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I'm a woman entering "the third chapter" and fascinated by the journey.

Thursday, June 22, 2017


Those of you familiar with the Eighties version of Little Shop of Horrors will remember Audrey, the carnivorous alien plant with a taste for human blood. Checking out the pollinator garden this afternoon, I discovered that one of our echinacea is sporting a bloom with something of a resemblance to the fictional plant.

My plant
Audrey from the 1982 film

Well, maybe not that much of a resemblance, but this emerging flower is not your typical coneflower. This is the standard young echinacea blossom.

Given the internet's penchant for paranoia, a search for "daisies with double centers" brings up speculation about radiation from Fukushima, and I have no doubt that radiation can indeed cause mutation in plants. The truth, however, is that plants in the composite family are prone to anomalies in seed and bloom development. I took this photo of a caterpillar-like rudbeckia in 2011, before any radiation would have reached Ohio, if indeed it ever got here.

The phenomenon is common enough that it even has a name: conjoined daisies, though I have not been able to get much information on its cause(s). One thing to worry about is the disease aster yellows, which causes malformed plants and can hit anything in the composite family. For now, the plant with the odd bud looks healthy,

but I will need to watch it for signs of disease.

In the meantime, I am looking forward to seeing what Audrey looks like when she grows up.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A new beauty

Returning from an early-evening walk by way of the Marietta Arboretum, I had to swung by the bottlebrush buckeye, one of my favorite shrubs, especially in full bloom. The ridiculously extravagant bloom spikes were of course working with a variety of bees, but my eye was drawn to something I had never seen before, a small black butterfly with eight bright white spots, flitting from spike to spike. My first thought was that it might be a Southern visitor like the zebra longwing spotted on my front-yard monarda a few years ago. Research was necessary.

It turns out that this little jewel is a day-flying moth, the eight-spotted forester, supposedly fairly common throughout most of its range, which includes a fair chunk of the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. (You can learn more about Alypia octomaculata here.) This photo comes from the unfortunately-no-longer active blog, Field Biology in Southeastern Ohio. Fortunately, its archive houses lots of good information and photographs.

This beautiful little moth has only one flight a year, and evidently it is peaking about now, at least in Ohio. Its caterpillars favor grape leaves as food, so if you are lucky (?) enough to live anywhere near some wild grape vines, you are in the forester's favored habitat. Anyone with a vineyard may not be so fond of these little moths.

I am going to hope to see more of them before their season ends.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Not quite an old haunt

This week finds me at the Advanced Placement test scoring in Tampa, staying at quite a nice hotel on the downtown Riverwalk. I lived mostly in Tampa from 1975-83, as a student, grad student, and bookstore management trainee (with an unfortunate six-week interlude attempting to sell hats and handbags at Montgomery Ward--not a good fit for my skills or interests). As a fortunately-not-quite-starving student and then a very junior employee, I lived in neighborhoods charitably described as "modest." Downtown Tampa these days is not modest. A new condo development near here sells two-bedroom units for a million dollars, not in our budget even now that we are not junior employees (just retirees on a fixed income). But the views from some of these apartments might have an appeal, even though I am not a big-city person.

From my perspective, the parks and gardens here on the Riverwalk are a bust--more concrete than plants, but lots of shady places to sit, watch the porpoises in the Hillsborough River, and enjoy the people-watching. This 3.5-mile motor-free path in the heart of downtown is a popular place with cyclists, walkers, runners, and dog walkers of all ages. The river itself is heavily traveled and has a certain romance (about which more in a later post), and its bridges are beautiful, particularly at night.

The tower on this one (a very workaday bridge which I crossed on my way to the grocery store, a most unromantic destination) reminds me of a medieval guard tower.

Tampa today is not the seedy, crime-ridden locale of my long-ago youth but rather an artsy, growing city attracting new residents and businesses all the time. But my favorite moment from this visit (thus far):

a snowy egret fishing under a bridge, using the white supports as camouflage.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Another guilty pleasure

Anyone who knows me knows that I try to avoid invasive plants whenever possible. Battling the English ivy, vinca, rose of sharon, and burning bush seedlings in our current inherited garden is an object lesson in why one might not wish to grow Plants That Escape. However, a confession: I truly love Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima) and grow it both in pots and in the ground.

