Friday, June 29, 2012

tender pink mallus

tender pink mallus --
curlicue stamens shading
a hot honeybee

We've been in a heat advisory for the past two days: 104 F/40 C in the shade and 84 percent humidity. Common enough conditions in some parts of the world, but extreme in June in our little corner of the Midwest. Elsewhere, raging forest fires out West and monsoon floods in India. 
          In spite of the heat, the honeybees are working the pink mallus blooming outside our front door. Back at the hive, some of the workers are fanning their wings to cool the brood chambers. Outside, there is enough of a breeze to keep our wind turbine spinning, so we stay inside our straw-clay walls, sprawled on the cool limestone floor under the whirring ceiling fan.
          Tonight, merciful thunder and lightning, promising rain.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

humble bumblebee

humble bumblebee
tirelessly pollinating
every blooming thing

Bumblebees are big and noisy and they can sting, more than once, though usually only to defend their nest. But these native North American bees are major pollinators and now they're in as much trouble as their European cousins, honeybees. The decline of these once numerous pollinators threatens not only our food supply but almost every blooming thing. Without pollinators the plant kingdom would be reduced to mosses, ferns and fungi. What would survive on that diet?
          The cause of the decline of bumblebees is not clear, but several factors play a major role: loss of wild habitat through monoculture farms and urban growth, the use of pesticides, parasites and fungus diseases, and last but not least, global warming.
          This is National Pollinator Week, a good time to appreciate all of our tireless pollinators. So plant some flowers today!

Monday, June 25, 2012

ladybug dancing

lady bug dancing
among the ferny green leaves
of poison hemlock

We've had a proliferation of poison ivy this spring, and now the wild members of the parsley family, Apiaceae, are blooming in profusion along roadsides and creek banks -- wild carrot, wild parsnip, wild chervil and their dangerous cousin, poison hemlock. Contact with poison ivy can cause a skin rash, but poison hemlock contains a neurotoxin that causes paralysis and death when ingested even in small amounts by people or livestock.

Conium maculatum was introduced to North America from Europe and is often mistaken for a garden ornamental. With its ferny leaves and white umbels the plant is attractive, but all parts of it are poisonous -- leaves, stems, roots and seeds. The volatile alkaloids in hemlock have been used as a poison since ancient times. In ancient Greece it was used on condemned prisoners. The most famous case is the death of the philosopher Socrates in 399 BC. The Athenian government condemned him to death or exile for his teaching methods which aroused skepticism and impiety in his students. He chose death by drinking an infusion of hemlock.

I have been seeing lots of plants that appear to be poison hemlock all along the highway, especially near moist areas, and even in town. Today I decide to check to make sure it's poison hemlock I'm seeing and not wild chervil, a close look-alike. I find a group of these tall plants, some twice my height, with clusters of lacy white blossoms and lush foliage, growing on either side of the bridge over our creek. They are rubbing shoulders with their cousins, wild carrot and wild parsnip, as well as wild elderberry. One tall plant is growing right up through the middle of an elderberry shrub. Elderberry flowers are also white and grow in large clusters, but the leaves are pinnate, with many leaflets with serrated margins, and the bark of this deciduous shrub is gray.  

The finely divided, fern-like leaves of poison hemlock resemble wild carrot, but are not as feathery, and they are not hairy like wild chervil. The leaves give off a musty odor when crushed. The hollow stems are smooth, not hairy like wild carrot, but it's the purple splotches on the greenish-yellow stems that distinguish poison hemlock from its parsley cousins. 

I'm surprised to discover a number of ladybugs crawling rapidly all over this poisonous plant. Apparently they are not affected by the toxins, but what's the attraction?

The white flowers are already starting to turn to green seeds. Poison hemlock is a biennial that reproduces solely from seeds. It produces a ferny rosette the first year and tall flowering stems the second year, from May to August, followed by green, ridged seed capsules that turn brown when the seeds mature, much like wild parsnip. 

Jefferson County Noxious Weed Control Board offers a number of recommendations for controlling poison hemlock, which is required county wide. The best method is to pull or dig up small plants when the ground is moist. Wear gloves and don't touch the eyes or mouth after handling the plants. Plant parts may not be safe to leave on site or put into the compost because they decompose slowly, taking several years for the poison to dissipate. Do not burn the plants because the smoke releases toxins into the air. Repeated mowing will weaken the plant and reduce its competitive ability. Some herbicides are effective if applied during the early stages of growth, but do not use herbicides over or near water bodies. They also recommend bagging the seeds. But then what do you do with the bags?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

summer solstice -- raindrops

summer solstice -- raindrops
spangle petals, seed heads,
a sagging spider web

Summer solstice came a day early this year, on the 20th of June instead of the 21st. But the longest day of the year made its presence felt as temperatures hit 90 F (32 C) with 52 % humidity. Then, after the shortest night of the year, we were blessed with a tiny bit of rain this morning, enough to bedeck with glistening drops an electric red rose blossom, the fuzzy golden seed head of a tree peony, the fireworks display of an allium seed head, and a drooping spider web.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Amantani baby

