Weird and Wonderful Plants

141225 Longwood Gardens_3410acsThe Conservatory at Longwood Gardens is a welcome respite from the dark and dreary days of winter. Outside the landscaped grounds are cold, bleak and brown. Step indoors and we are welcomed with warmth and color.

141225_Longwood Gardens_3581acsBeautiful flowers are everywhere. Some dangle in delicate shades of blush…

141225_Longwood Gardens_3584acsWhile others offer a brighter palette.

141225 Longwood Gardens_3511aPast the Main Conservatory and the Exhibition Hall, the Silver Garden and the Banana House, each step deeper into the labyrinth of corridors and rooms reveals ever more exotic plants. Bird of Paradise.

141225 Longwood Gardens_3503acsRound the bend and we are met with a shaft of sunlight illuminating some unusual leaves. Ram’s Horn Croton.

141225_Longwood Gardens_3564acsWalking into the Fern Passage brings us among some truly weird and wonderful plants. Look up! See the intricate pattern made from the spore-dotted fronds of the Australian Tree fern that towers over your head.

141225_Longwood Gardens_3560aTurn another direction, and we find ourselves face to face with suspended carnivorous pitcher plants. Smaller ones share a planter with tiny Venus Flytraps.

141225_Longwood Gardens_3592acsWait – our favorite plants seem to be missing. Where are the club mosses? This is Longwood Gardens; they simply have to be here.

141225_Longwood Gardens_3600acsAnd they are. In fact, we were looking right at them. A helpful staff botanist is happy to show us what we missed.

141225_Longwood Gardens_3595acsNot mosses at all, club mosses are vascular plants. We are familiar with Lycopodium, which resembles a teeny tiny Christmas tree, but on this Christmas day, we are introduced to Huperzia, sometimes known as fir moss.

141225_Longwood Gardens_3594aThese particular Huperzia are called Tassel Ferns.

141225_Longwood Gardens_3550aPassing through the Cascade Garden, we find ourselves in the Rose Alley, which speaks to us of both spring gardens and tropical climes. Water droplets glisten on colorful hibiscus.

141225 Longwood Gardens_3531aOutside it is cold and windy, but inside the Conservatory of Longwood Gardens winter dreams blossom into weird and wonderful life.

Winter’s Edge

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1513acsLong gone are the warm days of summer, days when families crowded the beach with their beach blankets and umbrellas, their sand pails and horseshoe sets. The only creatures frolicking in the surf are ducks. The stiff ocean breeze, so welcome when the temperature was 80°, is a torment at 35°. Autumn lingers, but teeters on the edge of winter. The beach is empty.

Of humans, but not of wonders.

At last, the beach is ours!

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1563acsFrom late fall to mid-spring, the Jersey Shore is ours to explore, empty of crowds and noise. Now there are plenty of treasures to collect, shells and rocks and sea glass, safe from the many feet and the mechanical beach-sweepers of summer.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1555acs2Lines of dune fencing stretch across white sand to the horizon.

141128_NJ Holgate_2948acsThe winter birds arrive at the Shore with the colder weather. Long-tailed Ducks bob in the waves. The females seem to have a lot to say to the pink-billed males.

141128_NJ Holgate_2706acsThis sparrow-like bird is a Snow Bunting.

141128_NJ Holgate_2774acsAs we walked along the beach at Holgate one November day, we kept seeing these odd tree sculptures. For a bit, we thought some enterprising soul had placed driftwood on end as an artistic expression. Then we realized that these were the broken stumps of dead trees, and we were walking amidst what once had been wooded dunes.

141128_NJ Holgate2902-5 Pan acsThe dunes at Holgate, looking west toward Barnegat Bay. The southern tip of Long Beach Island is a part of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. It didn’t always look like this. Only a few years ago, it was a thicket of dune plants and shrubs. Then Superstorm Sandy paid a visit, inundating the entire area, breeching the island from bay to ocean in places. These weathered roots, trunks and branches are what are left of once vital vegetation. Devastated, but starkly beautiful.

FUN FACT: These plants were flooded with water, but died of thirst. Why? Fresh water flows easily into a plant through the tissues of the roots, a process called osmosis. But this was a saltwater inundation. Ever have a salt shaker gum up in humid weather? Salt absorbs water very easily, pulling water from the plants into the soil and leading to dehydration. It also interferes with the chemical processes by which a plant obtains nutrients. The combination of nutrient and water deficiencies has laid waste to the dune plants.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1480acsThis is what a healthy dune community should look like. Stone Harbor Point.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1520acsGood fences make good neighbors.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1489acsDune fences make good dunes, and if successful, good dune grasses and plants.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1552aGood fences make good backdrops for wildflowers, still abloom in mid-November.

