Spring wildflowers

I’m still recovering from COVID — still feeling woozy and strange — but taking walks outside makes me feel better. (Vitamin D? exercise? partial cure for COVID-boredom? who knows….) And today was one of those perfect June days that we still get sometimes here in New England despite climate change — cool, dry air, puffy white clouds in the sky, gentle breezes to blow the black flies and gnats away. Carol and I walked for nearly two hours in Whitney Thayer Woods. Since we were walking slowly, I had plenty of time to look at the forest floor for spring wildflowers.

Sometimes it was an exercise in close observation, since some of the flowers I saw were quite small, like these tiny blossoms on a Narrowleaf Cow Wheat plant:

Tiny yellow and white flowers on a small plant.
Narrowleaf Cow Wheat (Melampyrum lineare)

Don’t ask me why this plant is called “Cow Wheat.” I have no idea.

Then there were the tiny flowers that came in clusters. These are easier to see, like the blossoms on this Solomon’s Plume:

Plant with plume of tiny white flowers.
Solomon’s Plume (Maianthemum racemosum)

I think this plant is called Solomon’s Plume, first because the flowers are in a plume, and second because the leaves sort of look like a different genus of plants known as Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum spp.), which are called Solomon’s Seal because some of the plants in the genus have tubers that when broken are said to resemble the Seal of Solomon of the mystical traditions of Judaism and Christianity. The common names of plants often seem nonsensical. Actually, this plant is closely related to the Canada Mayflower, so perhaps a better common name for it would be “Mayflower Plume” or something like that.

Another plant that was in bloom today also had tiny flowers in clusters — Mapleleaf Viburnum:

Cluster of tiny flowers.
Mapleleaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium)

At least it’s obvious where this plant’s name comes from: it’s a viburnum that has leaves that are shaped like the leaves of maple trees.

We were also lucky enough to see two or three Pink Lady’s Slippers, one of our native orchids:

Showy pink flower arising from two basal leaves.
Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

You’d think that it would be easy to see such a showy flower, but I’ve found it’s actually quite easy to walk right past them.

Some flowers that were impossible to miss were the rhododendrons that Whitney Thayer Woods are known for. The wealthy people who owned the land in the 1920s had various kinds of rhododendrons plants along one of the woodland paths. Descendants of those original plants still bloom each year. Several of the plants were covered in blossoms that you simply could not miss:

Ten foot high shrub covered in clusters of pink blossoms
Rhododendron sp. (possibly R. maximum)

Even if you’re not paying attention, you’d find it difficult to miss a shrub taller than you are, covered with big clusters of light pink blossoms growing right at eye level.

Also hard to miss, though much shorter, was the iris growing next to a boardwalk over a stream:

Showy purple flower
Iris spp. (possibly I. versicolor, Northern Blue Flag)

While the soft pink of the Pink Lady’s Slipper can blend in among the warm brown leaves on the forest floor, the brilliant purple color of the iris does not blend in to the predominant colors of the woodlands.

Tiny flower

Medeola virginiana, sometimes called Cucumber Root or Indian Cucumber-root, is in bloom in the woodlands around Cohasset right now. As the name implies, the small root is crunchy and white and tastes like cucumber — but you kill the plant when you dig it up for the root, so I stopped foraging for it many years ago.

The flower is tiny, maybe a centimeter or two across. It doesn’t look like much until you look at it through a magnifier:

Close up of a tiny flower, with a deep red pistil that terminates in three parts that are longer than the petals, and with greenish-yellow petals that curl back from the ovary.
Front view of Indian Cucumber-root flower through 10x hand lens
Same flower as previous photo, but a side view.
Side view of Indian Cucumber-root flower through 10s hand lens

Sign of spring

I went for a walk at the Norris Reservation in Norwell, Mass., today. Walking around Gordon’s Pond, I saw Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) beginning to sprout. Perhaps two dozen tightly curled green and purple spathes dotted the ground on either side of the boardwalk. One of the spathes had opened, revealing the spadix inside, with tiny little flowers blooming on it. This is the first native flower I’ve seen since the Witch Hazel bloomed in December.

A close-up of a Skink Cabbage inflorescence inside its purple-and-green spathe.


For the past month and a half, I’ve been looking for flowers in the aster tribe (Tribe Astereae). I’ve always liked asters. I don’t know why. There’s something about the off-white and pale lavender colors that gets to me.

Flowers in tribe Astereae, probably genus Symphiotrichum

I guess it’s a kind of spiritual experience when I see asters in bloom. Whatever “spiritual” means.

