poetry and prose about place

Archive for April 2012

Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens L. var glabrifolia)

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One of the common flowers of early spring is the Mayflower (Epigaea repens L. var. glabrifolia), or Trailing Arbutus, also called Epigee rampante in French.  It belongs to the heath or heather family (Ericaceae).   It grows in open woods, or pastures, and along hillsides, in acidic soil.

Mayflower in bloom, photo taken in 1978 in Nova Scotia

The Mayflower is part of what Roland and Smith (The Flora of Nova Scotia, The Nova Scotia Museum, 1969) called the ‘Canadian Element’, woodland plants native to Northeastern North America and including common plants of the coniferous woods:  Maianthemum canadense Desf. (Wild Lily-of-the- Valley), Mitchella repens L. (Partridge-berry), Gaultheria procumbens L. (Wintergreen) and Trientalis borealis Raf. (Star-flower), among others.  When I worked on my M. Sc. thesis project, years ago, these were in the community of plants I encountered in the woods I was studying, and they are still my favorite plants.

two members of the ‘Canadian Element’ community – leaves of Wild Lily-of-the-Valley (left) and Wintergreen (right)

The name epigaea means ‘on the earth’, and perfectly describes the way the Mayflower grows.  The specific name is from the Latin repens meaning ‘creeping’.  The plant spreads across the ground, its oval, leathery leaves lying flat and overlapping.  The leaves persist all winter and sometimes look a little weather-worn.  The variety we have is glabrous on the lower leaf surface, meaning without hairs. The leaves grow on hairy, woody twigs.

leaves of Mayflower in the Grey Woods, April 2012

The flowers grow in clusters tucked beneath the leaves.  They are creamy white, and are in the form of a short tube ending in five flaring lobes.  They bloom mid-April to mid-May.  The flowers along our woods have just completed their blooming. For a nostalgic look at the tradition of picking Mayflowers in spring, have a look at

A delight of spring is to manoeuvre close to the ground so you can smell the Epigaea flowers.  The perfume is very sweet, gently stirring.  The only edible part of the plant is the flower and it tastes as sweet and fragrant as it smells.  It is a shame to eat such a delicate creature as a Mayflower, but once a year I allow myself the privilege, just one tiny bloom (always be absolutely certain of the identification before you eat any plant in the wild).  The plant is protected in some areas since it rarely sets seed and is almost impossible to transplant.

The Mayflower is the floral emblem of Nova Scotia and Massachusetts.



Trailing Arbutus

(Epigaea repens L.)


on the slope, new leaves

          Trientalis, Gaultheria

Star-flower, Wintergreen,

vines of Partridge-berry creep,

          Maianthemum unfurls


beneath the din, a melody

weeps Epigaea, evergreen

pressed to the hillside

leather armour, thickened leaves

weather-beaten, worn


waxy bloom resists

subtle shadow


unrelenting rain




1. never eat any plant if you are not absolutely certain of the identification;
2. never eat any plant if you have personal sensitivities, including allergies, to certain plants or their derivatives;
3. never eat any plant unless you have checked several sources to verify the edibility of the plant.

©  Jane Tims   2012

Sweet-fern (Comptonia peregrina (L.) Coult.)

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Last weekend, we went on a short hike to the lake to collect some dried Sweet-fern, with the goal of making Sweet-fern sun tea.  To make the tea, fresh or dry leaves of Sweet-fern are steeped in a jar in the sun for three hours.

Unfortunately, the wind was too cold to allow the spring sun to warm the jar.  So I collected the dry leaves and, on Sunday afternoon, I enjoyed a cup of fragrant Sweet-fern tea, made the usual way, steeped in boiling water.

Later in the spring or summer, I’ll be trying the sun tea method again.

Sweet-fern(Comptonia peregrina (L.) Coult.) is a small rounded shrub with fernlike green leaves found in dry rocky waste areas, clearings or pastures.  The leaves are simple and alternate, long, narrow and deeply lobed.  The shrub sometimes grows as a weed in blueberry fields.

Sweet-fern is called Comptonie voyageus in French, since peregrina means traveller. The generic name is after Henry Compton, a 17th century Bishop of London who was a patron of botany.

The fruit is a green burr enclosing 1-4 nutlets.  These can be harvested in June or July while still tender.