141122_NJ Hereford Inlet_1646acsOne doesn’t have to go far from the beach to find woodland critters. The gardens at Hereford Lighthouse provide a fine place for squirrels to make a living.

141122_NJ Nummys Island_1892acsIn the late light of day, a pair of American Oystercatchers squabbles.

Even on the edge of winter, wonders abound at the wild edge.

Small Delights

140918_OC Corsons Inlet_1489 acs

The beauty of the natural world lies in the details.

– Natalie Angier

It’s a big world out there, and sometimes overwhelming. Serenity can be found in tiny treasures. Spend time looking closely at the form of a flower, the lacy veins of a leaf, the tiny grains of sand, and feel the wider world melting away.

 Notice the small things. The rewards are inversely proportional.

– Liz Vassey

Regular readers of the Wild Edge may notice that I am drawn to small subjects: dragonflies, snails, lizards, flowers, seeds. While I enjoy landscape photography, it usually isn’t long before I’m isolating part of a scene, or zooming in close on some little detail.

So it was inevitable; I recently purchased a macro lens. For the uninitiated, macro lenses take extreme close-up photos, often of very small subjects. I took it for a walk along the bay beach at Corson’s Inlet State Park, at the southern tip of Ocean City.

140918_OC Corsons Inlet_1466 acsNow I will readily admit I violated the First Law of Macro Photography: I didn’t use a tripod. This was just a trial run, and I didn’t expect anything of the session. To my surprise, a few photos seemed worthy of sharing here. If only to inspire you with the beauty to be found if you take a really close look at the small details of Nature around you.

Notice not just the flowers, but the wasp. Not just the wasp, but the grains of pollen on the wasp. Pollen hitching a ride on flying insects is one way plants reproduce.

 Details create the big picture.

– Sanford I. Weill

140918_OC Corsons Inlet Crabs_1638 aA tiny Ghost Crab stares down a leaf. His mottled coloration camouflages him against the sand. We’ll meet his kind again soon.

140918_OC Corsons Inlet_1507acsHairs for catching pollen. Spikes for – what? Protection against being eaten?

140918_OC Corsons Inlet_1553 acsAnother seed pod sports the punk-rock spiky look.

 To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour.

– William Blake

140918_OC Corsons Inlet_1568 aGrains of sand on a clam shell. Sand is nothing less than teeny-tiny rocks and minerals, many grains as translucent as glass.

140918_OC Corsons Inlet_1599 acsSand and shell on an autumn leaf. The lacy veins carry vital materials in and out of the leaf, including chlorophyll, a green pigment critical to the energy production of photosynthesis. When chlorophyll production ceases in fall, the green fades away and the red and yellow pigments already present in the leaf are revealed.

 I still get wildly enthusiastic about little things… I play with leaves. I skip down the street and run against the wind.

– Leo Buscaglia

 140918_OC Corsons Inlet_1605 acsA closer look at a crab leg, dressed in the colors of a sunset.

140918_OC Corsons Inlet_1488 acs 2When it all feels too much, take  time for a walk, and lose yourself in the tiny details of life at the wild edge.

In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.

– Aristotle

Last of the Summer Wine

140809_HNWR 420_6686acsSkipper butterfly, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, PA

140729_HNWR Evening_4767a   Wild rice, Heinz NWR

140809_HNWR 420_6926acsOsprey, Heinz NWR

140809_HNWR 420_7286acsCabbage white butterflies, Heinz NWR

140729_HNWR Evening_4619acsQueen Anne’s lace, Heinz NWR

140729_HNWR Evening_4942acsRed-eyed Vireo, Heinz NWR

140719_Elk Neck State Park_2495acsZebra swallowtail, Elk Neck State Park, MD

140809_Bartrams Garden_7591aPassion vine flower, Bartram’s Garden, PA

140809_HNWR 420_6636acsSkipper butterfly, Heinz NWR

140729_HNWR Evening_4678aGreat Blue Heron, Heinz NWR

140809_HNWR 420_7222acsBlack swallowtail, Heinz NWR

140729_HNWR Evening_4986acsGreat Egrets, Heinz NWR

140809_HNWR 420_7173acsSkyline and marsh view, Heinz NWR

140809_HNWR 420_6916acsBlue dasher dragonfly, Heinz NWR

The Forest Primeval

MI Hartwick Pines 1 Old Growth Forest_9078acsNo cathedral built by man could match the majesty of this forest sanctuary.

