SITY: Secret of the Violets

One late-August day, many years ago, I decided to do a little weeding, and I pulled up a big violet plant that was growing somewhere that it didn’t belong.

Big Violet Plant

Near the base of the plant were what appeared to be seed pods. I opened a pod up, and sure enough, there were seeds inside.

Violet Seeds

That was odd. Why would a plant that flowers in early spring still have seed pods in late August? And why would the seed pods be so low on the plant when the flowers typically grow so much higher? That’s when I realized that the violet had a secret, though I didn’t understand what it was.

This year I kept a closer eye on the violets after they peaked. There were some downy violets growing in conspicuous places, where I could easily watch the seed pods develop. There was no delay in development. The pods formed before the petals had even faded away completely.

Downy Violet Going to Seed
(May 3, 2021)

In June I found a lot of empty seed pods in the yard, but also fresh ones. The fresh ones were a colorful mix of green and purple. I’m not sure what caused the color variations. It may have been a random thing, or possibly it had something to do with the specific violet type or the age of the pod.

Fresh June Seed Pods
I put a bunch of the old and new seed pods together in a bouquet, because they were pretty, almost like a second bloom.

During one of the worst parts of the Pandemic, I decided that I desperately needed some violet-related reading, so I searched for books with the word “violet” in the title. I found one called Wily Violets and Underground Orchids by Peter Bernhardt. The title was intriguing, so I acquired a copy of the book. I read the chapter about violets, and it was there that I finally discovered the secret of the seed pods.

The secret is that not only do violets have a figurative second bloom of colorful pods, but they also have a literal second bloom of cleistogamous flowers. Though I had already learned that some plants had flowers that never open and are self-pollinating (jewelweed, for example, and Venus’s looking glass), I didn’t realize that the violet was one of them.

As Bernhardt describes it,

During the first warm weeks of spring these violets offer their showy flowers for cross-pollination. As the season progresses, however, the plants send up increasingly shorter stalks and allocate fewer resources to the production of colored and scented petals. By late spring, or the first days of summer, the violet plant may still be manufacturing flowers, but these blooms resemble fat, green buds that never open. These are the cryptic, or cleistogamous flowers, which can be found only by pushing aside the leaves and searching for these dwarfed stems toward the base of the plant. Cleistogamy means “closed marriage” . . . . The bud remains closed throughout the floral life span. . . . These cryptic flowers always self-pollinate to produce viable seeds, which, of course, are almost genetically identical to their single parent.

As you probably already know, violets can also spread underground by rhizome. So, they have a total of three ways to propagate themselves. Thank goodness I love these wily flowers so much. Can you imagine the battle I’d have on my hands if I didn’t?

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Different Today

What made today different from other days?

  • I saw a cardinal.
  • I took a walk on the road. I don’t do that often, so it was different. But the experience reminded me of why I so rarely do that. And I have a message for the people who call to or holler at women who are walking on the side of the road, and that message is “You suck.”
  • Marshall got his second dose of Covid vaccine. Now he’s just two weeks away from immunity.
  • I let Livia make dinner. She declared that she wanted to cook. And if someone wants to cook, they ought to cook, I say.
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Random 7/19/2021

  • It’s summer now and the stress is low, but soon I will have to rise early in the morning and send the children back to school as if I were a capable adult and as if the world had returned to normal. Only I’m not and it hasn’t. Eek.
  • Today as I was going through the piles on my desk, I found a note that I had written down on a piece of paper. It said, “When you think about where you plan to be in twelve months from now–how imaginative is it?” I don’t know if this was a quote or if I was asking myself that question, or both. It seems like a question worth answering, but my answer is not very promising, which was perhaps the point of writing down the question to begin with. I rarely think about what my life will be like in a year, but when I do, it looks the same as now except the kids are bigger. Totally lacking imagination. That needs to change. So too does my bad habit of leaving cryptic notes on my desk.
  • It amazes me how nearly every time I encounter a new word and investigate its meaning, I will then encounter the word again almost immediately. Today’s word was “transhumanism.” I heard it first in a video clip of a speech by a religious nutjob. I encountered it later in an article in The New Yorker. What are the odds of that happening? Pretty small, I would think. I will take this as a Sign from the Universe that I am meant to know the word.
  • No, I don’t actually believe in Signs from the Universe. I just like the idea of them. So I pretend they’re real. And maybe in doing so I make them real. Or not. Who knows?
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Goldenrod Tea

