Category Archives: Botany

The gold rush: the joyful power of goldenrod

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and Joy Pye weed (Euchotrichum maculate) Westport, New York by Betsey CrawfordOne of the blessings of a visit to New York late last summer was seeing something I miss in California: a world awash in goldenrod. A member of the vast and happy Asteraceae family, Solidago canadensis, one of a hundred species of native goldenrods in the US, overflowed fields and banked roadsides near my sister’s house in the Adirondacks. Filled with tiny yellow daisy-like flowers up close, looking like an explosion of yellow fireworks from a near distance, and like a sea of sparkling yellow foam from a greater distance, goldenrod is the late August and September wildflower in most of the country, along with its aster companions.

In her passionately wise and luminous book, Braiding Sweetgrass, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer tells the story of her first interview with her advisor at the State University of New York’s School of Environmental Science and Forestry. Why, he asked, did she want to study botany. She had her answer ready: she wanted to know why goldenrod and asters look so beautiful together. His answer was crushing. That, he said, was not a valid reason to study botany. Such considerations belonged to art, not science. 

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York by Betsey Crawford

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York

Luckily for us, she was, though daunted, not discouraged, and later found other, more sympathetic teachers and mentors. But for a while, she left the indigenous knowing of her heritage behind while studying science as it was presented in her courses. It wasn’t until she was studying for her Ph.D. in Wisconsin that she found herself at a gathering of native elders who could speak of the depths of plants in ways her botany classes had not: their relationships to other plants, to the places where they grew, to the animals, birds and humans in their midst. The stories of their origins and names. The wisdom they have to share. 

And their beauty. As an artist, I would have happily explained (as artist friends did) that yellow and purple look so beautiful together because they are complementary colors. Each primary color, in this case yellow, has a complement composed of the other two primaries, here red and blue, creating purple. Complementary colors have a powerful synergy, both making the other zing, creating a combination more electric than, for example, pink and purple. However lovely the latter combination, it will always be less exciting to our brains than pairing purple and yellow, or orange and blue, or red and green. These are not the combinations you’d think of for a meditation garden. But if you want to look at a field of scintillating color, or add excitement to your garden, your painting or your wardrobe, interweaving complements is a surefire way to do it.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

Other than red flowers against green leaves, nature hasn’t gone out of her way to combine complementary colors. And red flowers are relatively rare, orange even rarer, and true blue almost nonexistent. Purple is fairly common, and yellow abundant. All are dwarfed by the numbers of white flowers, which offer no opportunity for complementary drama. So it’s especially striking when nature has not only combined complements but thrown them about with as much abandon as she has goldenrod and asters. Robin Wall Kimmerer was talking specifically about New England asters, with their deep purple petals and deeper-than-goldenrod yellow centers. The stronger the purple, the more scintillating the combination, though with the many lighter asters, and with the pink-purple thistle shown here, the combination is still electric. 

New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae angliae) courtesy of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources

New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae angliae) courtesy of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources

But I agree with her about goldenrod and New England asters: their combined gorgeousness is a perfectly good reason to want to study botany. And while it may be true that aesthetics are not the province of science, there’s fascinating science connected to beauty, starting with the exquisitely sensitive cones nestled in our retinas. Millions of neurons, waiting to encode for our brains the light waves bouncing off the world around us. Two-thirds of our cones are dedicated to the longer wavelengths of the warmer colors — like the yellows of goldenrod. Another third is devoted to the seeing their green leaves. Only 2% of our cones are reading the purple aster petals, which reflect back the shortest wavelengths of light. 

Late purple aster (Symphyotrichum patens) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) along the road in northern New York by Betsey Crawford

Late purple aster (Symphyotrichum patens) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) along the road in northern New York

Why yellow and purple? Carotenoids in the goldenrod and aster centers, and anthocyanins in the aster petals. Chemicals that reflect those colors back to us, and, among other things, protect the flowers from too much of the ultraviolet light we can’t see, and that burns both our skin and the petals’. To bees, who can see in the ultraviolet spectrum,  goldenrod’s yellow is even more incandescent than it is to us. But they hardly need the pizazz. There are so many solidagos, with so many individual flowers per plant, in so many places that they can’t be missed. Bees abound in those fields, picking up the sticky, heavy pollen and bringing it back to the hive to make bee bread for the winter.

I think it’s the sheer exuberance of the solidago phenomenon that I love so much. This is nature at her most joyful, maybe even her whackiest. Why not throw millions of luminous yellow flowers out there as most other flowers fade? Throw in some purple for dazzle! Turn the neighboring leaves vivid red and orange! Provide winter food for thousands of tiny creatures who return the favor by pollinating the flowers. Create larger creatures to stand in the fields, with carefully crafted eyes connected to brains capable of awe. Fill them with wonder at what has been wrought. Those wildly yellow early autumn fields are a sign of a creation that can’t be stopped. 