MI Hartwick Pines 1 Old Growth Forest_9082aRugged russet trunks rise straight and true to the arched ceiling of deep verdant green.

All is hushed but for the small rustlings of squirrel and chipmunk congregants below, and the whisperings of the wind in the pines that tower above.

MI Hartwick Pines 1 Old Growth Forest_9104aThe floor is laid, not with stone, but lush ferns and wildflowers. Where some old giant has fallen, light streams through the canopy as through stained glass. Porcupines, pine martens and bears have all walked the aisles of this forest older than time.

The air is still, the mood solemn, the spirit mysterious, eerie, primeval.

MI Hartwick Pines 1 Old Growth Forest_9101aOnce upon a time, pine forests covered 10 million acres of the North Country. Now only small remnants remain. This 49 acre old growth white pine forest endures at Hartwick Pines State Park in Michigan.

The pines here are thought to be over 300 years old, stand 120 feet or more, and may reach four feet in diameter at breast height. Eastern hemlocks and red pines attend these kings. Below them is a shaded understory so dark, it seems eternally twilight.

MI Hartwick Pines 1 Old Growth Forest_9116aAt the edges, where maples and beeches mingle with the pines, rests a small chapel.

A church within a church.

Quaint and cozy, yet somehow superfluous.

Are not the pines themselves enough to inspire reverence in such a setting?

Must people seek the Creator within walls while all of Creation stands without?

MI Hartwick Pines 2 Scenic Drive_9214sStep from the forest cathedral, and other mysteries beckon the soul.



This dirt road, for instance.

Don’t you want to know what’s around the next bend?

Let’s see what we can find.

MI Hartwick Pines 2 Scenic Drive_9134aThe Au Sable River meanders its way through wetlands and woods, singing a soft hymn as it goes.

MI Hartwick Pines 2 Scenic Drive_9173aTwo very different dragonflies share a pew.

MI Hartwick Pines 2 Scenic Drive_9185acsA Northern Crescent butterfly preaches from a sunflower lectern.












MI Hartwick Pines 2 Scenic Drive_9211a

A choir of brightly cloaked angels.


MI Hartwick Pines 3 Nature Trail_9245acsGlory, Glory, Hallelujah!

Glory Lake reflects the glory of northern Michigan in the colors of azure sky, cobalt water, and emerald pines. At the top of a tall tree nearby perches an Osprey, looking for prey.

Glory Lake, and its sister, Bright Lake, are kettle ponds formed during Michigan’s glacier period. Ice blocks that broke off from the glaciers formed depressions that filled with water after the glaciers retreated.

MI Hartwick Pines 3 Nature Trail_9294acsA trail leads from the ponds into a diverse woodland.

Besides the aspen at left, there are white, red and jack pines.

Spruce, hemlock, and cedar.

Beech, maple and oak trees.

Shrubs, ferns, wildflowers, and a potpourri of plants are also abundant.

It’s a botanist’s dream.


MI Hartwick Pines 3 Nature Trail_9286a

Behold! – Lycopodium!

These are club mosses, but don’t be fooled by that name. They are not true mosses at all, but vascular plants.

Like teeny tiny Christmas trees a few inches high, they bring joy to those who spot them.

These little plants are much favored by the true of heart.

MI Hartwick Pines 3 Nature Trail_9281aAt trail’s end, a quiet spot for contemplation. From towering pine trees to miniscule club mosses, ferocious dragonflies to gentle butterflies, the mysteries of the land inspire reverence and wonder.

May Nature’s blessings be with you all. Go in peace.

Mt. Cuba In Bloom

Mt Cuba 3 Woodland_6193aThe calendar is marching inexorably toward summer. Humidity is building, and the mercury is oozing toward 90 degrees. It seems like only yesterday that we were locked in snow and ice, and suddenly it’s hot. Did we even have a spring this year?

Mt Cuba 1 Formal_6038aYes, we did. Like her sister Autumn, Lady Spring is an elusive and ephemeral tease. This year, perhaps pouting at the persistence of the Winter Queen, Spring’s arrival was late, and her stay short. But she did grace us with her presence. I have the evidence!

