Rose geranium, out of the closet

Rose geranium 4

Before you judge me, let me explain. I had to have a rose geranium in my garden this year. No local sources offered plants so I ordered it from that purveyor of naughtiness, Richters Herbs.

Confession time: I’ve been a Richters customer for more than 40 years. Admiring the plant today reminded me of the double life I used to lead. As a kid I felt compelled to hide several deviant passions from my school friends. At home I listened to Classical music in the dark and dried herbs in the closet. I avoided working in the garden on Saturdays when other boys from my class frequented the golf course across the road. I didn’t want to be seen on my knees, digging, rubbing leaves and smelling plants.

In the 1970s growing herbs had not yet become as widely accepted as it is now. I didn’t believe herbalism would go over well in a small Ontario town, or anywhere else for that matter. You couldn’t buy sage or thyme plants at the average plant nursery. Even harder to find were those that can’t be propagated from seeds, such as tarragon and scented geraniums. You had to order them from seed or plant catalogues like Richters. I hid these at the back of a drawer in my filing cabinet.

Nowadays nurseries widely offer citronella geranium, also called mosquito plant. Along with parsley and thyme, every household can grow a token scented geranium just to repel insects. But after a few years when other varieties (chocolate mint geranium, lime, coconut) were more widely available, I had to turn to Richters again.

I suppose the recent rise of conservative populist gardening has seen a rejection of herbal diversity. Still, no one will look askance if you grow things like rosemary or basil, so useful in the kitchen. But growing herbs for mere pleasure?

I embrace it fully. Call me indulgent, crazy, sinful, perverse, an abomination, whatever you want. As I get older, I care less about what people think. I’m not embarrassed if the neighbours see me squeezing plant parts or crouching in the garden with a camera and big lens.

Rose geranium 2

Few plants embody sheer sensuality like the rose geranium. One of my books from the 70s dismisses rose geranium flowers as “not showy.” Really? Compared to a sea of zinnias, maybe. This plants invites you to stop and look more closely. A macro lens reveals the blossoms to be practically pornographic, as dangerous as any orchid.

Meanwhile their deeply lobed, corrugated leaves complement the fabulous textures of other herbs like sage and thyme. Try planting them together in a barrel. They’re heat tolerant, require little attention and won’t wilt at the first hint of dryness. Flowering or not, an orgy of striking foliage will last all summer.

Even among plant taxonomists, rose geraniums spark controversy. Pelargonium graveolens, originally came from South Africa along with several other species of scented geranium. Once established in European gardens in the late 18th Century they readily hybridized, causing confusion into modern times. Richters identifies this plant as P. x asperum, one of the names most associated with rose geranium, which seems to be a hybrid of P. graveolens.

The leaves bear a fragrance like roses. If it smells pungent rather than sweet, it isn’t rose geranium.

The oil is used in perfumery. An Ontario company, neobniagara, sells rose geranium oil (along with another shameless product, lavender essential oil) grown and produced in the Niagara region. They have shops in four of the sketchiest tourist retreats anyone could think of: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Oakville, Elora and Stratford.

The smell is claimed to aid relaxation and optimism. Who knows what else? If you want to seduce someone to the clandestine power of herbs, add a rose geranium leaf to each jar when making apple jelly.

You won’t find any straight geraniums in my garden. Because honestly? They stink.

Rose geranium 3

Speedwell: Tribute to a fictional rabbit

Slender speedwell (?)

This is speedwell. I’m not very familiar with the genus and might be mistaken, but I believe it’s slender speedwell, Veronica filiformis, a non-native Ontario wildflower (based on threadlike flower stalks and roundish leaves).

Speedwell was one of the rabbits in one of my favourite novels as a boy, Watership Down. He was energetic and good-humoured. I got to know Hazel, Speedwell and the other rabbits around age 10 when I was also forming a life-long affection for flora. For 45 years I’ve had a soft spot for speedwell and wanted some in my garden.