Flowers in tribe Astereae

I’m not able to tell which species of aster I’m looking at. In the genus Symphiotrichum alone, there are 27 species native to New England. Go Botany has a dichotomous key for Symphiotrichum. However, for some species the key requires 14x magnification of the bracts and disk flowers, but all I have is a 10x hand lens.

Flowers in tribe Astereae, probably genus Symphiotrichum

Nevertheless, I should sit down with one of these plants and try to work through the key. Not that it matters what species I’m looking at. Not that it will make the flowers any more (or less) beautiful. But why not observe them more closely?

Chamberlain, S.D.

We spent the day in Chamberlain so I could participate in an online workshop for General Assembly, the big annual meeting of Unitarian Universalists.

In the morning we headed to the Akta Lakota Museum, which reportedly has one of the largest collections of Lakota artifacts. The collection includes late nineteenth and early twentieth century artifacts, as well as more recent works by Lakota people.

By mistake, we first wandered into an exhibit about St. Joseph’s School, a Catholic mission school for Lakota children. The museum is actually hosted by this mission school. It was a well-intentioned exhibit, but nevertheless hard to look at. The school took in children from kindergarten through eighth grade. One display talked about how early on, in the 1920s and 1930s, school life was highly regimented; they explained this away by saying there weren’t enough nuns and priests to maintain order unless everything was highly regimented. As an educator, I wasn’t sympathetic; I felt they were trying to justify regimentation when actually their educational model was essentially flawed.

Then another nearby display told how it was against the rules for children to speak Lakota, and that speaking Lakota was considered a major discipline problem. This makes me think the problems with maintaining order had as much to do with harsh and ill-considered rules as it did with staffing shortages. While I can sympathize with the positive intent of the school — to provide educational opportunities for Lakota children — the educational philosophy, educational methods, and school organization seem to me to be fatally flawed.

In fact, I got so angry at this poorly conceived educational venture, I left before I went through the whole exhibit. So I don’t know if the exhibit addressed the child sexual abuse scandal at St. Joseph’s School (read about this scandal here, and here). In any case, I didn’t think the exhibit adequately addressed the stories of people like Zigmund Hollow Horn who at age 65 recalled, “If you spoke your language [i.e., Lakota], they held you down, put a bar of soap in your mouth.” I don’t see how that kind of poor behavior by adults can be justified under any legitimate educational model.

The main exhibit was less self-serving. There were some fine examples of Lakota material culture on display. However, the exhibit as a whole looked like something out of the 1970s — artifacts placed together in cases without a clear organizing principle, meager labels, not enough supplementary cultural information. I also felt that some of the artifacts needed conservation, and were displayed in such a manner as to exacerbate existing conservation problems. Take, for example, the birch bark canoe that’s on display. The forward thwart has detached from the gunwale, allowing the hull to splay out. I felt this serious conservation problem may have been exacerbated by a poorly designed display cradle which tends to push the bottom of the boat up thus aggravating the tendency for the gunwales to splay.

Lakota birch bark canoe, Akta Lakota Museum — notice the detached thwart and splayed hull

I understand that the primary mission of St. Joseph’s School is education, and they may find it hard to justify paying to conserve the artifacts in their museum. But if that’s the case, then admit that adequately maintaining the museum is outside the scope of the institution’s mission, and give the artifacts to someone who can adequately conserve them.

It wasn’t long before I had had enough of the main exhibit, and walked out. I felt an excellent collection of artifacts had been ruined by outdated exhibit design and lack of adequate conservation. I couldn’t help but wonder what the museum would look like if it were adequately funded — and if the exhibit had been designed by Lakota curators rather than by well-meaning white school officials.

After leaving the museum, we ate lunch. I spent the afternoon preparing for, then helping lead the online workshop at General Assembly. So about half the day was really a work day.

In the evening, we walked around Chamberlain, a lovely small town with a population of about 2,200 people. It was a perfect summer day: in the seventies, windy, clear. We looked out over the river at the green bluffs rising up on the opposite shore. We both agreed this would be a pleasant place to live. As the sun set over the western bank of the Missouri, we walked back to the motel to get ready for bed.

Great Plains Yucca in full bloom on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River

My iNaturalist observations for June 25

Rock Springs to Gillette, Wyo.

After driving for about 80 miles, I decided I needed to stretch my legs, so we took Exit 184, Continental Divide Road, and turned right onto a dirt road that led to some wayside markers. One of the signs explained how Henry Bourne had an idea for a cross-country auto road. But, as usual, I was looking at flowers, and I followed my gaze down a dry wash. By chance I looked up, and there was a Pronghorn Antelope staring at me. I got out my super-zoom camera in time to catch a blurry photo of the antelope running away from me.

