Archive for April 2012
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.
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.
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.
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 http://ahundredyearsago.com/2012/04/28/gathering-arbutus/
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.
(Epigaea repens L.)
on the slope, new leaves
vines of Partridge-berry creep,
beneath the din, a melody
weeps Epigaea, evergreen
pressed to the hillside
leather armour, thickened leaves
waxy bloom resists
Warning: 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
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
in the solar flare
gives up fragrance to air
and to water in a sun-drenched jar
~Warning: 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
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
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
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 http://www.literaturepage.com/read/windinthewillows-14.html
© Jane Tims 2012
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
© Jane Tims 2012
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?
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
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
north of the highway
swollen with rain
sweep the windshield
frogs cross the roadway
follow ancestral memory
blurred by rain
the tail-lights ahead
are my only family
red streamers on wet pavement
tadpoles from the eggmass
absorb their tails
follow the road
the phone poles
the hidden driveways
the headlight echo on trees
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
from the wetlands
never saying goodbye
Published as: ‘an uncertain spring migration’, Spring 1997, Green’s Magazine XXV (3).
© Jane Tims 2011