Sweet-fern is a member of the Sweet Gale family.  The plant is very fragrant, particularly when crushed, due to glands on the leaves and twigs.  The tea made from the leaves is also fragrant.  To make the tea, use 1 tsp dried or 2 tsp fresh leaves per cup of water.  Remember, to always be absolutely certain of the identification before you try eating or drinking anything in the wild.


Directions for Sweet-fern sun tea

8 tsp of fresh chopped leaves

1 quart of clean fresh cold water in a jar

cap and place in sun three hours until water is dark

strain and serve



Sweet-fern sun tea

Comptonia peregrina (L.) Coult.


to quench the thirst of a traveller

and reward a hike too far


steep sweet-fern

in the solar flare


gives up fragrance to air

and to water in a sun-drenched jar



1. never eat any plant if you are not absolutely certain of the identification;
2. never eat any plant if you have personal sensitivities, including allergies, to certain plants or their derivatives;
3. never eat any plant unless you have checked several sources to verify the edibility of the plant.
© Jane Tims  2012

Written by jane tims

April 28, 2012 at 6:52 am

places off-planet #1 – watching the stars

with 6 comments

For me, star-gazing is a warm-weather activity.  The winter, although dazzling in its displays of stars, is too cold for my arthritic joints and the immobility of prolonged star study.

So, as May approaches, I am looking forward to spending some time outside, to locate some old friends in the sky and to meet some new sky-folk!

I am lucky to live in an area not overly polluted with night light.  At our home, although trees make viewing sporadic, stray light from street and yard lights is not a problem.  At our lake property, the surroundings are utterly dark and the sky is stunning, studded with stars.

If you want to do some stargazing, you need three things to get a good start:

  •      a star chart or a planisphere (a combination of a star chart and a viewer). My favourite planisphere is downloadable and printable, from the National Research Council at

  •      a reclining lawn chair (so you can relax and your neck will not ache)
  •      a flashlight with a clear red cover (this is to prevent your eyes from becoming light-adapted as you check the star-chart).

Another helpful item, to see groupings of stars more clearly, or to see details of the moon:

  •      a pair of binoculars

Are you a stargazer?  What are your favorite ‘tools-of-the-trade’?



the search for wind

and stars


these are not the winds I sought to stand in

I wanted a zephyr to ruffle the bluets in spring

a breeze to whip the silver wind chime to frenzy


instead I cower from night moans

the rattle at the window

the street where a dust daemon lurks

near every wall, lifts the leaves

grinds them to powder


I gaze at the skies

watch for Altair and Orion

the never- random pulse to signal man


but all the lights in the night sky

are not stars

the moon who solemn watches

as his face is peeled away

the comet drawing scant thoughts across darkness

its tears a storm of falling stars


I walk with sorrow

it rests behind the eyes

and cannot swell to tears


the truth so simple

yet impossible to know-

you need only stand

and the hill will form beneath your feet

and the roaring shrink

to the breath of love across your face


©  Jane Tims  2012

Written by jane tims

April 27, 2012 at 7:09 am

‘Ducks’ Ditty’

with 11 comments

On Saturday we took a drive along the St. John River, to see if any waterfowl were braving the cold windy day.  The water is slowly receeding but still above summer levels.  On a miserable day, the ducks retreat to the shallows, away from the exposure of the open water.

There were a few birds on the water.  We stopped for a while to watch five male Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) paddling about.  They stuck together as a group, feeding in the shallows and occasionally ‘standing’ on the water to flap their wings.   This time of year, the female Mallards are on the nest, hatching their young, and the males typically hang out in groups with other males until moulting begins.

I am not good at duck identification, but the Mallard is easy to spot, with its bright green head and the white ring around its neck.  I enjoyed watching them through the binoculars, especially their orange legs and feet maneouvering in the muddy water.

The Mallard is a member of the marsh duck family and a ‘dabbler’.  Dabblers obtain their food by skimming it from the surface or tipping up to submerge their heads so they can feed underwater.

I can never watch dabblers on the water without thinking of Kenneth Grahame’s famous poem ‘Ducks’ Ditty’, from the book The Wind in the Willows.  If you don’t have a copy of the book, have a look at the poem at

©  Jane Tims 2012

maple blossoms

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This week, as Red Maple (Acer rubrum) flowers bloom, the woodland blushes scarlet.  In the driveway, a tree-shadow of blossoms has begun to form, as the flower clusters reach their peak and then drop to the ground.