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York by Betsey Crawford

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York

I take a lot of comfort in this vast energy. Although such fields are plowed and bulldozed daily for grazing or agriculture, houses or parking lots, this sheer vibrancy tells me nature is far from fragile in the face of her heedless humans. Another essay in Braiding Sweetgrass details the destruction of Lake Onondaga, sacred to the Onondaga people of upstate New York. After more than a century of pumping industrial waste up to sixty feet deep into and around the lake, along with the sewage of the growing city of Syracuse, it’s now a Superfund site. In fact, nine Superfund sites. Long gone are the wetlands, the trees, the oxygen-generating plants, the moss, the birds, the frogs, the once crystal clear water.

The same story can be told of countless places. The details vary, the heartbreak is painfully similar. There is a lot of restoration going on, even if grudgingly on the part of the corporations and governments that caused the destruction. People the world over are pulling beloved, damaged places back from the brink. The same is happening with Lake Onondaga. There are attempts, some good, some bad, to restore a semblance of natural life to this dead landscape. Of the ones described in the essay, my favorite is the work being done by nature herself, who sent the ‘oldest and most effective of land healers…the plants themselves.’

Seeds of trees took root in the white, gluey sludge and slowly grew. Birds landed in their branches and dropped the seeds of berrying shrubs. Clovers and other legumes, among the most important of our plant allies, arrived and began pulling nitrogen into the muck. The endlessly adaptable grass family moved in. Their roots add humus, and the first glimmering of soil making can be seen. 

It’s a slow process of enormous strength, and one we can trust. That’s where I take comfort. Of course, we should be doing everything in our power to stop the destruction and repair the damage. Nature should be able to rely on us, too. But as she asks, she also inspires.  When we need courage, and ardor, and zeal for this work, she invites us to stoke those fires by standing in the midst of a sea of goldenrod as it pulses with energy, radiating her vibrant, enduring, indomitable heart. 

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York by Betsey Crawford

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York

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Happy Halloween: ghosts in the landscape

Cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium) Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium) Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

When I first thought of the title for this Halloween post, I had fun in mind — white flowers that have ghostly or skeletal effects — and there are those, like the cotton grass above and the trillium and others below. But the more I thought about white flowers, the more questions I had. How did they become white? Is it a loss of pigment or a color of its own? Why are there so many of them? Depending on the region, they can far outnumber flowers in the blue to red to orange range, and outstrip the numerous species of yellow flowers. Studies show that pollinators, given a choice, will gravitate to colors. So what’s the evolutionary advantage of white? Is there one? It turns out that white flowers are full of mystery. Which is, indeed, fun.

White flowers: Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) Blithedale Canyon, California by Betsey Crawford

The very ghostly newborn petals of Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) Blithedale Canyon, California

The earliest angiosperms, more than 100 million years ago, are thought to have been white, cream or pale green. Since Darwin, people — including me — have been happily saying that the more vivid colors slowly evolved to attract pollinators, whose vision long predated the flowers. And that appears to be true. Or, at least, there’s no strong body of evidence saying it’s not true. But, as it turns out, there’s no strong body of empirical evidence saying it is true. Empirical evidence implies that we can see something happen in real time, and it’s hard to see an evolutionary process in our brief lifespan. 

White flowers: Ghost flower (Mohavea confertiflora) Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

This one is actually called ghost flower (Mohavea confertiflora) Anza Borrego Desert, California

There are studies that show, for example, flowers becoming redder in as little as a single generation as more hummingbirds pollinate them. Further studies show that when given choices, pollinators will choose colors over white flowers, though that may be because the colorful ones stand out more vividly against green foliage. Finding flowers efficiently is crucial to the success of both flower and pollinator, so the easier the flower is to see, the better. Very important, the stronger the relationship a pollinator has with a specific color, the more likely it is to bring matching pollen from one flower to fertilize another in the same species.

White flowers: Sitka burnet (Sanguisorba stipulata) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Sitka burnet (Sanguisorba stipulata) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

So, we know that pollinators have an intimate relationship with flower color. Or, more accurately, with the color’s wavelength, since the purple we see is not what the pollinator sees. But, with the explosion of genetic information in recent years, there’s also a growing appreciation for other factors that are at play, especially in how white flowers have evolved. Flowers in the blue to purple to red range use anthocyanins to create their color, the chemicals that make foods like grapes and raspberries so good for us. If the dominant anthocyanin is delphinidin, the flower is purple, if pelargonidin, red, if cyanidin, magenta to lavender. Other flavonoids, such as anthoxanthins, along with a variety of carotenoids, create yellows and oranges. 

