by our footsteps; hundreds carpet the roadway and it would be almost impossible to avoid stepping on them.
I once thought the painted trillium was relegated to one lonely plant at the crest of a slope along the once-narrow trail discovered the spring before a winter logging operation that created our access road. I fiercely protected the area where I remembered the trillium coming up from equipment like skidders and feller-bunchers that cut and grab bouquets of full-grown trees as easily as my mother collects wildflower nosegays. And while I did save the “lone” plant, once the roadway opened up the forest floor to some extra sunlight a couple dozen more painted trillium plants appeared like long-lost relatives that got news of a cousin’s inheritance. They have all already come and gone this season. Jack-in-the-pulpit have just appeared on the little side trip I take to check on them in a swampy part of the roadway we circumnavigated when the access loop was built.
A friend announced on Facebook a bumper crop of pink lady slippers in her woods a few miles north of me in Wakefield, which reminded me to take another little side route in our woods where lady slippers have always been abundant. They are actually just starting to appear and it looks like the population is reduced from years past. When we were kids, my neighborhood pals and I would occasionally add a picked pink lady slipper to a bouquet. We once even tried transplanting them near our houses but it didn’t work. We would threaten each other with calling the police for having picked an endangered species. Although this was in Maine and perhaps there still is a warrant for my arrest, in fact in New Hampshire only the large yellow lady slipper, Cypripedium pubescens, is on the rare plant list according to a “Rare Plants of New Hampshire” fact sheet from UNH Cooperative Extension.
The cardinal flower is found throughout New England, and while I have enjoyed seeing many from horseback on riding ventures around the region, I have never seen one on my own property. This beautiful flower likes the edges of brooks and streams and is so brilliant red it is hard to miss.
Besides, through my mother’s nosegays, my own early interest in wildflowers came when I found an intriguing flower blooming behind my parents’ garage. I checked what wildflower books were available to me (the Internet was still not much more than a gleam in Al Gore’s eye at the time, but luckily I had a great uncle who recognized and encouraged my interest in both nature and reading) and identified it as the columbine.
Like the cardinal flower, columbine is found in all six New England states, according to an interesting website call Go Botany from the New England Wild Flower Society (gobotany.newenglandwild.org). Not only was I empowered by the fact that I was able to identify the flower, but I was captivated by the complexity of this little living thing that seemed to suddenly appear near a rock outcropping behind the garage. The columbine’s red flower has five spiky petals rising above a bell-shaped bottom that almost covers a clump of yellow nectar-bearing spurs favored by hummingbirds and butterflies. More robust versions can be bought and planted in your garden.
And if the word “columbine” triggers thought of the school in Colorado where the tragic shooting took place in 1999, the columbine is the state flower of Colorado and Wikipedia claims the school was named for the flower although the official school website makes no mention of that. Sometimes I think I should be more eager to explore the rest of the world’s, or at least this country’s, wildflowers, birds, etc. and I have to some degree, but there is something about seeing these old friends year after year that is both fascinating and comforting.
Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.