I’m a chicken when it comes to foraging, but I am genuinely interested in trying some of the edible wild plants that I’ve been learning about. I am working up my courage to try them while I expand my knowledge about them. When I read recently that goldenrod flowers and leaves can be made into a decent herbal tea, I decided to investigate further, because goldenrods are flowers with which I have some familiarity. I feel safer with them than I do with other plants that I’ve only recently identified.

There’s also a fun and historical story behind goldenrod tea. After the Boston Tea Party, colonists starting making “Liberty Tea,” which was the name they gave to various teas concocted from local plants, including goldenrod. Liberty Tea was even exported to other countries.

There is some disagreement about which goldenrods are good for tea-making. It seems to depend on what you want from the tea. If you want good flavor, sweet goldenrod is the best, and perhaps only, way to go. Most of my edible-plant guides mention that variety and that variety alone. Sweet goldenrod is said to have an anise-like flavor, which might not be everybody’s “cup of tea.” I have had anise tea, though, and liked it, so it stands to reason that I’d like sweet goldenrod tea, too.

Online sources are less discriminating about the type of goldenrod used, and for the so-called “medicinal properties,” then perhaps any variety would do. In The Neighborhood Forager, author Robert K. Henderson states, “Where sweet goldenrod is unavailable, the less aromatic flowering tops of other tall species can be used. Canada goldenrod (S. canadensis), western goldenrod (S. occidentalis), smooth goldenrod (S. gigantea), tall goldenrod (S. altissima), or fragrant, white-flowering silverrod (S. nemoralis) can all be infused. Few have sweet goldenrod’s flavor, however, so they are more useful for medicinal than beverage tea.” Goldenrod is said to be a diuretic, which sounds believable to me. As for other health claims made by herbalists, I am skeptical.

If I were to use goldenrod for tea, it would be for the flavor (foraging is one thing, and alternative medicine is quite another). Obviously, to make a good-tasting cup of tea you need something aromatic. So, as a quick and easy first step, the other day I picked a bunch of goldenrod leaves (well, leaves of plants that I was pretty sure were goldenrods–none of them have bloomed yet). I tore the leaves and gave them a sniff. Some of them had no discernible scent. Others were grassy with an unpleasant hint of something menthol-like. They didn’t seem like good tea-making leaves to me.

I was a little disappointed, but it’s early for goldenrods. There are many varieties, some of which don’t bloom until fall, and I won’t be able to identify them until they’re blooming. Maybe I’ll find some tea-worthy types later in the season. I will search for them, even if that means making a spectacle of myself. I suspect that I already look crazy to passers-by as I stop to take pictures of every other thing along the side of whatever path I’m on, and no doubt I will look crazier yet picking and sniffing at random leaves, but it will be fun. Expect to see more goldenrod posts as the year progresses.