Amantani baby
in hand knit cap, Oshkosh jacket --
father, son, old, new

On Isla Amantani we are staying at a hospedaje run by an extended family. Everyone on this remote island in Lake Titicaca wears traditional attire, so it's funny to see this baby dressed in an Oshkosh B'gosh jacket below his hand knit chullo. I try to explain in my limited Spanish that I live a day's drive from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where this jacket is made. The father, who only speaks Quechua, is as amused by my gestures as the son he is lovingly supporting.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

curving back on green

curving back on green
stems, hardneck garlic scapes loop, 
curlicue, entangle

Mid-June, a host of hardneck garlic plants have sent up their stiff green stems, topped by pointy, paper white scapes. These false seed heads do not produce viable seed and divert energy from the garlic bulbs multiplying below ground. To ensure a crop of mature bulbs, you're supposed to snip off the scapes, though I find this hard to do because they are so beautiful. So before I behead the false seed heads, I enjoy their graceful gyrations as they twist and turn on their long stalks, looking like white grebes with stiletto beaks and sinuous necks. 
          The miniature bulbs inside the white husks have the same sharp flavor as fresh garlic. Popping one into my mouth makes my eyes water. By harvesting the scapes in late spring we get to enjoy that garlic taste in salad dressings and sauces long before I harvest the bulbs in late summer.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

tiny green grasshopper

tiny green grasshopper,
your lush lemon daylily,
gone tomorrow

When I stoop to smell the sweet fragrance of a lemon daylily, I spot the tiniest grasshopper I've ever seen, perched on one of the upward curving stamens. It poses like a model as I take its photograph, only moving its antennas, which are twice as long as its bright green body.
          On the same stalk as the fully open blossom are the remains of yesterday's bloom and the swelling buds, each one bigger than the one below it. By tomorrow morning, today's lush lily will look like its shriveled companion, as each flower has but one day to fulfill its mission in life. 
          And the little grasshopper? Does it intend to eat the blossom before it wilts? They are certainly tasty, as the ancient Chinese discovered.
          Even the dried blossoms are beautiful, twisting in orange folds and crenelations like creative origami.

Friday, June 8, 2012

butterflies pirouette

butterflies pirouette
on the pink lips of milkweed
half closed, half open 

Early June, time for Red Milkweed, Queen Anne's Lace and Bird's-foot Trefoil to take their turn blooming. This butterfly looks like it had a close encounter with a hungry bird.

Butterflies, large and small, singly and in groups, flock to the deep pink pom poms of Red Milkweed. 

Honey bees delve into the golden coins of Bird's-foot trefoil.

And wasps explore the white doilies of Queen Anne's Lace.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

bumble bee breaching

bumble bee breaching
the lure of saffron petals,
exchanging favors

The sweet-scented rose, rooted to the ground, waits with the intention to attract the services of the bumble bee. The airborne bee, randomly roaming, pursues the intention to gather nectar from blossoms. They meet, half by design, half by chance. The bumble bee, legs laden with gold dust, passes up buds and pale blooms until it lands on a deep apricot blossom. 

Perched on the ruffled petals, the bee searches for the entrance to the heart of the rose. It takes a big bee to find the opening among all those petals -- no little honey bees hovering around these roses. 

When the bumble bee locates the center of the blossom, it dives headfirst into the inner sanctum. 

They exchange favors -- the rose releases nectar to the bee, while the bee inadvertently deposits pollen from other flowers on the sticky stamens.

After long moments of probing, the bumble bee departs on its dark, transparent wings, leaving the fertilized flower to begin another cycle of waiting as the ovary swells and the petals fall away.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Deer Meadow

The locals think I’m crazy,
re-seeding by hand,
but no one will lend us a tractor
with a three-point hitch.

Machinery’s useless anyway
for wild grass seed tangled
with bits of stems, leaves and forb corollas
that clog the drill.

The week you lie paralyzed
on a white bed in a white curtained stall,
I pace the pasture you call
the deer meadow—

pioneering in reverse, shuttling across
the once tallgrass prairie,
scattering the russet seeds in an arc
for the coltish wind.

Potpourri of wine bronze gold gathered
at Big Creek and Redfeather,
with names like the poppling song
of the mockingbird—

Tahoka daisy, goldstem grass, dropseed,
turkey foot grass, bastard toadflax,
dame’s rocket, downy sunflower, hoary puccoon,
blanketflower, rocket larkspur.

No compass plant to guide me
through the maze of corridors,
no rattlesnake-master to vanquish
the tumor swallowing your spine.

Between bouts of rain,
poison ivy, thorns,
and the lopped off stalks of goldenrod,
I stride the scalp shorn field—

dragging fifty-pound bags of chopped hay,
each handful light as fuzzy hair,
clinging to the chaff, blanketing the beds
trampled by deer.

There is an intimacy in this slow spreading,
time to find a meadowlark nest
that survived the mower, its single speckled egg

Space to discover, beyond the chemical waste
of corn fields and hog lots,
below the wreck and rubble, a rhapsody
of chocolate hearts

pressed into the dark and yielding mud,
a duet of the delicate
cloven feet of the cinnamon doe
tap dancing at dawn.

In your deer meadow the wind-borne seed
will sprout from its safe
confining shell, raising a tender green

As I drop the last clinging seed
on the bare fallow ground,
your fluttering heart emerges
from a mantle of wildflowers.

Monday, June 4, 2012

black bee, yellow bee

black bee, yellow bee,
orange butterfly and white --
sipping coneflower nectar

On one small patch of yellow coneflowers, I spot two kinds of bees and butterflies. Naturally, I recognize the yellow striped honey bee, the kind my friend keeps in square white hives, but the black bee is a bit of a mystery. 
          A little research reveals that the mystery bee is also a honey bee (Apis melifera), but the European dark bee, also called the German black bee, is a different subspecies from the Common or Western honey bee. The dark bee was actually the first honey bee brought to the Americas by Europeans in the early 1600s.
          In addition to the two kinds of honey bees, the yellow coneflowers (Echinacea paradoxa) are being visited by two kinds of butterflies, a tawny one with dark spots along the edge of its wings and a white one with an orange streak on its lower wing edge. The coneflowers, with their drooping golden petals and spiky crown, are obviously a favorite of both bees and butterflies. Both types of insects are able to probe deeply with their long proboscis into the spiky tubes that make up the flower's central disk in order to sip the hidden nectar.