nichepoetryandprose

poetry and prose about place

keeping watch for dragons #6 – Water Dragon

with 6 comments


The last full week in May, we took a day to drive the Plaster Rock-Renous Highway.  This is an isolated, but paved, stretch of road, called Highway 108, connecting the sides of the province through a large, unpopulated area.  The highway runs from Plaster Rock in the west, to Renous in the east and traverses three counties, Victoria, York and Northumberland.   It takes you across more than 200 km of wetland, hardwood, and mixed coniferous forest, some privately owned, and some Crown Land.  A large part of the area has been clearcut, but the road also passes through some wilderness of the Plaster Rock-Renous Wildlife Management Area and the headwaters of some of our most beautiful rivers.

From the east, the highway first runs along the waters of the Tobique River, across the Divide Mountains, and into the drainage of the Miramichi River, crossing the Clearwater Brook, and running along the South Branch of the Dungarvon River and the South Branch Renous River.

Along the way, we stopped at a boggy pond next to the road between Clearwater Brook and the Dungarvon, to listen to the bull frogs croaking.  There among the ericaceous vegetation filling most of the pond was a dragon for my collection.

look closely near the center of the photo… the single white spot is the spathe of a Wild Calla or Water Dragon

Water Dragon, more commonly known as Wild Calla or Water Arum, was present in the shallow, more open waters of the pond, appearing as startling white spots on an otherwise uniform backdrop of green and brown.

Wild Calla (Calla palustis L.) is also known as Female Dragons, Frog-cups, Swamp-Robin and, in French, calla des marais, arum d’eau, or aroïde d’eau.  It lives in wet, cold bogs, or along the margins of ponds, lakes and streams.

The Wild Calla belongs to the Arum family, along with Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema Stewardsonii Britt.) and Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus (L.) Nutt.).  These plants have tiny flowers along a thick spike known as a ‘spadix’.  The spadix is enclosed by a leafy bract called the ‘spathe’.  The spathe of Wild Calla is bright white, ovoid and abruptly narrow at the tip.  The leaves are glossy green and heart-shaped.  The flowers growing among them are often overlooked.  On the pond, there were about ten visible spathes, and likely many more hidden among the plentiful leaves.

The various parts of the Wild Calla are considered poisonous since they contain crystals of calcium oxalate.  These cause severe irritation of the mouth and throat if eaten.  However, there is a twist to this story of a poisonous plant.  Scandanavian people, in times of severe hardship, prepared flour for ‘Missen bread’ from the dried, ground, bruised, leached, and boiled seeds and roots of Wild Calla.  Do I have to warn you not to try this at home!!!!????

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.

Linnaeus, the botanist who invented the binomial (Genus + Species) method of naming plants, described the laborious process the Swedish people used to remove the poisonous crystals from the Water Dragon in order to make flour.  To read Linnaeus’ account, see Mrs. Campbell Overend, 1872, The Besieged City, and The Heroes of Sweden (William Oliphant and Co., Edinburgh), page 132 and notes  (http://books.google.ca/books?id=IAsCAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA222&lpg=PA222&dq=missen+bread&source=bl&ots=ZO8cl_2nBl&sig=Gtr5Lq6PvG3DXV_l-kfECNuhWfo&hl=en&sa=X&ei=gGLFT-79B4OH6QG1m-nOCg&ved=0CC8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=missen%20bread&f=false Accessed May 29, 2012).

~

~

~

desperate harvest

‘… they can be satisfied with bark-bread, or cakes made of the roots of water-dragon, which grows wild on the banks of the river…’

– Mrs Campbell Overend, 1872

~

the pond beside the road

simmers, a kettle

of frog-croak and leather-leaf

~

spathes of Water Dragon

hug their lamposts, glow white

lure the desperate to the pond

~

bull-frog song deepens the shallows

the way voices lower when they speak

of trouble, of famine

~

people so hungry, harvest so poor

they wade in the mire

grind roots of Wild Calla for flour

~

needles to the tongue

burns to the throat

crystals of calcium oxalate, poison

~

worth the risk –

the drying,

the bruising,

the leaching,

the boil,

the painful test to know

if poison has been neutralized

~

the toughness of

the Missen bread

~

~

©  Jane Tims  2012

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.

6 Responses

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  1. p.s. Or is it because it’s poisonous???

    Like

    snowbirdpress

    June 5, 2012 at 10:34 pm

    • Hi. You could be right… perhaps Wild Calla is called Water Dragon because it is poisonous. The calcium oxalate causes the inside of the mouth to burn…also a ‘dragon’ characteristic!!! Jane

      Like

      jane tims

      June 6, 2012 at 6:42 am

  2. This is the Year of the Water Dragon in the Chinese Calendar…. I was very interested in seeing what you would discover in our natural world. My first thought was the grebe… but that’s the “Water Witch” I believe. I wonder how this lovely flower got the name of Water Dragon…. Does it take over the waterways crowding out other plants?

    Like

    snowbirdpress

    June 5, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    • Hi. Thanks for this information… I didn’t know it is the year of the Water Dragon! I don’t think this plant takes over… it is not common in New Brunswick and the plants seemed confined to one area of the pond we saw. It has an out-of-place, almost artificial look… perhaps this contributed to its name. Jane

      Like

      jane tims

      June 6, 2012 at 6:40 am

  3. Wow, Jane. Such a powerful poem. Conveys your message perfectly.

    Like

    Jane Fritz

    June 5, 2012 at 8:48 am

    • Hi Jane. Thanks. Since I have never experienced the desperation of these people, I had a difficult time with this poem. I’m glad to know it tells the story well. Jane

      Like

      jane tims

      June 5, 2012 at 10:12 am


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