This slender speedwell was growing in our lawn, which gets mown regularly, not by us. I like this seed-bead-sized perfectly blue flower so much I’ve transplanted a couple roots into my small garden where it can sprint and tell jokes around the larger plants.

A golden mystery: Chrysopilus thoracicus

Golden-backed snipe fly

I came upon this unfamiliar insect species today. Spectacular!

It’s a pair of golden-backed snipe flies, Chrysopilus thoracicus, identified thanks to BugGuide. I knew these were Diptera (true flies, having only two wings – most adult insects have four) but my knowledge would have gone no further. Fortunately a photo of this species appeared on the order’s first page lineup.

An online search brought up only that little is known about this species’ life cycle. Based on the natural history of other members of the genus Chrysopilus, it is suggested the larvae live in rotten material and prey on smaller insects. The adult fly might be similarly predatory on insects, or it might eat nothing. Mysterious, eye-catching creatures.

We know how the golden-backed snipe fly mates: like this. The female can be distinguished by her larger abdomen, the male by his larger eyes. The pair rested on a gravel footpath a few steps from mature deciduous woodland and from a small creek in a suburban park in Waterloo, Ontario. My presence did not disturb them.

I had deliberately left the macro lens at home to focus on the landscape during this morning’s walk. Fortunately the standard lens took a decent shot, but I wish I’d had the macro. So much for landscape photography today. When I’m not looking for details they must fall in my way.

Magenta spreen, a worthy spring green

Magenta spreen

Magenta spreen (Chenopodium giganteum) is a delicious spring vegetable readily available from my garden. It is a close relative (same genus) of lamb’s quarters and quinoa.

It self-sows abundantly but is easy to control. You can harvest the vigorous seedlings to use as you would spinach. It’s mild-flavoured and doesn’t become bitter with age. The young leaves show this startling magenta colour that tends toward amaranth red as the plant matures. In small quantities it can be eaten raw, but in large quantities it should be boiled two minutes to remove oxalic acid.

Magenta spreen 2

In my Ontario garden it is tolerant of hot sun and drought. In Mediterranean climates it prefers the shade. Insects don’t bother it much here. By midsummer I reduce the population to one architectural plant that may grow taller than me.

That single individual sows all the spring greens I want. They germinate before anything else, adding incentive for me to start weeding the garden early.

Such an easily grown vegetable can support food security in our communities. Apparently the seeds can be used like quinoa, but I haven’t tried it yet. Speaking of volunteers, here’s some dill.


Nature’s gift of exercise

Viola canadensis

The mud in the woods has evolved from chocolate cake batter to bread dough. It feels like kneading to walk.

This morning was the first time this month I completed my habitual 1.25-mile circuit without detouring around Sloughs of Despond or giving up on the third and final loop. Besides, the temptation of photography is strong with spring ephemeral wildflowers in bloom. Taking the good camera guarantees I’ll spend too much time in certain places to walk that far – and tire my hips too much from squatting. Today, wanting exercise, I left the Canon at home.

This is a strange, newfound pleasure for someone who has led too sedentary a life: savouring a vigorous morning walk so much it pulls me out the door in every kind of weather. It feels like yet another gift from Twin Oaks Woods.

I met a solitary white Canada violet, Viola canadensis, on the path. I couldn’t pick up the wildflower and move it as I would a turtle. Even my indifferent camera phone couldn’t help itself from focusing on that perfect face.

The painted turtle I’m referring to we met on a stroll by the Grand River in Kitchener yesterday morning.

Chrysemys picta

Supporting native insects is easy

Vanessa virginiensis on Antennaria dioica
Vanessa virginiana (American painted lady) on Antennaria dioica (pussytoes)

Yesterday I planted two drought-tolerant native Ontario wildflowers in my front garden: Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly milkweed) and Antennaria dioica (pussytoes). I wanted to support native insects in my backyard habitat. Globally insects are declining, with native pollinators particularly under threat.

This afternoon the pussytoes was visited by a Vanessa virginiana (American painted lady), presumably laying eggs. Antennaria and Anaphalis (everlastings) are the preferred host plants for this butterfly’s larvae. I have not seen either wildflower anywhere around my neighbourhood or the adjoining urban park.

