15 May 2011

field guide

Oh dear and faithful reader... it's been a while since my last post, and so much has happened!  Blogger shut down for a while - making posting an impossibility, and the RAIN... don't get me started about the rain and the GREY!  If you are in Halifax, Nova Scotia, you know precisely what I'm going on about, and if you are elsewhere - well, celebrate.  We have had ridiculous stretch of cloudy, overcast, rainy days:

This is survival of another kind all together.  For this post, to rally the troops a bit and set myself up for the last month of the Gatekeeper's Lodge residency, I want to share some of the most beautiful changes that have been happening on the Lodge grounds - change that gives me hope even on the dreariest of days: THINGS ARE GROWING.

My friend Barbara Sutherland, an artist and educator who lives in Halifax, recently told me about a great assignment she gave one of her classes.  She asked them to create field guides to their environments, based on an idea from the Learning to Love You More website, but adapted to suit students who may not have access to a backyard.

There are field guides for everything (even launching a Mission Church Community!) and are often included in survival manuals as a way of distinguishing between edible and poisonous plants that can be used for emergency food or first aid.  I also needed an excuse to document the gorgeous blooms at this time of year - I have been known to sing FOR-SY-THI-Ahhhh! out loud to invoke this lovely yellow harbinger of spring.  The field guide assignment seemed to be the perfect way to drive away the grey blahs of this month, so what follows is a guide of plants and shrubs at the Lodge grounds, all photos were taken on site at the Gatekeeper's Lodge within the last week.

Common name: Forsythia
Genus: Forsythia
Species: x intermedia
Forsythia is named after William Forsyth, a Scottish horticulturalist who lived from 1737-1804, and was one of the founders of the Horticultural Society of London.  Forsythia, also known as Golden Bells, is actually part of the olive tree family, and is considered one of 50 essential herbs in Chinese herbology.  The branch of the forsythia shrub is often used to make bows for the ajaeng - a Korean string instrument.

Common name: Azalea
Genus: Rhododendron Pentanthera (deciduous)

At the lodge there is a gorgeous bank of Azaleas in bloom, with three slightly different shades of pink or fuchsia (as seen above).  Historically, azaleas were given their own genus, or classification, but it was recognized by horticulturalists that they are actually part of the rhododendron family.  Over 10 000 different cultivars (or varieties) of azalea are now propagated across North America, and have been cultivated for hundreds of years.  There is a traditional Korean beverage made from azalea blossoms called dugyeonju and also azalea cakes which call for azalea blossoms to be kneaded into a rice flour dough. 

Azaleas budding: each flower grouping has its own stem

'Early Pink' Species
Just as the blooming of the cherry blossom is celebrated in Japan, so too is the blossoming of the azalea (early bloomers are called Tsutsuji in Japanese, while late blooming varietals are called Satsuki) honoured with its own festival in Motoyama, Kochi, and deservedly so!  These shrubs were originally cultivated by monks in Buddhist monasteries, and the azalea is the national flower of Nepal.  According to a Chinese folktale, "a long-ago king was assassinated and turned into a cuckoo. Because of the king's violent death, the cuckoo sang so bitterly that blood came from his bill. April is the time of the cuckoo's cries and brilliant red azalea blooms, thus the legend says the cuckoo dyed the flowers red."

Common name: Old Man's Beard
Genus: Usnea
This lichen is a beauty, and can actually grow to lengths of over 15 cm, free falling from barks and twigs.  Lichens are not a single plant, they are actually a quite complex group of organisms that have a symbiotic relationship with fungus and algae.  The anatomy of a lichen is that the upper, densely interwoven fibres relate to a fungus, while the looser structure (the 'beard' in this case) works with algae to carry out photosynthesis and feed the fungi.  In return, the fungi uses the lichen structure to keep the algae from drying out.  Despite this clearly social relationship, lichen represents dejection and solitude in the flower world.
Historically, the genus Usnea has been used because of its first-aid abilities as gauze and wound compresses, it has also been used to prevent infection and gangrene and has highly antibiotic properties.  In herbal medicine, Usnea lichens are used to treat lung and respiratory tract infections, and is high in vitamin C.

