Speaking of Nature: A late-October feast: Butter-and-eggs wildflowers a surprise burst of color before the cold

The lower lips of these irregular flowers are orange, like the yolk of an egg. The upper lip is a creamy yellow, like butter.

The lower lips of these irregular flowers are orange, like the yolk of an egg. The upper lip is a creamy yellow, like butter. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON


For the Recorder

Published: 10-30-2023 5:00 AM

It was early in the morning, before the sun had come up, and I was tasked with the weekly chore of taking the garbage out to the curb. Sometimes I remember to do this the night before, but I am somewhat wary of the midnight raiders that might knock over the barrels and search for something “delicious” in the bags that spill out. This has never happened in my yard, but every once in a while I see the clear evidence of a midnight raid strewn across the road as I make my way to work.

So, I waited until morning to take out the garbage and in so doing I provided myself with a genuine treat. The air was warm! Late October seems like the time of year when the morning air should start to get your attention with a chill, but this morning was warm and almost balmy. To further accentuate the odd conditions I heard the slow chirps of field crickets coming from the tall grass. We’ve had mornings with temperatures below 40 degrees, but we haven’t all received a frost yet and the summertime creatures are holding on for a little while longer.

It was the kind of morning that would represent the purest agony for anyone who had to go to work.

The gentle sound of crickets, the barely-perceptible current of air flowing above the tall grass and the perfume of dry leaves that tantalized the senses; all provided a promise of a magical summer day that popped up in the middle of autumn.

Later in the afternoon, when my normal working hours were over, I went to retrieve the now empty garbage barrel and in the light of day I discovered yet another gift that Nature had sent my way. In a small patch of taller grasses that had escaped the mower I discovered a bouquet of the most beautiful wildflowers. A reliable bloomer in the area around my mailbox, these were the flowers of a plant that I know as “butter-and-eggs” (Linaria vulgaris).

Any gardeners out there might recognize the flowers of butter-and-eggs as closely resembling those of the snapdragon. These irregular flowers have a lower “lip” that protrudes out from the upper petal. If a little pressure is applied to the sides of the blossom by gently squeezing the sides of the tube then the flower will open up in a way that looks quite a bit like an opening mouth. At some point in history a person imagined that this looked like a dragon opening its mouth and thus the name snapdragon.

My reliable old Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide identifies the butter-and-eggs plant as a denizen of roadsides and other “waste places.” That last term is a rather negative-sounding euphemism for places that have been disturbed in some way; usually by human activity. It is a perennial, which means that it will spring up in the same place year after year and it is also a prolific bloomer. The flowers come in tall “racemes” (pronounced ra-seems) and the flowers are all pointed toward the sky.

The reward for any pollinator is rather difficult to reach because of the structure of the flowers, so a large insect like a bumblebee is generally the only insect strong enough to force its way in. The individual flowers last for quite a while and the raceme will continue to extend upward and replace older flowers that pass by. In the end, the tall stalk will be covered with round pods filled with tiny seeds.

Butter-and-eggs is a species that was accidentally introduced by European settlers. Originally found in England (with fossil evidence to back it up) the flowers of this plant were prized by gardeners and brought across “the pond” to decorate the gardens growing around new homes. The plants, unaware that they were in a new place, found the conditions agreeable and they inevitably “escaped” into the wild. By this we can say that they started to grow outside the confines of the gardens in which they were originally planted.

Because so many people planted this flower in so many different places, the pant has many delightful “local” names including: bunny mouths, lion’s mouth, calf’s snout, dead men’s bones, rabbit flower, impudent lawyer (the most ridiculous and perhaps my favorite), monkey flower and yellow toadflax.

There are many other names, but I focused mainly on the ones that had to do with some sort of animal.

As the Starks would say, winter is coming. However, the conditions on the ground are still favorable for any flowering plants that just aren’t quite ready to give up. I’ve seen dandelions, knapweeds, asters, clovers and even the odd hawkweed plant still blooming in my lawn. Up by my mailbox and at a couple other spots along the road there are still butter-and-eggs in bloom and hiding in the tall grass there are still crickets and grasshoppers living out their lives until the cold does them in. If you get outside while it is sill warm, then you will see that there are plentiful little treasures to be found. Go take a look and see what you can find.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 26 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.