Mt Cuba 3 Woodland_6397acs copyAll of these photos were taken at Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware. Mt. Cuba is a botanical garden with a commitment to using and promoting native plants in its 50 acre cultivated gardens and 500 acre natural areas.

The center offers many classes on horticulture and conservation, and maintains a Trial Garden where various native plants are studied.

Mt Cuba 4 Ponds_6538aThe pathway leads through a variety of habitats, including woods, meadows and ponds.

Mt Cuba 2 Trillium_6266acsThe stars of the show in spring are the Trilliums. They even get their own garden!Mt Cuba 2 Trillium_6122acsMt Cuba 2 Trillium_6276a

Mt Cuba 2 Trillium_6115aSome Trilliums wear camo…

Mt Cuba 2 Trillium_6253aOr come in double-flowered forms.

Mt Cuba 3 Woodland_6088aA shady spot for one of Her Ladyship’s sprites to sit and enjoy her lunch.

Mt Cuba 3 Woodland_6416aJack in the Pulpit.

Mt Cuba 3 Woodland_6569acs copyColumbine.

These neat flowers were at both Shenk’s Ferry and Mt. Cuba. They gave me fits trying to get a good photo.

Mt Cuba 4 Ponds_6485acsNow the Summer Queen is knocking at the door. Lady Spring kept us in suspense this year, and her appearance was brief, but oh, was it worth the wait!


Shenk’s Ferry Wildflower Preserve

Shenks Ferry WF Bluebell_5526 aCan you imagine life as a spring ephemeral wildflower? You’ve lain dormant for months, through the summer heat and the cold days of winter. As the weather begins to warm, you awaken. You have a few short weeks to do all your work for the year. Leaf out, feed, bloom, reproduce and set seed; all need to be accomplished before the tree canopy above you leafs out and blocks precious sunlight, and the air turns hot. Better get busy!     Virginia Bluebell, above.

Shenks Ferry WF Trillium_5796acsShenk’s Ferry Wildflower Preserve, along the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County, is well-known for its variety of wildflowers. Over 70 different species bloom in the spring, with another 60 peaking during the summer.     Trillium.

Shenks Ferry WF Spring Beauty_5779 aDon’t expect a cultivated garden if you visit, though. Oh no! This is a wild woodland glen whose main trail traces the path of creek valley. Wildflowers, many tiny, are scattered along the forest floor under the trees, tucked away in the lush understory. Finding these little beauties is worth the effort though.     Spring Beauty.

Shenks Ferry WF Bluebell_5973aI thought learning to identify different bird species was tough, but it’s nothing compared to plants. I’ve only been studying identification for two years or so, and I’m trying to learn birds, plants, trees, dragonflies, butterflies and lots of other critters  – all at the same time.

I’ve tried to put common names to as many of these flowers as I can. If I’ve identified something incorrectly, or not at all, and you know its proper name, PLEASE leave a comment!

Virginia Bluebells and Wild Columbine.

Shenks Ferry WF_5754acsIn most cases I’ve only gotten as far as a family or genus name, not the individual species. For instance, this is a Violet. Which one, I have no idea.

Shenks Ferry WF_5587 aI think this might be another Violet.

Or something else entirely.

In identifying plants, the flower is the first classification to make (which can be a problem if the plant isn’t in bloom). The next step is to classify the plant itself (wildflower, shrub, vine) and then look at the leaves.

Don’t let the leaves in this photo fool you; they’re from two different plants.Shenks Ferry WF Squirrel Corn_5597a



Here’s Squirrel Corn.

At first I had it labeled as Dutchman’s Breeches, then I looked at Wild Bleeding Heart.

All three plants are in the Dicentra genus, so they’re cousins, and near look-alikes.

Shenks Ferry Morel_5607 acsThis isn’t a wildflower, but a mushroom known as a morel. It will be as short-lived as the spring ephemerals.

Shenks Ferry WF_5605 aI have no idea. Do you?

Shenks Ferry WF Wild Geranium_5883acs copyWild Geranium.

Shenks Ferry WF_5731 aDoes anyone know this lovely lady’s name?

Once the heat sets in, and the trees cast permanent shade, your time to get productive work done has passed. Is this the end for you? Not at all. Though your flowers and perhaps your leaves will wither, you have firm roots in the soil. Like all ephemeral wildflowers, you will go dormant, sleeping away the passing seasons until spring arrives and you blossom anew.

Shenks Ferry WF Bluebell_5998 acs