Sunday, October 12, 2008

Diminutive Giants

Rusty-haired Saxifrage
Diminutive Giants
Feb 6, 2006
Moralea Milne

While winter can still have us clasped to it’s wet and windy breast, there are some tough and hardy plants that dare to defy the vagaries of our weather. On sloping, open, rocky knolls they take advantage of any sun that manages to appear, the rocks acting as a heat sink, contributing to balmier conditions. The plants themselves have evolved as short, sturdy ground huggers that are well placed to withstand desiccating winds.
Depending on the weather of any particular year, the miniscule rusty-haired saxifrage can often be seen flowering in mid-February to early March, raising it’s stalks of crisp, white, 5-petaled flowers with their bright red anthers above the shiny, leathery, toothed leaves. Appearing with or soon after, often on the north side of rocky knolls, you can find the delicate and diminutive satinflower. Their petite, iris-like leaves hold up the flamboyant, pinkish-purple, bell-shaped shiny petals, like so many balloons from which the air is slowly escaping. Blue-eyed Mary is another of these tough but tiny harbingers of spring. Shaped like a minute, simplified version of the garden variety snapdragon, blue-eyed Mary, as it’s name suggests, is a lovely, almost periwinkle blue with a white throat. You can sometimes come across many of them flourishing together, giving a soft hazy blue aspect to the hillside. Monkeyflowers, like blue-eyed Marys, are annuals, but these miniatures are a brilliant yellow with a reddish brown blotch on their lower petal. They can occasionally be found in profusion, defying gravity, as they bloom in the steepest crevices which are seasonally rich with seepage. Springold, a slightly larger plant in the carrot family, also proclaims winter’s end with a cheerful, yellow splendor that can last for weeks on end. Indeed, the plants seem to bloom according to a personalized schedule that means some springold plants can be found blooming during many months. I have seen some in bloom in November through to June or even July, in the right conditions. The thickened taproots are said to be the wild carrot eaten by First Nations. Care should be taken to positively identify the plants as some members of the carrot family are extremely toxic (poison hemlock), however all of the Lomatium genus (of which springold is a member), are edible. Generally the toxic carrot family plants like moist conditions, while the edible ones prefer dry, fast draining soils.
All of us who have driven past our famous St Mary’s churchyard know that this is also the season for shooting stars and fawn lilies. The vibrant pink flowers of the shooting stars closely resemble the cultivated cyclamen that is a common house or garden plant and the roundish, thick leaves show adaptation to early cold springs by lying close to the ground. The fawn or Easter lily almost carpets the churchyard with a sea of nodding white blooms that rise above two mottled fawn-like leaves. It is no wonder that we have visitors who make a special trek each year to capture, for a few moments, the beauty of this churchyard, a remnant of the grassy fields that once were common and the product of much attention from a committed group of caretakers.
Rocky knolls are not the only place to find early bloomers. There is a flowering currant on the left as you enter Devonian Park that I have seen in cautious bloom as early as mid-February. The skunk cabbage patch at the corner of Taylor Road and Rocky Point are in bloom by now, their bright yellow spaths thrusting through the wet, nutrient rich soils they love.
Treat yourself to a ramble over some moss balds this month (although you need to stay on the paths and not disturb the moss and plants), and see what minute jewels you can find blooming right down there at ground zero. Wear some old jeans or rain pants so that you can kneel down and appreciate their exquisite beauty and adaptations. See how the moss looks like a tiny, miniature forest and the flowers like lush tropical blooms? Perspective is everything, isn’t it?

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