Each flower is a puff of reddish-pink bracts surrounding the male and female flower parts.  The stamens (the male part of the flower) consist of a thin filament topped by a dark anther where the pollen is formed.  The pistil (the female part) is made of a style topped by a stigma; once fertilised by pollen, the maple seeds will form here.  Red maple flowers may have both stamens and pistils, or may be only male or only female.  The flower looks like a tiny fireworks, the burst-effect created by a bundle of stamens or stigmas.

When I went to Dalhousie University in Halifax, I always loved the flowering of the Norway Maples (Acer platanoides) in spring.  Their flowers are green and most people mistake them for new leaves.  I used to wonder what the ecosystem consequences might be if the flowers were bright orange or purple instead of green.



red maple blossoms


across brown sky

strontium bursts of bright

sparks bloom

against dark



©  Jane Tims 2012

Written by jane tims

April 23, 2012 at 6:42 am

keeping watch for dragons #5– river dragon

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It’s like getting an old song stuck in your head… I am now seeing dragons… everywhere.

Yesturday, as I crossed the bridge on the way to my work, I saw the piers of the old bridge and their reflections in the water.  To me they were the protruding plates along the spine of a river dragon, resting in the water.

Have you seen any dragons lately?



river dragon


eight bevelled piers

(only remains of the old bridge)

idle in still water, reflections rigid

plates along the spine of a spent dragon

lolling on his side

taking a break in the river



©  Jane Tims  2012

Written by jane tims

April 21, 2012 at 8:02 am

snippets of landscape – vernal pools and the spring migration

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At the edges of our Grey Woods are several places where ‘vernal pools’ form.  As a result, these spring evenings are alive with the peeping and croaking of various frogs and toads.

‘Vernal pools’ are temporary accumulations of water in depressions.  This water may originate from snow accumulations or from rising water tables.  The word ‘vernal’ comes from the Latin ver meaning spring.

Although vernal pools are ephemeral, they create habitat for many animals, including insects and amphibians, often at critical life stages.  Amphibians such as Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica), Spotted Salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum), and Blue Spotted Salamanders (Ambystoma laterale) depend on vernal pools for laying their eggs and development of tadpoles.  Other amphibians you may encounter in a vernal pool include Spring Peepers, Grey Tree Frogs and Bull Frogs.

During a rainy night in late April or early May, you may be fortunate enough to observe the early spring migration of Wood Frogs and other species as they make their way to breeding locations.  These frogs have remained all winter in hibernation and have unthawed in the early spring rains.  Unfortunately, many must cross roads to get to the ponds and vernal pools where they will lay their eggs, and many become casualties of their attempts to cross the road.



an uncertain spring migration


if it rains

the night road

leads home

to lowlands

and hollows

vernal pools

north of the highway

swollen with rain


mists crawl

towards me


sweep the windshield

frogs cross the roadway

follow ancestral memory

blurred by rain


some nights

the tail-lights ahead

are my only family

red streamers on wet pavement

tadpoles from the eggmass

grow legs

absorb their tails

follow the road


I watch

the phone poles

the potholes

the hidden driveways

the headlight echo on trees

frog legs

crushed on the pavement

mailboxes with uncertain names


the centre line is a zipper

seals the left side

to the right

the coming home

with the leaving

frogs plead

from the wetlands

never saying goodbye


Published as: ‘an uncertain spring migration’, Spring 1997, Green’s Magazine XXV (3).


© Jane Tims  2011


from the pages of an old diary – blueberries and other local foods

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My new writing project, ‘growing and gathering’, focuses on local foods and finding food close to home.

A source of information and inspiration for me is the set of my great-aunt’s diaries, written from 1943 to 1972.  From her diaries, I have a very good idea of how they obtained their food, and how they used local foods to supplement their needs.

Most of their food was obtained from the grocery store – in 1957, there was at least one grocery store in the community, and by 1967, they had an IGA.  There is no doubt some goods came from ‘away’.   For example, my great-aunt wrote about making coconut and pineapple squares for a Women’s Missionary Society meeting (Sept. 30, 1957).

Local goods, however. were used whenever possible.  For example, my great-aunt bought eggs from her sister, and chickens from her brother.  She also obtained vegetables and raspberries from her brother’s farm, apples from friends and relatives, deer meat from friends and relatives, and lobsters from Wallace, a near-by community.   By 1967, my great-aunt and great-uncle also kept a garden at her brother’s farm, a few miles away.