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Random 7/17/2021

  • My New Yorker subscription has run out. I am surprisingly sad about this. Each issue is chock-full of good stuff, such as cartoons, crossword puzzles, and interesting articles. But, these things come at a cost. In terms of price, The New Yorker is ridiculously expensive. It also arrives weekly, which is far too frequently for me to keep up with it. It steals reading time that would otherwise go to Smithsonian and Rhode Island Monthly, leaving those publications neglected. So, I will probably have to settle for digital access. That is, unless I am offered another subscription at a no-brainer discount price, in which case all bets are off.
  • The weather is getting in the way of my walks. It always seems to be muggy, buggy, oppressively hot, and/or pouring. Though the skies have been mostly gray, there has been a bright side to the situation. The excessive rain has kept our stream running merrily along at a time when normally it would be dry. I am delighted by that.
  • Summer comes with bug bites. This has always been the case, and it always will be. Consequently I am willing to accept a certain number of them, barring tick bites, without complaint. But, lately I have been getting eaten alive, and unfortunately that affects my sleep, because the itching wakes me up in the middle of the night. The more bites I get, the worse my allergy to them gets, which means bigger welts and worse itching. I need to be a little more careful about what I wear outside, and when and where I walk. I may even have to consider using a mosquito repellent (if only it weren’t as repulsive to me as it is to mosquitoes!).
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SITY: Low Light

It never fails. If I walk late, and especially if it’s cloudy, I always see things that need to be photographed. That’s what happened today. Of course, nothing photographs well under such low light, but I took pictures anyway, and I’m going to share them.

The first thing I noticed was that some of the black medick was looking kinda fuzzy. What? That can’t be. As we know from last year, the flowers turn into hard black seeds, not fuzzy ones. So I looked closer, and it was actually a small rabbit-foot clover plant, the first one I’ve ever found on my property.

Welcome, furry friend!

Then I spotted another one.

Wait, no. This is not a clover. This is a surprise caterpillar!

The caterpillar wasn’t the only critter around.

Beetle Doing a Split
Slug Being Sluggy

But these jewels are what really caught my eye.

Jeweled Jewelweed

I’d never given much thought to why the plant was called “jewelweed.” I guess I just assumed it was because of the brightly colored flowers. Several sources suggest that it’s actually either because of the way water beads up on the surface of the leaves or because of the silvery look that the leaves get when submerged. Apparently the leaves are water-repellent, which is why water beads on them, and they also have microscopic hairs that trap air, which is what causes that silvery look when leaves are submerged. But, it wasn’t beading or silveriness that made me take the picture. What interested me was how the water droplets had caught on the teeth of the leaves. I wonder if holding on to the drops that way could provide some benefit to the plant. I don’t know. In any event, it was pretty and worth photographing, even under such low light.

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Reading Report: Middish-July 2021

I finished Be Buried in the Rain by Barbara Michaels, and I gave it the usual “Michaels B+.” It is the story of Julie Newcomb, a med student who goes to Virginia for the summer to take care of her elderly grandmother on their ancestral estate in Virginia. The skeletons of a young woman and a baby are found around the same time, and nobody knows who the bones belong to or how they got to where they were found, in the middle of the road, in a place called Dead Man’s Hollow, which runs through Julie’s family’s property. It becomes Julie’s mystery to solve. This book’s biggest flaws are only obvious in retrospect. Consequently, I enjoyed it quite a bit as I was reading it, but I am slightly disappointed by it now that it’s over. Getting to the end was pleasant, if a little unexciting, but then everything happened in a rush. The main character had a lot of repressed memories that she couldn’t recall until it was convenient for the plot, and that tarnished the resolution of the mystery. But, the last paragraph was eerie and so perfect that it made up for a lot of the problems elsewhere in the book. If only Michaels had managed to sustain an aura of suspense to match it! Add another fifty pages or a faster build to the climax, and it could have been a great book. Too late to fix it now, though. As published, Be Buried in the Rain is an enjoyable read but not a keeper.

I am close to finishing The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware. Ruth Ware’s work is often compared favorably with Agatha Christie’s, which is why I decided to read this book. Christie was a great mystery writer because she had a knack for inventing memorable detectives and interesting scenarios that play fair with the reader. It didn’t hurt that she often set her stories in a time period that has a high nostalgia factor now. Her writing style is simple and comfortable, which is probably why it’s so popular, but it’s not otherwise noteworthy. I make these judgments after decades of reading and rereading almost all of her major works. I don’t have nearly as much experience with Ware’s books, so I can’t fairly compare the two writers. Judging by what I’ve read so far, Ware seems to have some of same knacks that Christie did, and I think her writing has a little more flair. But what strikes me most about The Woman in Cabin 10 is how intensely real it feels. If Ware can keep up this level of tension all the way to the end, then I will have to say that she is a great mystery writer, too.