Pronghorn Antelope running away

Our next stop was Rawlins. Carol wanted to go to the library there for an online meeting she had scheduled at two o’clock. We arrived early, and walked around the downtown. Carol stopped to admire a piano on the sidewalk that was painted with a Van Gogh design. A friendly woman came along and said, “Play something for us!” It turned out she was the economic development director for downtown Rawlins, and she told us about some of the city’s accomplishments. I noticed that she often spoke about involving children and teens in city projects, and asked if she used Search Institute’s Developmental Assets model for supporting the healthy development of children and teens. She said that she did indeed use that model.

After Carol’s meeting was over, we headed to Gillette. While Carol drove, I got out my laptop and worked on a PowerPoint presentation that was due today. The slide deck was hosted on Google Drive, so I used my phone as a hotspot as we drove across the high plains of Wyoming. Working remotely has become so easy that you can do it on a cross-country trip. I’m not sure this is a good thing.

We stopped at Independence Rock Historic Site. Independence Rock is a huge outcropping of granite that served as a landmark for the Oregon Trail. We walked around the base — me looking for flowers as usual — and then we climbed partway up the rock.

Carol on Independence Rock

It was so windy that we decided not to climb to the top of the rock. We walked all the way around Independence Rock, and as every tourist does we admired the nineteenth century grafitti scratched into it.

But for me, the highlight of our stop at Independence Rock was seeing a Plain Pricklypear (Opuntia polyacantha) in full bloom.

Opuntia polyacantha in bloom

We arrived in Gillette after dark. We’re both pretty tired. It’s time for bed.

(Random facts from today’s trip: We crossed the continental divide three times today. The highest point of our trip was when we crossed the continental divide on U.S. Highway 237, at an elevation of 7,174 feet above sea level. Our gas mileage for the second half of the day was over 36 miles per gallon, even with the canoe on the car — this afternoon’s gas mileage was higher than usual because we were driving downhill from the continental divide.)

My iNaturalist observations for June 23

Wendover to Rock Springs, Wyo.

Our room in Wendover looked out onto a rock outcropping which rose up a hundred feet or more behind the motel. After a quick breakfast, I went out and followed an ATV trail up the outcropping. Soon I was fifty feet above the motel, on a level area below the summit of the outcropping. From there I could see the Union Pacific rail lines heading east. A long train squealed slowly around a loop of rail, heading towards the main line. The main line was a straight line across miles of white salt flats, paralleling the interstate highway, both disappearing into the distance. I spent a quarter of an hour on the level area looking at the desert plants there — ephedra (Ephedra sp.), with no leaves to speak of, just stems with chlorophyll; prickly-pear cactus (Opuntia sp.), with a red blossom just gone by; saltbush; sagebrush (Artemisia sp.); and so on. Once again on this trip, I spent far more time looking at the world at my feet, rather than looking up at the awe-inspiring landscape around me.

Prickly-pear cactus (Opuntia sp.)

We stopped in Salt Lake City to meet Sandy, an old friend of Carol’s, for lunch. I was fascinated to hear them reminiscing about their days in middle school and high school: the hierarchies of their schools; the track coach who years later would be arrested for molesting his step-daughter; a favorite English teacher, Miss Mountford; the differences between their two families; and so on. I felt they both must have been nice teenagers.

I was especially interested to hear that Sandy serves as a translator for her church’s worship services. She’s fluent in Spanish, so she can translate for English speakers when the sermon is in Spanish. I asked her about the mechanics of translating the sermon, and she said she’s in a sound-proof booth, speaking into a microphone; those who need or want the translation wear an earpiece to listen to her. Maybe someday some of our Unitarian Universalist congregations will be able to do something like that.

I drove as we left Salt Lake. Carol dislikes twisty mountain roads, and the road from Utah into Wyoming is definitely a twisty mountain road. We pulled over at a rest stop at about mile 170 on I-80 for a mid-afternoon snack. There were picnic tables up a steep paved sidewalk, and up another even steeper paved sidewalk was an observation platform. Behind the rest area, a plain dotted with sagebrush sloped up to peaks above.

A sign on a fence said that this land was a wildlife management area. I walked through the fence, and out onto that sagebrush-dotted slope. There were flowers everywhere. I spent a happy half hour looking at flowers and taking photographs, until my cell phone rang. It was Carol asking where I was. “You don’t have to hurry back,” she said, “I just wanted to know where you were.” I took her at her word, and spent another quarter of an hour looking at flowers. My favorite was the Sego Lily: three white petals marked with yellow and deep red at their bases, over three cream colored sepals.