Obtaining local foods included picking local berries.  In July and August of 1957, my great-aunt went four times for wild blueberries.  Her gratitude and pleasure at getting these berries comes through in her words:  ‘ got quite a few’ (July 31, 1957) and ‘got a nice lot.’ (Aug. 21, 1957).  She also wrote about picking grapes and currants.

Some of the berries were eaten right away – for example, my great-aunt made a blueberry pie on August 1, 1957.  The rest was preserved for the winter.  On August 16, 1957 my great-aunt put up 5 quarts of blueberries, to supplement the applesauce, pears, peaches, sweet cucumber pickles, and tomato chow she mentions preparing on other days.  Others in the family also made preserves and shared them with her – in 1967, her nephew (my uncle) brought her three bottles of peach, apple and choke cherry jelly he had made.



an offering of berries


she stands on the stoop

offers a box

a brimming pint

of berries


I take her hand, we ripple

through the pasture, strew

blue ribbons over bushes, stir

a blueberry jelly sky, dance

with dragonflies


she waits on the stoop

her brow a riddle, please

take this gift, blueberries

in a simple






1. never eat any plant if you are not absolutely certain of the identification;
2. never eat any plant if you have personal sensitivities, including allergies, to certain plants or their derivatives;
3. never eat any plant unless you have checked several sources to verify the edibility of the plant.

©  Jane Tims  2012

accents in red

with 15 comments

We are still in the greys and browns of spring.

There are a few wildflowers blooming. The Coltsfoot is spreading carpets of yellow along the roadside.  And flowers in the deep hardwoods have begun to display their delicate beauty.  But most places are drab and colorless.

I watch for red this time of year.  There are a few red berries, still clinging to their branches after winter.

And the stems of Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera Michx.) are brilliant in the fields and ditches.

My favorite ‘red’ of spring is the muted red of the blueberry fields.





the blueberry barren

is faded scarlet

red osier in ditches

rosebush and hawthorn

a single berry, a single haw

Earth in brown

toenails red


©  Jane Tims 2012

Written by jane tims

April 16, 2012 at 6:43 am


with 8 comments

In my posts this summer, the space I expect to feature prominently is our summer property.

I’ve talked about this place before.  One end of the property is along a lake (see ‘course of the creek’, September 12, 2012, and ‘ice is nice’, December 21, 2011, both under the category ‘waterways’).   The lake edge is a bright forest of cedar, hemlock, birch and oak, and includes a beautiful marsh.  We sit on our bench in the woods and look out at the lake, watching loons and deer and ducks.  Once I saw an eagle plummet from the sky and dive into the water with a huge splash, to emerge with a good-sized fish in his talons.

Most of the property was/is an oldfield.  When we bought the property in 2004, we bought an open field, thick with blueberry bushes and grass that rippled in the ever-present wind.  There were a few trees, mostly bushy pine, spared year after year by the farmer’s bushhog.  The field had been home to a herd of buffalo (bison) and we still find the dry, dusty evidence of their wallows.

The keyword in the last paragraph is ‘bushhog’!  The farmer offered to keep the field mowed, but we are very independent.  We were certain we could keep ahead of the various trees and alders sprouting everywhere.

The result has been the usual progress of an oldfield in the process of succession.  Today our pines still punctuate the property, and there are enough blueberries to keep us satisfied, but other spaces have emerged… the alder swale, the maple grove, the path through the birches, the blackberry barrens, and, of course, our tiny cottage.  There is a bit of grassy field still remaining and we struggle to keep it intact.

east boundary of our property, with our cedar rail fence, looking toward our neighbor's mowed field

When we go to the property I like to think about how it is changing, right before our eyes.  Those buffalo would have a hard time recognising the place.



evidence of buffalo


                         “…in this field, years ago, I kept buffalo….”

                                                       beef farmer, selling his land


massive posts brace a page fence

woven with wire birch

dusty wallows where soil is crushed

and only lichen will grow


three apple trees trodden

parallel to ground

grey feed trough

strung together with nails


cedar waxwings search the fence

coarse hairs for their nests

winds nuzzle and whisper

through the brush of pine



© Jane Tims 2012

Written by jane tims

April 14, 2012 at 9:25 am

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