Any grass that is this lush, this early in the summer, in the generally-inhospitable space between two sidewalks, a street, and a driveway, sets my plant-lover's heart to fluttering. The fact that it requires no supplemental watering or pruning is a real plus for the lazy gardener.

And who could not love that sweet wispiness behind the gaudy assertiveness of verbena and geranium?

Feather grass, when happy, can even form a low hedge--and it plays well with others, like coreopsis,

butterfly weed, and dwarf goldenrod.

What's not to love?

A cautionary note is, unfortunately, required: Nassella's native range in the US is confined to parts of Texas and New Mexico, and it has become a serious invasive in portions of California and the Southwest, where conservation organizations are asking gardeners not to plant it. It is listed as not hardy in zone 6, but it has perennialized for me in two gardens; our warmer winters may eventually allow it to naturalize. Having grown the plant for the last eight years, I have yet to see volunteers but know that I will have to watch to make sure it doesn't escape and threaten any of our area's lovely but later-flourishing grasses.

For now, I make time most days to watch the sun light up this favorite grass.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Could it be?

Wildlife watchers (or at least this wildlife watcher) always hope to see rare species, and today I had the fleeting thought that I might actually be seeing an endangered butterfly, the Karner blue. This particular butterfly lays its eggs only on the wild lupine (Lupinis perennis), which generally lives in oak savannas, an ecosystem that has become rare. I am not sure that the meadow at the Wintergarden Preserve in Bowling Green, Ohio, is in fact an oak savanna, but it is home to nice swaths of lupine, which today were in full bloom.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Karner blues do not typically emerge until late May, but many plants (and perhaps caterpillars?) have been early this year. Certainly, there were quite a few little bluish-grayish butterflies flitting among the lupines.

A girl can hope.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A new love

A plant I had heard of but never seen materialized on an afternoon walk today. Wild hyacinth, or camassia scilloides, grows in abundance in a nearby wetland that I had managed never to visit during the right time of year. At first, I did not know what this gorgeous thing was

since, fully bloomed out, it does not have the classic hyacinth shape, and the only camassias I have ever seen at garden centers or in catalogs are the more brightly-colored western varieties. But the woods were full of the plant,

and I eventually recognized it (with the help of thoughtfully-provided signage on the edge of the trail and some plants still wearing the more recognizable hyacinth-like form).

Camassia is an important early nectar source for a number of native bees, and the bulbs were sometimes eaten by Native Americans and early European settlers. The Illinois Wildflower Society notes that the plant is an indicator of quality habitat, which is good news considering the sky view from this particular wetland.

I would much rather look at the flowers.

Warning: wild hyacinth has a short bloom season, so if you want to see it, head for your local wetland forest or moist prairie now.

Monday, April 17, 2017

No reason to complain

Some people, of course, complain about everything. Some people in our little town complain that the city does not mow the parks early enough in the spring; they dislike seeing the "weeds" that interrupt the view of what they think should be a swath of pure green. I do not share this complaint.

Being fortunate enough to live next to one of our parks, I am generally delighted at the delay. The spread of white in the photo below is not snow, or bare sand, but drifts of claytonia, commonly known around here as spring beauties. That little rise, by the way, is the Turtle Mound, part of a complex of Hopewell earthworks well over a thousand years old.

The next block down includes quite a nice mixed grouping of spring "weeds" or "wildflowers," depending on one's view of them. From a distance, the area does perhaps look a little unkempt.

As one moves closer, however, the view becomes progressively more interesting. Here, the weeds reveal themselves as a mix of spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), and violets (probably Viola sororia, but my violet identification skills are lacking).

The lamium is one of the most cursed-at of our local weeds because of its tendency to spread, but this mint relative plays well with others and asks for no care, so I have rather a fondness for it, and for its cousin henbit.

Besides, it is an important nectar source for early bees, which need all the help they can get. And look at that blossom. If it were hard to grow, we would pay for it. (Other lamiums are offered at exorbitant prices at local garden centers, although they are probably not quite as enthusiastic as this one.)

Spring beauties and violets are the classic April combination in our neck of the woods, and both are essential to the health of our local ecosystems. Tiny as they are, they feed the earliest, smallest bees and flies, which become food for the birds that are returning to the area (as well as those tougher customers who hang around all year). Violets have the additional distinction of being the sole food source for the caterpillars of certain species of fritillary, some of our most attractive butterflies. (One must occasionally consider aesthetics.)

