Saturday, April 6, 2013

Wildflowers on the High Bridge State Park Trail

Do you and your garden have the summer blahs? Do you yearn for colorful blooms that don't require much attention? Then let's take a walk on the new High Bridge Trail from the River Road parking lot out to the historic old bridge. Mother Nature's garden along the trail is packed with color -- white, purple, yellow, blue and orange. Many of these plants are beautiful and have interesting stories associated with them.
Passion flower
All along the east-bound side of the trail you'll find lots of creeping vines bearing unique looking round white flowers with purple fringes. These are maypops or passion flowers, which are much loved by hummingbirds, bats, and bumblebees. Early settlers used the fruit to make jam. Spanish missionaries, however, had a more unique use for the plant. They used the various parts of the flower to explain the last days of Christ to converts. They were the first to use the name passion flower.
Field or pasture thistle
On the west-bound side of the trail, there are numerous pasture thistles bearing bright pink or lavender blooms. Because of their spiny leaves, thistles have suffered from bad PR since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and God said “Cursed be the ground because of you. Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you.” Early American settlers, however, found that the down from the dried flowers was excellent for stuffing quilts and that honey made from thistle nectar was especially tasty.
Black-eyes Susans
There are also black-eyed Susans, butterfly weeds, chicory, Queen Anne's lace, pokeweeds, and yarrow on both sides of the trail. With their yellow “petals” and black/brown cone-shaped centers, black-eyed Susans are one of the most widely recognized and beloved wildflowers. Blooming from May until frost, they have one of the longest bloom periods of our native plants. The name comes from a song that was popular in 18th century London: “All in the dawn the fleet was moored, the streamers waving to the wind, when black-eyed Susan came on board.” The black-eyed Susan is a native of the western plains and was accidentally spread to the East through contaminated clover seed.

Butterfly weed
The bright orange-flowered butterfly weed has many names, including pleurisy root and chigger weed. It is most commonly called butterfly weed because of its ability to attract many types of butterflies, such as monarchs, swallowtails, and coppers. In fact, the Delaware Indians called it “the plant where butterflies alight.” Butterfly weed has a deep taproot that enables the plant to withstand long periods of drought. It is a very popular bedding plant in Europe and England.
Chicory, which is a common roadside plant, adds a dash of bright blue to Mother Nature's garden. It is a native of Europe where the tender young leaves are very popular as salad greens and the root is roasted and mixed with coffee or used as a coffee substitute. In Belgium, the plant is still considered a cash crop. Chicory was probably introduced here as a hay crop in the 1700s. Thomas Jefferson grew it at Monticello and wrote to George Washington that it was “one of the greatest acquisitions a farmer can have” to feed cattle and makes “tolerable” salads.

Queen Anne's lace
White blooming Queen Anne's lace, or wild carrot, is another European import that grows in just about any sunny spot from June to October. The plant has feathery leaves and tiny white flowers that form lacy, flat clusters. Each cluster has one tiny reddish-purple floweret in the center. This floweret is sterile and its sole purpose is to attract insects with its color. Scientists have observed a variety of insects on a single Queen Anne's lace plant, including bees, wasps, butterflies, beetles and flies. After the flower heads die, they curl up to form bird's nest shapes that eventually fall off and distribute seeds as they are blown about by the wind. According to legend, Queen Anne's lace was named for the English queen who was an excellent lace maker. When she pricked her finger, a single drop of blood stained the lace, thus the dark floret at the center of the lacy head.

Pokeweed is a tall plant that has reddish-green stalks and tiny, almost insignificant, white flowers with green centers that look like miniature tomatoes. These little flowers, however, are masters at attracting insects. Each flower has striations that appear very prominent to insects' eyes and lead them directly to the pollen. The flowers are followed by bright purple berries. Pokeweed has been much loved as a food source in the South. Early settlers gathered the plant's tender leaves and boiled them with bacon fat to make “poke sallet.” Harlan, Kentucky still hosts an annual Poke Sallet Festival and the governor is charged with protecting the annual crop. During the 1700s, the Portuguese used the juice of the berries to enhance the color of their red wines.

Yarrow adds another touch of white to Mother Nature's garden along the trail. It has very feathery almost fernlike leaves that first appear during the warm days in early March. The shoots are curly and, according to the Chippewas, look like squirrel tails. By July, the plant has become tall, sturdy, and decorated with numerous umbrels or clusters of white flowers, which help ensure the plant's survival by attracting insects. Another survival mechanism is the plant's strong camphor-like scent, which repels Japanese beetles and other chewing insects. In fact, this scent is so strong that it protects nearby plants also.
Wildflowers are nature's decorations - there to remind us to slow down and enjoy what's around us. So - the next time you're stressed or just have the midsummer gardening blahs, head out to the High Bridge Trail and enjoy Mother Nature's spectacular display of yellow, white, blue, orange, and pink flowers.


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