It’s a glorious Autumn day here where the Appalachians meet the Smokies. My mom is a lover and writer of poetry, and each year on a particularly gorgeous Autumn day she calls (by request) to recite one of her favorites: Come, Little Leaves by George Cooper. It is a beloved family tradition that she started in my childhood, and it just wouldn’t be Autumn without it!
“Come, little leaves,” Said the wind one day, “Come over the meadows With me, and play; Put on your dresses Of red and gold; Summer is gone, And the days grow cold.”
Soon as the leaves Heard the wind’s loud call, Down they came fluttering, One and all; Over the meadows They danced and flew, Singing the soft Little songs they knew.
Dancing and flying The little leaves went; Winter had called them And they were content- Soon fast asleep In their earthy beds, The snow laid a soft mantle Over their heads.
Don’t miss the glories of this season! Take every opportunity to be outside smelling the fallen leaves (no other smell like it) and basking in the colors. If you live in an area where the leaves change, take a tip from Charlotte Mason who encouraged us to “Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.” (Volume I, page 42.) Take a walk, sit on the porch, dine alfresco, or pitch a tent in the yard for the last outdoor slumber of the year. You will be refreshed!
I’ve always been familiar with this poem, but it wasn’t until I went searching for a Burdock den that I realized this plant is everywhere! It grows along roadsides and old fence lines, in fields and ditches, along stream banks and in all neglected areas. It spreads like wildfire, but why did Emily Dickinson call a patch of Burdock a “den” I wondered.
In The Ugly Duckling, Hans Christian Andersen says, “In a sunny spot stood a pleasant old farmhouse, circled all about with deed canals; and from the walls down to the water’s edge grew great burdocks, so high that under the tallest of them a little child might stand upright.” Since it grows in full or partial shade and can reach a height of 6 feet, I suppose a large concentration of Burdock could be viewed as a “den” and a place to be avoided.
Many animals such as birds and mice on the lookout for seeds to eat are impaled on the sharp burs. The more they struggle, the more burs they touch and the tighter they are held.
A Burdock seed head is covered with small, Velcro-like devices that easily fasten onto anything or anybody that passes. In this way the seeds travel to a new location that is less crowded — an ingenious method of seed dispersal!
Our Nature Study class met at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, TN, which has a variety of habitats for observing seed dispersal.
Also known as Snapweed or Touch-Me-Not, the Jewelweed is a delicate little plant that grows in wet places. The small, trumpet-shaped flowers themselves are petite and intricately lovely. But our interest here lies in the seed pods, which grow right alongside the blossoms but are a completely separate appendage. If the pods are touched in the Autumn when they are ripe, they explode with a tiny ferocity that is startling! Once I happened to brush by a large patch of jewelweed bushes and could hear the seeds popping all around! In this way, the parent plant sends her “children” into the world where they have a better chance of starting life in bright sunlight and nutritious soil. The sap of this plant is a folk remedy for poison ivy. You can find soaps, salves and sprays online or at your local health food store.
Another plant which is known for projectile seed dispersal is Witch Hazel. This helpful plant blossoms in the dead of winter and 8 months later the seed pods split apart explosively and send the glossy black seeds into the air — sometimes reaching 33 feet from the parent plant! The Native American Mohegans reportedly introduced English settlers to using the Y-shaped witch hazel sticks for dowsing, an ancient method for finding underground water. The name “witch hazel” is believed to have come from the Middle English “wicke” for “lively” and “wych,” an old Anglo-Saxon word for “bend.” The Osage used witch hazel bark to treat skin ulcers and sores, the Potawatomi steamed twigs over hot rocks in their sweat lodges to soothe sore muscles, and the Iroquoi brewed a tea to treat dysentery, colds, and coughs.
Children have a special fondness for another plant in this projectile category: Oxalis (known locally as Wood Sorrel or Sourgrass). This low-growing plant has yellow flowers and sour, Shamrock-shaped leaves which children (and some adults) love to chew.
The seed pods, which grow alongside the blossoms, look like little candelabra and when they suddenly split and curl (like Jewelweed) their seeds are projected quite a distance.