And of course, spring brings the return of the ubiquitous dandelion--not native, but probably here to stay. I happen to love their perhaps obnoxiously  cheerful yellow flowers, but they, too, are a major nectar source. If allowed to go to seed, they feed songbirds, particularly the tiny, ground-feeding chipping sparrow.

So on the issue of "late" mowing: saving taxpayer money by starting the mowing season relatively late in the spring also saves the pollinators and the songbirds. Tell any grouches you know to stop complaining.

Thursday, March 16, 2017


. . . although not my usual sort, which involve photos of water. This week instead has me reflecting on the passage of time. Yesterday marked the first anniversary of my younger sister's death, and tomorrow would have been my first husband's seventy-ninth birthday. He did not want to live long enough to become decrepit or experience dementia, and he didn't. She was not so lucky.

Today I moved a literal carload of boxes of photographs, some framed, some in albums, some in envelopes, some just there, from the home in which said husband's aunt had lived since 1955, the year before I was born. (The car was a Honda Civic, but that is still a lot of pictures.) One small box was labeled "High School Pictures," followed by a list of names of members of the class of 1937. Another label read "Family pictures, around 1905." That box is sealed and has most likely not been opened for many years; when the step"children" (all now in their fifties) and I break the seal, who knows what we will find.

Aunt Pat took pictures of everything, and what she missed, my first husband got. Several of the boxes contain pictures of various trips and of every family gathering during the fifteen years of our marriage. A small envelope of wedding photos surfaced and had to be reviewed. The pictures were shocking.

Twelve days away from my thirty-second birthday, I had thought of myself as a semi-geriatric bride. Looking at today's find, I am not certain that I know that girl. With flowers tucked into her long hair, the person smiling out of those photos looks not too dissimilar from the teenager in my high school graduation picture. My mother, who seemed like an old woman at the time, was not much older than I currently am. Nearly everyone in the family shots is now dead, as are many of the friends. In less than a thirty-year period.

Time: not something to waste or kill.

Thursday, March 9, 2017


Or at least the plants are. Never before have I seen snow crocus, daffodils, star magnolias, azaleas, and spring beauties all blooming at the same time. It's a lovely picture, and the scent of the magnolias is welcome at this time of year., but this combination is a first in my sixty years. What's next--roses for Easter?

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Why I want to go back to Cozumel


Public Art



Butterfly at San Gervasio Maya site

Iguana at San Gervasio

 And of course--water

Monday, February 13, 2017

Commemorating a complicated history

A cultural difference I am noticing: the (admittedly limited) parts of Mexico I have visited are very upfront about their bloody history. More importantly, they take pride in the mixed identity of modern Mexico. While Merida has a more diverse ethnic mix, with folks from China, Korea, Lebanon, and Italy wandering in during the 19th century (and never mind the flood from everywhere today), Cozumel has won my heart with the public art along its waterfront. Not only is there a fountain for Ixchel and a pyramid topped with a Franciscan chapel , right on one of the prettiest stretches of the Caribbean, just up the street from the city museum, is the Monument of Two Cultures, sometimes called the Monument to Los Mestizos. This complicated structure celebrates race mixing. (Take that, alt-right!)

The story told in the monument is one of shipwreck, conquest, love, and hard choices. In 1511, a shipwreck caused some would-be conquistadores to wash up on the shores of what is today Quintana Roo, in the land of the Maya. Some were sacrificed, some escaped and were enslaved by other groups, and two remained with the original group of Maya. (Historical note: the Maya of this period were no nicer than most other empires.) A few years later, Cortes, on his way to destroy Tenochtitlan and found Mexico City, landed on the Isla de Cozumel and sent for the two Spaniards still living with the Maya. One of the shipwreck survivors, a Franciscan friar, rejoined the Spaniards and served as an interpreter, but the other refused. This man, Gonzalo Guerrero, had become Maya: he had a wife, children, and an honored place in the society of the people who had saved his life (okay, after enslaving him first). Go home? This is my home. Rejoin my people? These are my people. Seek honor and glory? I have them right here. Or at least, that’s how I read the face on this sculpture.