Common name: Waxpaper lichen or Hammered Shield lichen
Genus: Parmelia sulcata
The growth patter of this lichen is referred to as 'lobes', similar to the lobes of a human ear, but in great quantity.  This lichen is used by hummingbirds as a nesting material and also as a camouflage for habitats to hide nests from predators.  The lichen is often used in natural dye pots to achieve hues ranging from deep browns, tans, and gold when wools are submerged.  A great note about the latin name is that sulcata is derrived from the Latin sulcatus - to furrow - which is how the lichen grows and progresses across bark surfaces.

Common name: Ribbed Bog moss
Genus: Aulacomnium palustre
Mosses, different than lichens, have a stem which is covered with microscopic leaves.  While they do not have roots or circulate sap like many other stemmed plant species, mosses absorb water through their leaves and stem as a sponge does.  This moss is also known commonly as 'Glow moss' due to its nearly incandescent yellow hue, and while it is certainly at home on the ground, doesn't actually need a substrate to grow from - which makes it incredibly hearty, even in areas where severe logging has occurred, making this moss an incredible survivor.

Common name: Daffodil
Genus: Narcissus
Species: Narcissus 'Tahiti'

Greek mythology attributes the daffodil or narcissus to the young, vain Narcissus, who became so obsessed with his own reflection that he drowned in his own image.  The gods were said to have turned his remains into the flower, and so the daffodil is a symbol of unrequited love.  Outside of Greek culture, the daffodil is the national Kurdish flower which beckons the arrival of the new calendar year, whereas in Whales, where it is also the national flower, it is traditional to wear a daffodil (or leek) in your lapel on Saint David's Day: March 1 (if it were me, I would definitely wear the daffodil!).  William Wordsworth wrote a lovely poem called "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" which also features the daffodil prominently in the first stanza:

Common name: Heartsease, Johnny Jump Up, Wild Pansy
Genus: Viola
Species: Viola tricolor
This pansy or violet is a trooper - this particular species has been employed for so many treatments and remedies throughout history that it's tough to summarize all its attributes, but here we go: As the name 'Heartsease' would suggest, the petals from this flower have been used to ease seizures, asthma, skin disorders and chest ailments such as whooping cough and bronchitis.  The real healing power of pansies lie in the presence of cyclotides - stable peptides that are used regularly in cancer treatments.  In fashion, violas have been used to create rich yellow, green and turquoise dyes, despite their indigo petal.  From a literary perspective, violas were featured in two of Shakespeare's works: Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Since the word "pansy" is derived from the french word "pensée", which means thought, Shakespeare uses the pansy to symbolize moments of reflection and focus for Ophelia.  In Midsummer, he employs the juice of Heartsease on sleeping eyelids to make characters fall in love with the first person they see.

Common name: Star Magnolia
Genus: magnolia
Species: Magnolia Stellata
The show-stopper of all the flowering trees at this time of year, magnolia is by far the last-but-not-least of the Gatekeeper's Lodge Field Guide.  Magnolia trees pre-date history, in that horticulturalists believe that magnolias are so ancient that they existed before bees, and were pollinated by roaming beetles.  Fossilized specimens of early magnolia species have been dated to 20 million years ago!  We're talking dinosaurs AND magnolias, which really makes this flowering plant a stunner.  One of the most interesting facts about magnolias that I've found is that it does not actually have individual petals, but that the flowers of this tree grow as a single unit incorporating all the flower anatomy, called a tepal.  The state tree of Mississippi, magnolias grace all kinds of pop culture references, including The Grateful Dead's song: Sugar Magnolia, PT Anderson's movie Magnolia, and of course the haunting lyrics of Billy Holiday and Nina Simone's version of the song, Strange Fruit.

I hope this post encourages everyone to explore and record their surrounds while all this beautiful change is happening out of doors.  Stay tuned this week as I attempt to catch up on my tardy posts and ready for the last weeks of my residency in Point Pleasant park - thank you patient readers!

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