I saw on the Tor website that Judith Tarr was rereading Andre Norton’s work. That got me into a nostalgic mood, and I decided to reread Norton’s Witch World myself. The only copy my library had was an omnibus edition containing the first three books of the series and an introduction by C.J. Cherryh. Cherryh writes,

If you read the Witch World ages ago and have somehow strayed away from that marvelous sense of wonder–read them again. Some books of your youth may not be as good as you remember–but in this case, classic means what classic ought to mean. The Witch World just gets better and better with rereading. It’s so far ahead of the science of the age that it still works its magic.

I read Witch World and several of its sequels when I was a teenager. I liked them, but I didn’t love them. I didn’t read any of them more than once, and I didn’t finish the series. It will be interesting to see how I like the Witch World now. I plan to start reading it tonight.

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SITY: Baby Blues

I found this lovely little blue flower growing in the farthest reaches of my yard. (Picture from 6/17/2021)
It grows in grassy clumps.

This plant is called blue-eyed grass, but it’s not really a grass. It belongs to the iris family. Several websites mentioned that it’s a good flower for borders of gardens and pathways. If it could be encouraged to grow more thickly, it could be quite the eye-catcher. I’m going to add it to my list of native plants to use in my yard plan.

BTW, when I told my husband about the new flower I’d found, he told me that he’d seen the plant before and killed it. We keep having this same conversation over and over. I think it’s hysterical, and I have to apologize if I’ve ever made him sound like a plant-murdering maniac. He’s the one who mows the lawn, and when the wilderness encroaches too much, he cuts it back. I am grateful for the work he does. Plants are wonderful, but they’re wild, and they don’t respect boundaries any more than insects and animals do. If they were left completely uncontrolled, they’d take over, eventually swallowing up the house. As much as I love the wildflowers, I’m not going to give up my home for them. When they step too much out of line, chop chop.

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SITY: Plantains

I don’t now about you, but when I see the word “plantain” I think of that banana lookalike that’s sometimes sold in grocery stores. But, there are plants growing right outside that also go by the name “plantain.” Though the name is shared, the two types of plant are unrelated and even pronounced differently. It’s “plan-TAINS” for those starchy, tropical fruits and “PLANT-ins” for our local plants.

These are plantains. They are common weeds in North America and probably readily recognized by most Americans if not as readily named. This type of plantain grows well in compacted soil, so it’s no wonder that it seems to like this spot along the edge of the driveway, where the soil has been repeatedly trampled.

When I was a child, my friends and I often made make-believe salads with this plant, but we wouldn’t have called it “plantain.” We had no name for it. As I have since learned, there are two plantains that have that same general appearance. One is broadleaf plantain (Plantago major), also known as common plantain, which is native to Eurasia. The other is Rugel’s plantain (Plantago rugelii), which is native to North America. Online sources say that the most noticeable difference between the two plantains is that Rugel’s plantain has a purplish tint at the base of the stems. Whichever one it was that grew in my parents’ yard, I only pretended to eat it, but if I had actually ingested any, it wouldn’t have done me any harm. Both of these plantains are said to be edible (raw when the leaves are young, cooked when they get bigger and tougher).

I can’t say which plantain I used for make-believe salads as a child, but I know which one grows in my yard now. The purple at the base of the stems indicates that it’s Rugel’s plantain rather than common plantain.

Rugel’s plantain is sometimes called “blackseed plantain.” I have noticed that the seedheads eventually turn black, so the name seems fitting. I can’t say, though, if that’s a feature which distinguishes it from common plantain. There is apparently a difference in seed shape between the two plantains, though. Rugel’s plantain seeds are said to be elongated while common plantain’s are more egg-shaped.