Other plants shoot their seeds — the wild geranium and certain violets, for example. Even some of our garden peas bean varieties scatter their seeds by curling in a spiral and dispersing their seeds in a circular pattern — the better to ensure their nutrition and survival.
We began our ramble beside the creek in search of Jewelweed, but the large patch I had observed a few weeks earlier was no longer in evidence. (However, on our way home my son and I spied a large patch and spent a very pleasant 20 minutes “helping” disperse some seeds.) Next we all headed over to the large wildflower habitat and although no Witch Hazel was located we did discover (and sample) plenty of Oxalis leaves. We observed several other fascinating and beautiful specimens:
Saw seeds caught in a spider’s web…..
…..found a growth of Staghorn Sumac so dense it formed a den of sorts where several animals had obviously sheltered…..
…..were captivated by the morning glory’s beauty…..
…..discovered buckeyes floating in the creek……
…..caught a crawdad…..
…..unearthed a giant fungus…..
…..found a branch covered with insect hieroglyphics…..
…..spied a bright green passion flower fruit…..
…..and a praying mantis!
Of course, everyone enjoyed capturing observations in their nature journals!
Taking a walk along the banks of a stream or drainage ditch is your best bet for finding Jewelweed. Remember, the blossoms and seed pods grow concurrently and you may need to revisit the Jewelweed patch to check for seed pod ripening.
Witch Hazel is a bit harder to locate, but since the flower blooms in winter this is a good time for locating the plant. You’ll find them in mostly in open woods.
Oxalis can be found wherever there is grass growing, especially along the border between a grassy area and an overgrown field. Look for their tiny yellow flowers and candelabra seed pods growing concurrently.
What did you notice? What do you wonder? What does it remind you of? What mechanism does the plant use to disperse its seeds? Does the seed pod curl up or form a spiral after dispersal? How might this help scatter the seeds far away from the parent plant? After finding several Buckeyes, one of our students wondered if Chestnuts and Buckeyes are one in the same, and launched into a bit of on-site research with a field guide. You never know what questions will arise when you take the time to observe and wonder!
From the bud comes the flowers, From the flower comes the berries, From the berries feeds does the bird, From the bird seeds are spread, From the seeds new trees grow, From the trees buds sprout into life, From life comes more life ad finem.
In this neck of the woods, some folks eat “poke salat” in the Spring — basically the stir-fried greens of the wild pokeweed plant. However, because this plant is contains tannins and is quite toxic to humans, the leaves must be repeatedly boiled and rinsed before ingestion. If you’re unfortunate enough to eat any part of the pokeweed without taking adequate cautionary measures, the old-fashioned remedy is to drink lots of vinegar and eat a pound of lard! The pokeweed gets its name from the Native American word “puccoon” which means a plant used for staining or dyeing. They also used it as a laxative and to induce vomiting! Yet certain animals (birds, white-footed mouse, oppossum, red fox and stinkbugs — yes, stinkbugs) have no such limitation and can feast on poke to their hearts’ content.
The Pokeweed, sometimes called Pokeberry or Inkberry, is native to eastern North America. From July -September, the plant blossoms. Those white things you see are not petals but sepals which will cradle the fruit in Autumn.
When Autumn arrives the green stems and sepals turn a bright pinkish-purple, and the dark purple berries contains large seeds that are glossy and black. Animals eat the berries and after walking or flying around for a while they expel them as waste, thus scattering the seeds far from the parent plant.
Pokeweed dies to the ground in the winter and sends up new shoots each spring.
Here’s a great little video on all things pokeweed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQuoErwKzUY
You can make a lovely ink out of pokeberries. Here’s the recipe: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2015/09/17/t-magazine/pokeberry-ink/s/17tmag-pokeberry-slide-2WP8.html
Pokeberries can also be used to dye yarn, fabric, lace, Easter eggs — you name it! Here’s that recipe: http://botanicalcolors.com/2011/10/30/pokeberry-dyeing/
As always, after a hike we take time to record our observations — either by sketching or painting, in narrative form, or even in poetry.
And even the moms get in on the act! (Did she plan to wear a pokeberry-colored tee?)