White flowers: Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

In the course of mutations that alter the expression of specific enzyme and protein pathways, the amounts of these color-inducing chemicals can vary, changing the color of the flower. Mutations may also cause the pathways to stop working altogether. The resulting loss of function can return the flower to its primordial white, a state that’s likely to be irreversible since it would take a series of very specific mutations for those particular pathways to work again. 

White flowers: Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas

There is a widely accepted division of flower/pollinator relationships: bees prefer flowers in the blue range, while hummingbirds gravitate to red, butterflies to pink, moths and beetles to white. And studies do back up these general preferences. But there’s a lot of variation. If bees weren’t interested in pollinating white flowers, we wouldn’t have almonds, apples, plums or any number of other fruits in the Rosaceae family. Thus, other factors are apparently important, among them scent, availability, abundance, learned behavior, competition, as well as the match of plant shapes to pollinator characteristics. It also may be that the subtle pinks that make white apple blossoms so poignantly beautiful to us are neon signs to bees. More mysteries. As every study says, ‘more research is needed.’

White flowers: Fried egg plant (Romneya trichocalyx) San Ramon, California by Betsey Crawford

Fried egg plant (Romneya trichocalyx) San Ramon, California

As fascinating as I find all this, I’m somewhat resistant to the idea that the gorgeous hues of reds, purples and lavenders I love so much are a result of ‘the number of hydroxyl groups attached to the B-ring of the molecule,’ or that tender, luminous whites are due to the functional failure of these groups. Reducing something as magical as color to the action or loss of enzyme and protein pathways seems like a comedown. On the other hand, my seeing and treasuring these colors is possible only because my body relies on similar pathways. Which brings another mysterious dimension forward: the fact that flowers and I share biological functions and genes, and, in sharing them, share each other.

White flowers: white thistle (Cirsium hookerianum) Waterton National Park, Alberta by Betsey Crawford

White thistle (Cirsium hookerianum) Waterton National Park, Alberta

Not only that, but without a strong connection to a variety of pollinating animals and insects, and the biology and genetics we have in common with them, neither flowers nor I would be here to begin with. All those pathways need constant nourishment. Like me, the pollinators depend on flowers for nutrition and survival. Flowers depend on these friendly forces, which can include me, for reproduction. We all depend on a huge array of microbes and fungi to create the nutrients we thrive on from the soil at our feet. We depend on the movements of air currents, the hydrology of water, the minerals released from rocks. 

Sitting among flowers on a forest path, or the desert floor, or out in a meadow, we’re held in a vast array of interlinking pathways, beating our hearts, feeding our cells; moving water, air, nutrients; creating color, vision, scent. All mysteriously designed to keep every one of us — flower, leaf, dirt, human, bee, bird, beetle — alive and blossoming. 

White flowers: White paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis) Waterton National Park, Alberta by Betsey Crawford

White paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis) Waterton National Park, Alberta

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One big, happy family: the Asteraceae

A sunflower (Helianthus annuus), a memeber of the Asteracea family, In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada by Betsey CrawfordI took the picture above six years ago this month, standing in a field of sunflowers on Cape Breton Island on the east coast of Canada. It was the first place we went when we started the journey that has taken us to so many wonderful places. I’ve never forgotten the joy of standing in that field, completely surrounded by the happiest of flowers, growing with wild abandon toward the August sun.

With almost 24,00o species, the Asteraceae family is vast and exuberant. It’s literally everywhere you go, except Antarctica. The accompanying photos range from Alaska to the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California. They reflect one of the family’s strengths: the ability to thrive in many different environments, whether hot or cold, dry grassland or wet marsh, in alpine meadows or among desert cactus. Some are important commercially: sunflower, safflower and canola oils. Camomile and echinacea tea. Artichokes, lettuce, tarragon, radicchio, endive. One shrub even produces a form of latex. The horticultural market depends on many of them.

Mule ears (Wyethia anguvstifolia) taken along Chimney Rock trail in Point Reyes National Seashore, California by Betsey Crawford

Mule ears (Wyethia anguvstifolia) Point Reyes National Seashore, California

The most familiar asteraceae configuration is the sunflower and its relatives: a central circle of disk florets, surrounded by a crown of ray florets that look like and act like petals, attracting insects to pollinate themselves as well as the less showy disk flowers. The family name comes from these composite forms: aster derives from the Latin word for star. But there are a variety of other structures. Some, like the thistle and the arnica below, are discoid, with disk but no ray flowers. Others, like the dandelion, are ligulate, with no disk flowers and ‘petals’ of strappy ligules. 