I have to argue, however, with the depiction of the wife in this monument. Not only is she physically smaller than her spouse (as she probably would have been, the Maya of my acquaintance not being very tall people), she is depicted sitting on the ground, beneath him, behind him, and looking up to him.

Now I have no problem with a woman sitting down to feed an infant, as she is doing, or looking up to a spouse, for that matter, but the artistic choice here is troubling. On the Island of the Goddess, she should at least be his artistic equal, and Zazil Ha, the actual historical person, was a princess, the esteemed daughter of a warrior king. One early account, based on the stories of the friar who returned to the Spaniards, has her referring to Cortes’s emissary as “a slave” and ordering him to get out of town. Hardly a sweet, submissive little thing.

The sculptor, however, included another detail that I love, and one that carries a subversive message. This couple had three children: the eldest is the son standing next to his father, one is the infant being nursed by the mother, but the third child is sitting on the ground behind the other figures. This third child is playing with a conquistador’s helmet: a soldier's armor has become a child’s toy.

History, of course, is seldom quite so simple or so uplifting. While some of the Maya actually got along with the Spaniards for a (brief) while, war did eventually break out. The man who fathered the first mestizo family in what eventually became Mexico was killed fighting his former companions in 1536.

But another message was delivered this morning. A rather handsome bird landed on the warrior’s elaborate hairstyle, preened for a while, then flew off. The human stories told in the monument seemed not to interest the bird at all.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

More perfection

I am not generally a fan of "touristy" stuff, having spent a good portion of my childhood in the Sunshine State and believing firmly that life there was better before the Mouse and that the hawkers of tacky mass-produced souvenirs are a blight on society. Casinos are my idea of one of the circles of hell, and the idea of being trapped on a cruise ship with a few thousand strangers appeals not at all. And did I mention that I loathe loud music and hate to shop?

Much  of Cozumel's waterfront is the kind of tourist hell that I generally avoid, and most of the "island tours" available seem to be of the spend-15-minutes-at-a-Mayan-ruin, go-to-a-tequila-tasting, and hit-a-beach-club variety. Yuck. This week, however, I was lucky enough to track down a different kind of tour offered by a small company run by a biologist. Three lucky companions and I got to spend five hours with Sergio, the owner, exploring different island ecosystems and looking for birds (though I got more photos of beaches and plants, birds not being particularly cooperative with my little point-and-shoot camera).

Our adventure started at 7:00 AM, when we climbed into Sergio's Chevy Blazer and took off for the wilder, eastern side of the island, specifically Punta Ixpalbarco. The beaches there were generally deserted, and in most places, there are no services for travelers beyond pull-offs for parking.

It was rough.

This part of the island gets the highest winds and waves; it is also the most likely to be hammered by hurricanes. This rather scruffy-looking variety of palm is the plant that does the best job of holding the soil in place. According to our guide, during the last big hurricane, a lot of the big trees went down and large swaths of mangroves died from saltwater intrusion. (A note: mangroves are far more salt-tolerant than most plants, so there must have been a lot of saltwater.)

A surprise to me is Cozumel's lack of seagulls; for whatever reason, only a small number frequent the island. Their job of cleaning up beach carrion is here performed by vultures, both turkey and black, the latter of which is ubiquitous. Here a volt of black vultures has taken over what is left of a restaurant destroyed in a hurricane.

Given the number of vultures riding the thermals over our heads, I would not recommend lying still for too long on these beaches.

We were able to explore a variety of ecosystems, not only the dune area but the coral rock beach, where the geological history of the island can be read by people who know what they're seeing.

 Leaving the beach, we explored a trail through the mangroves, much drier than normal due to a warm, dry winter, and a coastal scrub forest, winter home to some of the warblers that make their way to Magee March later in the spring. A highlight of the scrub was getting to watch a small bird known as a bananaquit steal palm nectar from hard-working bees (and here I had barely realized that palm trees bloomed!).

The intended final stop was a slightly higher elevation forest, but when one of our number noticed an obviously healthy wetland alongside the highway, Sergio managed to pull the Blazer off the road enough that it and we were safe. This wetland was a birding jackpot:

Standing by the side of the road, we saw teals, grebes, two kinds of egrets, three species of heron, a jacana going about its business, and--oh yes--more warblers.

A morning spent with a knowledgeable environmental educator is a morning well-spent.