They sail away on an autumn day when windy is the weather.
We’ve all seen milkweed “fairies” floating past us on an autumn day, but have you ever looked inside the pod from which those “fairies” came? It’s a pretty amazing place! Milkweed plants grow along roadways, in fields, along fencerows — anyplace there’s plenty of sun. Milkweeds have beautiful pink flowers which are a favorite nectar-gathering source for many insects — most notably the Monarch Butterfly.
After the blossoms have faded, a long green seed pod forms which is visited by several insects searching for food. The Milkweed Bugs (both nymphs and adults) feed on the seeds of the milkweed plant.
As the seed pod ripens, it turns a brownish-gray color. If you look inside, you’ll find all the little milkweed seeds attached to their plumes. They’re all attached to a central core, facing in one direction, and look almost like a pine cone with a white tail.
Each milkweed seed is an akene, which simply means one seed with a tight envelope about it. When the wind catches the its plume, each akene goes sailing to a new location — sometimes very far away from the parent plant. And if the milkweed akene lands in the water it’s no problem at all — the rim of the akene is like a life preserver which allows the seed to float until it reaches its destination.
How do you think the Milkweed got its name? Is it because cows who eat milkweed give sweet milk or because its flowers are white? No, it’s because of the milky substance that leaks out when the plant’s stem is broken or gashed. This milky substance is like liquid rubber and when it hardens is so gummy it can seal the wound from which it came. In fact, the Shoshone tribe collected the plant’s “milk” and made chewing gum of it! (PLEASE DO NOT TRY THIS YOURSELF! MILKWEED “MILK” CONTAINS POISONS!) Native Americans also used it in poultices to draw out poison or infection from wounds.
One more very cool thing about milkweeds — how they are pollinated. The flowers are uniquely adapted for insect pollination, having waxy pollen in tiny wishbone-shaped structures which hook onto an insect’s leg but come off when transferred to the flower of a different plant. Here’s an amazing photo from a great nature blog, Nadia’s Backyard, in which you can actually see the tiny “wishbone” attached to a bee’s leg. You can read the whole post here: http://nadiasyard.com/our-native-plants/milkweed-common-asclepias-syriaca-uncommon-versatility/
On our excursions, we always try to take time to record our observations.
Some choose to sketch while others may paint what they’ve seen.
Still others prefer to keep a written record of their findings.
And then there are the poets among us! At our very first class, one of the students asked if he could record his observations in poetry. I answered that not only could he do so, but if he did I would do a dance of joy! So Alex shared a short poem which ended, “……and now Mrs. Hissong has to dance!” And so I did — right there in the meadow! Here are his observations on the milkweed:
Gaze upon the Monarch’s chrysalis. Behold. Admire its colors. The Jade flecks and the Gold.
Watch the caterpillar change being, bursting out of the chrysalis and taking wing.
this new creature, this butterfly unfolding his wings and flying high,
his glamorous suit of orange and black warning predators not to attack,
flying up north on this incredible migration then going to Mexico on vacation.
In fall the plants are throwing seeds like snowballs at each other,
And each seed is a child being sent off by its mother.
“Goodbye, my dears! Fly safe, fly free, sleep well all winter snug in soil;
Come springtime……..think of me.”
— Amy Ludwig VanDerwater
Did you ever think of plants as great travelers? While it’s true that adult plants put down roots and die if they are removed from the soil, infant plants — what we call “seeds” — not only wander far and wide but will die if they don’t! When plants scatter their seeds we say they are “dispersing” them. Why do plants need to disperse or scatter their seeds? Think about what do plants need to grow. (Light, soil, water and air.) What would happen if seeds all fell right beside the parent plant?
Plants disperse their seeds in several ways. Some fly with wings while others are carried by down or fluff. Some seeds sail on the water. Others are eaten by animals and travel inside them for a while. Still other seeds are shot away from the parent plant, and some even hitchhike in order to get around!
Our Nature Study class is embarking on a new adventure into the world of traveling seeds — what Margaret Warner Morley calls Little Wanderers in her book by that name. I hope you’ll join us!
My favorite books on this topic (written for children, but I learned so much from them):