Columbines: Enchanting and Toxic!

What caught my eye against the red-rust bricks was the softness of the purple-blue and white petals, like bits of angel wings.

The shapes made me think of cranes and swans and butterfly wings; even dragons. They had a most delicate appearance, ethereal.

As it sometimes happens, an object in death can be as beautiful as it was when alive, just different.

The spent columbine petals lay assembled in various random poses, but could not have been more artistic if they had been purposely placed. I ran for my camera.

These magical columbines came with the house I bought 13 years ago. For years, there were very few, just about hidden beneath some shrubs. It took me a few years to discover them, coming to recognize their distinctive rounded lobed leaves. I quickly came to cherish the secretive blooms.

By this year they have spread and I had more little purple flowers than ever. Some gardeners almost regard them as pests. I wholeheartedly invite them to spread across the entire yard.

Widespread Wildflowers

Wild columbines are native to Europe, Asia and Northern Africa, but they have been widely cultivated as garden flowers in the United States. The five-petaled flowers come in many colors, from purple and blue, to pink and orange.

Aquilegia, their Latin name, pays tribute to the flower shapes, with spurs jutting out from the rear.

These spurs hold nectar and were thought to resemble eagle claws or beaks. Aquila is Latin for “eagle.”

Traditional uses

Columbines are said to symbolize wisdom, strength and happiness. It has served as a religious symbol of purity and has appeared in paintings with the Virgin Mary. It was also considered sacred to the goddess Venus.

Like many wildflowers, columbines have been used medicinally since the Middle Ages. All parts have been used, including the roots, flowers, leaves and seeds. The medicinal uses were many. It has served as a remedy for fevers, rhinitis, swollen lymph nodes, bloody coughs, jaundice and gall bladder ailments. The plant contains several alkaloids, triterpenoid saponins, flavonoids, and small amounts of cyanogenic glycosides.

Though columbines are considered toxic, the flowers have some astringent and antiseptic properties. The root has been used as a topical treatment for eczema. It is not recommended to consume any parts of the plant, as it contains cardiogenic toxins which can cause gastroenteritis and heart palpitations. Ingestion of large amounts of the fresh herb can cause convulsions, breathing problems and heart weakness.

Best to enjoy these storied flowers from a distance!

Just for fun, take your own Rorschach test: see what the petal shapes remind you of.

Before death

A Mystery Solved and the Spring Dance of Green Men

I’m so excited, I’m almost dancing.

Salix viminalis, Osier willow, common willow, osier.

These are names for what I believe is my little tree in the front yard! It has stymied me since I moved in 12 years ago. I suspected it was a kind of willow, but when I searched “willows,” none matched my tree. It’s not weeping and it has really small, narrow leaves. It has catkins in the spring, a willow-like characteristic, and gets lots of suckers and turns yellow in fall.

This morning, I broke off a small branch, including catkins and leaves, ready to send it off the National Arboretum in Washington, DC, for identification.

In one last ditch effort, I searched the internet for “trees with catkins.” This time, It didn’t take long to find a photo that looked like mine! “Osier willow” was what was pictured, a tree native to the United Kingdom and across Europe to western Asia. I am 99.9% certain that this is what it is.

I have a female tree, according to the description of its green catkins.

Male trees have yellow ones. Interesting! These trees favor wet areas and their branches have widely been used for basket making.

Osiers and Green Men

But, more interesting is the folklore associated with osiers. According to one British website, Chediston, Suffolk, has a local custom known as a ‘willow stripping’ ceremony. Typically held at the first full moon in May, this Druid-like event features a ‘Green George” figure dressed in willow strippings, who dances around and is then ceremoniously thrown into the local pond.

Wow! May Day is coming. Perhaps I should dance around my tree, though where it’s planted makes that impossible.

I wonder if Green George is what we also call Green Man? I have several versions of Green Man in my garden.

Myths abound about Green Man or “Jack-in-the-Green.”

Figures of Green Man can seen in numerous churches, cathedrals and abbeys, largely in Britain and France. He is variously depicted as good or evil, frequently with vegetation coming out of his mouth. This can represent life returning each spring, fertility, nature and in general faith and hope.