Sego Lily (Calochortus nuttallii)

When we got to Rock Springs, we followed the signs to the “Historic Downtown” area, parked the car, and walked around. We saw some people cooking something outdoors. “Want to go over?” Carol said. At first I said no, but I realized I was hungry, so then I said yes. A talkative woman greeted us, and pointed to a whiteboard with the menu: hot dogs, Kronski’s, and funnel cakes. We asked what “Kronski’s” were, and the woman told us that they were sausages that were made here in Rock City, in fact they were made in the building that we were all standing in front of.

I ordered a Kronski, and Carol ordered a hot dog. A man — who, as it turned out, was the woman’s brother — cooked the sausage and hot dog for us, and the woman gestured to the tray of condiments. We both put sauerkraut on our meat. The man invited us to sit at some tables behind him, and offered to turn off the Ozzy Osborne he’d been listening to, but we said we liked Ozzy. We had a long chat with the two of them. They had just started out this new business, and were trying to figure out how to make it work.

When we finished eating, we thanked them, and finished our walk around the historic district. It was getting dark, so then we drove back to the motel.

My iNaturalist observations for June 22

Fernley, Nev., to Wendover, Utah

We drove past dramatic scenery today: the Forty-Mile Desert, the green Humboldt River valley in between sagebrush plains, towering 11,000 foot mountains…. But what stays in my mind are the flowers we saw blooming near Pequop Summit.

We parked in the Pequop Summit rest area, elevation 6,967 feet above sea level. We walked over the cattle guard to a dirt road cut into the side of the hill, and then I saw a flower up a fairly steep embankment. I scrambled up to look at it. There was a small Single-leaf Pinyon Pine (Pinus monophylla) just beyond it, then a pale yellow Paintbrush (Castilleja sp.) above that, and then some purple Hooker’s Onions (Alium acuminatum) above that. “Be careful coming down,” said Carol from the dirt road twenty feet below me. I decided that going up was easier than trying to slide down, so I scrambled up to the top of road cut. By now, I was more than thirty feet above the highway, so I must have been over seven thousand feet.

It was beautiful up there. At seven thousand feet above sea level, it was still springtime. Flowers were blooming everywhere. In some places you couldn’t move without stepping on a flower. In among the pungent-smelling sagebrush (Artemisia sp.), sprightly yellow Groundsels (Packera sp.), like tiny little yellow daisies, grew next to low-growing Lava Asters (?) (Ionactis alpina). The Mule’s Ears (Wyethia sp.), with their leaves like the ears of mules and their flowers like little sunflowers, were mostly past their prime, but in the shade of some big sagebrush bushes a few sheltered plants were still in full bloom.

The yellow flowers are Hawksbeard (Crepis sp.), the red ones are Paintbrushes (Castilleja sp.), and the small purple ones are Hooker’s Onion (Allium acuminatum)

In addition to the flowers, small grasshoppers were buzzing and jumping all through the scrubby growth. Birds sang throughout the sagebrush, and as I approached them were apparently surprised that a human was walking through their territories.

All this was happening within sight and sound of Interstate 80. Most of this was happening below the level of my waist. I was so fascinated by the sights, sounds, and smells that I never even looked up to admire the view from Pequop Summit, if there was indeed a view.

Eriogonum sp.

Earlier in the day, we had stopped for a rest break near Oreana, Nev. This was at a much lower elevation, and I didn’t expect to find any flowers in bloom. But I walked a little way down a dry wash, and there found two or three clumps of Desert Prince’s Plume (Stanleya pinnata) blooming. Pollinators swarmed around these flowers, including a Western Pygmy Blue butterfly.

Western Pygmy Blue (Brephidium exilis)

In Oreana as at Pequop Summit, I barely noticed the grand landscape scenery around me: my attention was on the small, intimate landscape at my feet.

My iNaturalist observations for June 21

Field trip

We went for a hike in Henry W. Coe State Park today. There were still quite a few flowers in bloom, of which my favorite was the Butterfly Mariposa Lily:

Butterfly Mariposa Lily

The terrain was the usual steep hillsides of the Coastal Ranges:

Carol on the trail heading back from Frog Lake

The weather was ideal: 65-75 degrees, with a steady northerly breeze. We walked about 8-3/4 miles with 1360 total elevation gain, enough of a workout to make it seem worth while, but we took it slow so we didn’t get burned out. Just about a perfect day.