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Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature: Treasures in plain sight

  • Bill Danielson photo<br/>The flower of a red clover is actually a globular collection of many smaller blossoms.

    Bill Danielson photo
    The flower of a red clover is actually a globular collection of many smaller blossoms.

  • Bill Danielson photo<br/>Standing 2 to 3 feet tall, the viper’s bugloss plant has blue flowers with wonderful violet-colored filaments.

    Bill Danielson photo
    Standing 2 to 3 feet tall, the viper’s bugloss plant has blue flowers with wonderful violet-colored filaments.

  • Bill Danielson photo<br/>A member of the aster family, the robin’s plantain is a gorgeous lavender-pink when observed up close.

    Bill Danielson photo
    A member of the aster family, the robin’s plantain is a gorgeous lavender-pink when observed up close.

  • Bill Danielson photo<br/>The flower of a red clover is actually a globular collection of many smaller blossoms.
  • Bill Danielson photo<br/>Standing 2 to 3 feet tall, the viper’s bugloss plant has blue flowers with wonderful violet-colored filaments.
  • Bill Danielson photo<br/>A member of the aster family, the robin’s plantain is a gorgeous lavender-pink when observed up close.

January, February and March are months that often give me trouble as a nature writer. In the depths of winter there can be precious little to feature in my columns and I find that I often have to be the most creative during these cold, dark months. Sometimes the world offers me gifts in the form of vagrant birds, but other times it is an agonizingly quiet time during which I repeatedly wish for the arrival of spring.

Then, in what sometimes feels like the blink of an eye, my wish is granted as the verdant wave of spring finally crashes over me. The world shifts from famine to feast and the senses can be overwhelmed by the sheer variety of wonders that spring forth from the earth and fall from the skies. It is at times like these when the small things can easily go overlooked.

As a nature photographer, it can be a surprising challenge to slow down and really take a look at what’s around me. Sometimes I get so caught up in the rare, elusive creatures of the world that I miss the splendor of those that are plentiful. It’s at times like these that a change of perspective can really make a difference.

So this week I present you with three different wildflowers that typically go unnoticed. Some are small and hiding in plain sight, while others are larger, but temporary because of a short blooming period. All are gorgeous and well worth looking for and looking at carefully.

The first is the complex blossom of the humble clover. In this case, I am specifically speaking of the red clover (Trifolium pratense), which can be found just about anywhere you look. The real trick is to find a corner of the yard that the mower missed the last time it was out attempting to establish uniformity in the plant community. If a red clover is allowed to grow taller than the height of the blades, it can really be gorgeous.

The blossom is a globular cluster of individual flowers that are each asymmetrical in shape. When dozens of these little flowers are arranged in just the right way, however, they form into a delightful little chandelier of pink spikes that are favored by bees for their sweet nectar. But, the flowers of the red clover are just one gift that the plant provides.

Every year, my biology students start the Ecology Unit in the spring. I time this so they can be thinking of all of the interactions between plants and animals just as the world is starting to wake up. On page 78 of their textbook, there is a mention of an extremely important process called nitrogen fixation and it turns out that the humble little clover is one of the plants that plays a role in this integral process.

Nitrogen is one of the six most important elements in organic compounds. Since our atmosphere is made up of about 78 percent nitrogen, you would reasonably think that it would be readily available for living things, but you would be wrong. It turns out that nitrogen gas is notoriously inert, which is why it is used to keep wine and other foods from spoiling.

It turns out that converting an inert gas into something useful is rather difficult, so difficult in fact that it takes the combined efforts of plants and bacteria to accomplish. Clovers, which are members of the legume family, have developed one of these rare relationships and they do an enormous service to the community in which they live.

Bacteria living in the soil form close associations with the roots of cover plants. If you were to attribute thought and intent to plants, you would even say that clover plants offer up special sections of their roots for the bacteria to inhabit. The bacteria get a safe place to live while the clover plants get access to ammonia and other nitrogen-rich compounds that the bacteria produce. The clover plants can then use those compounds to make proteins.

Farmers have long understood the value of clover and it is often planted in fallow fields to give the soil a chance to recharge. Even as it does this wonderful service (for free by the way), it also provides a rich source of nectar for bees, which in turn can produce a rich supply of honey for human use. Clover is an unsung hero of the plant world, so the next time you see a clover blossom, give it a closer look.

Another flower that can go unnoticed in plain sight is the purple extravagance known as viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare). This is actually one of my favorite wildflowers and one that I anticipate seeing every year. It is also a species that shines the terrible, bright light of truth on my own laziness.

After waiting and waiting for this flower to appear, I time and time again seem to find one reason after another to drive past it. I even managed to do it this year for a while, but I finally made myself stop and enjoy. The reason is simple. Viper’s bugloss is a plant of fields and “waste places.” Some of the best waste places are roadsides and this is exactly where I see the plant every year.

The problem is that when I’m in the car, I’m usually on my way to somewhere I need to be and I am loathe to stop. I usually say, “I’ll stop there as soon as summer vacation starts,” but then it’s usually too late. Roadsides are maintained with occasional mowing and if I don’t stop before the mowers get there then there isn’t anything to look at. So, after a strenuous session of personal tough talk, I finally stopped and took some photos.

Finally, I can’t ignore one of the most luxurious wildflowers that exists as a “weed” in areas of taller grasses that are spared the mower. The robin’s plantain (Erigeron pulchellus) is another species that thrives along the sides of roads where mowing is frequent enough to keep the trees at bay, but sufficiently infrequent to allow taller herbaceous plants to reach fruition.

I have a patch of these beautiful flowers in my own backyard and they love to grow in the middle of the trails that I maintain in areas that would otherwise be dominated by goldenrods and tall grasses. I was out mowing before the rainy spell we had last week and I almost mowed a gorgeous patch of these flowers before I was able to wrench myself out of what I call “mower’s fugue.”

From even a little distance, these flowers almost disappear, but if you get up close with the right lens on your camera you can really appreciate how beautiful they are. And in the process you might find yet another treasure hidden out in plain sight. So don’t let summer vacation slip by without spending at least one afternoon basking in the beauty of the otherwise invisible beauty that surrounds us.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. His Speaking of Nature column runs weekly in The Recorder. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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