Obversely, Green Man has been depicted as a demon, devouring all of nature, instead of bestowing it.

Whether you know him by Green Man or Jack-in-the-Green, I prefer to think of him as a spirit who guides us back to our nurturing relationship with Mother Earth.

Jethro Tull did a delightful little song about Jack. It always makes me smile and imagine the little people living in my garden.

By the way, in case you  didn’t know, the name Jethro Tull pays homage to an 18th century English farmer and agricultural pioneer, credited with inventing a horse-drawn seed drill, an improved plow, and a horse-drawn hoe. So, he was a bit of a Green Man himself!

Here are some of the lyrics for the song by Jethro Tull, the rock band. Have a listen sometime!

 

Have you seen Jack-In-The-Green?
With his long tail hanging down.
He quietly sits under every tree
in the folds of his velvet gown. . .

He drinks from the empty acorn cup
the dew that dawn sweetly bestows.
And taps his cane upon the ground
signals the snowdrops it’s time to grow.

It’s no fun being Jack-In-The-Green
no place to dance, no time for song.
He wears the colours of the summer soldier
carries the green flag all the winter long . . .

Jack, do you never sleep
does the green still run deep in your heart?
Or will these changing times.
motorways, powerlines,
keep us apart?
Well, I don’t think so
I saw some grass growing through the pavements today . . .

The rowan, the oak and the holly tree
are the charges left for you to groom.
Each blade of grass whispers Jack-In-The-Green . . .

Have you spotted Jack yet?

Full Moon, Empty Strawberry Bowl

The June Full Moon is called the Strawberry Moon. The Algonquin tribes associated this moon with the gathering of strawberries.

The June Full Moon is also known as the Rose Moon, Honey Moon, and Mead Moon. Perhaps it is the time of collecting honey, picking roses and making mead.

I have not noticed a pink hue to the moon in the past couple days. The night before it was officially full, I gazed upon a lovely, if not ominous, moon surrounded by swirly clouds. I especially liked the way the moon was lighting up the clouds around it.

I quickly shot a bunch of hand-held photos. Not sharply in focus, they do not need to be. Think of them as atmospheric, dreamy.

On the following night of the real full moon, I looked out and saw a crystal clear white moon, with no clouds. Not as interesting, so I did not shoot it.

Strawberry moon? I have been waiting for my strawberries to ripen. They seem late and not many so far this June.

True, we have had cooler, cloudy weather, but I usually am harvesting many berries by now.

There is promise: strawberry blossoms and unripened fruit.

Neither a Skunk Nor a Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage

Harbinger of Spring

This oddly named and odd-looking plant is one of the earliest to emerge in late winter/spring. It grows in wetlands, near streams and in wet areas in woods.

For some people, it’s a welcome sign of spring.
Henry David Thoreau saluted skunk cabbage for lifting our spirits:

“If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year… See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.”

Western skunk cabbage

But Joseph Wood Krutch saw it another way:

“There are some optimists who search eagerly for the skunk cabbage which in February sometimes pushes itself up through the ice, and who call it a sign of spring. I wish that I could feel that way about it, but I do not. The truth of the matter, to me, is simply that skunk cabbage blooms in the winter time.”

Here’s a quirky fact about skunk cabbage: it has its own internal heater, which helps it melt the snow away so it can emerge. I was once told by a teacher that if you put a thermometer inside one, you can see how warm it is. I’ve never tried this, but I have always wanted to.

The “flowers” emerge before the leaves. If you miss the flower, you might know skunk cabbage by its large green leaves. The other quirky thing about the plant is, its “foul smelling” leaves. Again, I have never smelled it, but it is said that if you crush the leaves, you will!

There are two types of skunk cabbage: the western (Lysichiton americanus), with its yellow flower, and the eastern (Symplocarpus foetidus), with a purple one.

Eastern skunk cabbage

When I lived on the east coast, I used to like to visit Great Falls National Park in Virginia, where a trail led to a low spot with a wetland full of skunk cabbage.

 

 

At Great Falls National Park

There was something reassuring about seeing it emerge every year, and I liked the way the purple flowers looked like alien pods. I liked to photograph the bright green leaves against the blue-black water.