Rayless arnica (Arnica disoidea) Blithedale Canyon, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Rayless arnica (Arnica disoidea) Blithedale Canyon, Larkspur, California

As a group, they tend to develop a fluffy seed head, a pappus of filaments that originally surround the base of the ovary, and grow longer as the flower goes to seed. With their feathery attachments, seeds are easily dispersed by wind, which helps account for the ubiquity of yarrow, fleabanes, dandelions, asters and other family members. Some seeds have hooks on them and spread out by attaching themselves to animal fur or clothing. 

Siberian aster (Aster sibericus) Denali National Park, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Siberian aster (Aster sibericus) Denali National Park, Alaska

What looks like an individual flower is an inflorescence, a bowl-, vase- or cone-shaped capitulum, holding its lovely arrangement of hundreds of ray and disk florets. The capitulum is held by green bracts, or phyllaries, sometimes many layers of them, constituting an involucre. When you eat the bud of an artichoke flower, you peel off, dip in melted butter, and then eat one phyllary after another, until you get to the heart, which is the capitulum containing the disk flowers. The phyllaries can be plain or beautifully sculptural. Their differences, in number, shape and position, are often a key to identifying close species. 

Analysis of fossil pollen found in Antarctica dates the Asteraceae to 80 million years ago, when the continent was still part of Gondwana, before it floated south to the icy pole. Species were lost during the K-T extinction, which killed the dinosaurs around 66 million years ago. But those that survived thrived and multiplied during the great flowering of the warm Late Paleocene and Early Eocene epochs, as did every other plant family. The asteraceae in turn benefitted their pollinating insects, and were especially important to the evolution of bee species.

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) with two butterflies Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) and friends, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

They are a pollinator’s dream: one landing, up to 1,000 flowers. The sunflower, our biggest and most dramatic North American native asteraceae, dedicates a most intriguing and charming trait to bees and other pollinators. It starts with buds and young flower heads, still covered with their green, photosynthesizing bracts, following the sun over the course of the day. At night, they work their way back toward sunrise, moving faster near the solstice, and more slowly as the nights grow longer.

 

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) Anza Borrego Desert, California

This cirdadian heliotropism is driven by growth hormones that spur growth on the east side of the stem during the day, lengthening that side, and tilting the flower head toward the west. At night, another hormone spurs growth on the west side, moving the flower to face east by morning. In experiments that interfere with this sun tracking, plants quickly lose mass and leaf surface, cutting down on photosynthesis and thus vitality and size.

Their sungazing stops at maturity. The ‘clock genes’ turn off, leaving entire fields of sunflower heads facing east. That way they are warmed early in the day, making them five times more likely to be visited by pollinators than experimental plants arranged to face west.  And there are lots of pollinators: bees, butterflies, moths, flies, wasps, wind, and, in South America, birds. With their warm, open faces offering almost unlimited opportunity for fertilizing, reproduction becomes very efficient, which explains the diversity and worldwide habitat of the family.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) in a late summer sea of goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) in a late summer sea of goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

Standing in a field of sunflowers, or prairies of thistles, coneflowers and goldenrods,  I am not only surrounded by the sheer exuberance of vividly colored, beautifully shaped flowers, with their attendant bees and butterflies. I am surrounded by a long history of carefully ‘chosen’ evolutionary changes that remain mysterious despite all the genetic information we can now gather about plants. Why so many yellows? And why pink, or white? Why feathery leaves on one family member, big chunky leaves on another? Why is this one so tiny, and this one gigantic? Why a cone on one, a bowl on another? This heavenly exuberance of form and color is a delightful mystery.

Prairie coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Prairie coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas

In that sunlit field I’m also surrounded by a form of life — the flowering angiosperms with their nutritious fruits — that may well be responsible for me, a member of a much later species, being able to stand there at all. That nourishment helped my forebears to develop the eyes and consciousness to celebrate the wonder around me. That may even be the point of evolving me at all: a way for the universe to contemplate its glories.

Prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

Relishing the sunny warmth of a summer day, drinking in the beauty and vitality of the flowers around me, grateful for our shared history and destiny — these are moments of transcendence that make life rich and fulfilling. Our beautiful world makes them so available, but we too often rush by. Even when we stop, we feel we must quickly return to the practical tasks that make life possible. But our world is always there, waiting to be treasured. Waiting for the eyes and ears it has gifted us with to turn toward these great and beautiful mysteries. “Life is this simple,’ theologian Thomas Merton wrote. “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through all the time.”

Blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata) in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata) in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

More pictures of this exuberant family can be found in the Asteraceae Gallery.

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