Rugel’s Plantain Seeds
(Note: the plantains haven’t gone to seed yet this year; this picture is from a previous year.)

I hope that I haven’t worn out your patience for plantains, because there is a second type of plantain that also grows in the yard. Here is a picture of it.

English plantain is another common, easily recognized weed.

This is Plantago lanceolata, known as English plantain, buckhorn plantain, ribwort, or ribgrass. Its leaves are thinner, more lanceolate, and don’t draw as much attention to themselves, but the tall flower spike prevents the plant from going unnoticed. (BTW, I had a moment of doubt when comparing the flower spikes of my plants against those in photos online, because they did not look the same, but this webpage helped to clear matters up.) This plantain is said to be similarly edible to its cousins, though possibly more bitter and fibrous. As a primarily wind-pollinated plant, English plantain is not a big draw for bees, but it is a food source for several insects, including certain butterflies and katydids.

All things considered, I think both plantains deserve a place in the yard. They are theoretically edible, and they are demonstrably wildlife-friendly. Today I saw just how much the local bees appreciate our Rugel’s plantain.

Bees like Rugel’s plantain.

And, because I remember both of these plants from childhood, they are like old friends. They visit us only once per year, but I am always happy to see them, and I enjoy having them here.

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Reading Report: Early July

  • I finished reading Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear. Maisie Dobbs is a private investigator who has just gone into business for herself in London in the late 1920s, a time at which World War I is nearly ten years past but not even close to forgotten. Maisie has a personal code of ethics that takes into consideration the well-being of the people she investigates. Though she is desperate for work, that code of ethics nearly prevents her from taking a case in which a husband suspects his wife of infidelity. Assured that the wife will be treated kindly no matter the results of the investigation, she decides to take the case. That case leads her to another that strikes at the heart of who Maisie Dobbs is. As I mentioned previously, I liked Maisie’s style, but I was disappointed by the novel’s structure, which introduced a mystery but then abandoned it in favor of an origin story. Having finished the novel, I’m still not 100% sold on the structure, but I can see how it was fitting. After all, the book is called Maisie Dobbs, so why shouldn’t it be about Maisie Dobbs? Something in her past left a mark on her, and the events of the mystery help her come to terms with it. So, if you don’t have your heart set on a riveting mystery (because it’s not), but you do enjoy Maisie’s character enough to read about her past, then it ends up being a successful story. I gave it an A- grade, and I will probably continue with the series.
  • Next, I started reading The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey. Set in 1920’s Bombay, the main character is Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first woman solicitor. The novel throws us deep into the sea of India’s mixed cultures, with references to multiple languages, religions, customs, and laws. This could have been interesting, but it’s ultimately what sunk the novel for me. The author went out of her way to introduce things that would be unfamiliar to us and then described them in great, noticeable detail. This is what others readers seemed to like about the story (many of the positive reviews rave about the “cultural details”). To me, it was glaring, like a constant spotlight. I’d rather enjoy the scenery under normal lighting and occasionally lean in closer to see the details. This is something you learn as a tourist–if you focus on every interesting detail, you miss the whole. It’s possible that the book would have grown on me if I had continued reading, but I don’t have the time or the patience to give it right now. I am not the book’s ideal reader, and that’s OK. I will return it to the library unread.
  • Moving along, I am now reading The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware. So far, the story is about a travel writer who is given free tickets for a luxury cruise so that she can write a magazine article about it. Some reviewers mention that they found the main character to be unlikable. I haven’t read enough of the book to have formed an opinion about her yet. Since I seem to have a higher tolerance for unlikable characters than some readers do, I’m not worried, but I am prepared to abandon ship if the going gets too rough.
  • We are at just about the midpoint of the year, and my reading total stands at 21. This puts me on target to read about the same number of books that I read last year (41). I’m slightly disappointed with my progress. I had hoped that the two weekly screen-free nights would raise the number somewhat.
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