And I’ve never seen this butterfly in my garden before. Where did she come from? How, how, how did she find this innocuous new little pincushion of leaves? With her pinhead sized brain she knows more about some natural mystery than I can understand.

Leatherwood a subtle but useful native shrub

Dirca palustris 4

One of my favourite native plants is leatherwood, Dirca palustris. It’s a modest shrub, easily overlooked in the shadowy understory of mature woodlands. That’s why I love it in this fast, brash, showy world. At the same time when spring narcissus burgeons in gardens, this useful plant does its things with nobody noticing.

Almost nobody, because here you are reading about it today. With your own brain you’re making the world a little wiser.

Dirca palustris 3

Why useful? The name leatherwood offers a clue. Its bark is extremely flexible. In a wilderness emergency it can be used for thongs to tie and make repairs.

Don’t try eating it. Leatherwood may be poisonous.

Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of its unpretentious summer foliage. Here’s a drawing, vintage but accurate.

Eastern leatherwood, Dirca palustris from Traité des Arbres et Arbustes que l’on cultive en France en pleine terre (1801–1819) by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Original from the New York Public Library. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

This early 19th Century illustration is provided by rawpixel, promoting the work of the Belgian botanical artist, Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Note the light green, simple leaves, lacking any teeth around the margins and with a rounded point. The bark is smooth and extremely tough. The shrub seldom grows taller than a person. It likes moist shady woods especially on a slope above a stream.

The genus Dirca has three or four species, all native to North America. It’s part of the fibre bark family, Thymelaeaceae, which appears around the world. Most species occur in the Southern Hemisphere, especially Africa.

Dirca palustris 1

What I love most about leatherwood is it’s one of the first botanical signs of spring in Ontario deciduous woodlands. It flowers before any other trees put out their leaves, even before most woodland wildflowers bloom. They have a subtle but surprising perfume.

The easiest way to find leatherwood is by its spring blossoms. It flowers along with the first spring beauties, Clatytonia virginica.

Claytonia virginica 2

ION LRT set to launch this spring

Kitchener-Waterloo’s new ION rapid transit is set to launch this spring after infamous delays. The date still has not been announced, though I see practice runs frequently.

The line runs not far from my home in Waterloo. I’ll have to walk a little further to reach a station, but it’s still readily accessible.

On this morning’s walk I went a different way from usual. I know where bloodroot will bloom downstream on Cedar Creek in a few weeks. To explore that part of the park I took a different path, and passed a pedestrian crossing of the rail line. It’s more of a hike but within the time constraints of my morning routine. This part of the line follows a preexisting, renovated track.

A train was working slowly back and forth along the rails. I got to see and hear the signals and safety rails in operation. I waved to the driver and her companion, but they remained focused on their activity. The young woman appeared to be receiving driving instruction.

Once running, ION will give us quick access to uptown Waterloo, downtown Kitchener and other parts of the city. Future construction will extend the line to Cambridge.

The project has been controversial because of disruptions to business and the delays in getting the new trains from Bombardier. However, we need such infrastructure to reduce traffic and dependency on fossil fuels. Continuing to follow our old ways is not sustainable. Growing pains are difficult but welcome.

Today’s post goes out to Randy McDonald at A Bit More Detail who has an inspirational fascination with urban matters, and frequently posts friendly links to my blog.

The creek runs through a crystal palace

Crystalline creek 5

Cedar Creek looked splendid beyond words today. I had to stop myself right there, squatting by the stream with the camera phone. It called for me to write something, but language can’t capture anything this strange and beautiful.

Here is more of the tension between photography and writing. Through the winter I’ve been using photography and brief text notes to record sensual perceptions of the woods. If something remarkable comes to me, I might translate it into a narrative later in the warm comfort of my office.

Crystalline creek 4

Memory can be a trickster. It’s superficial and evasive. Photography, far from helping remember an experience, focuses the attention on certain details.

Processing the images is a pleasure. Simple adjustments like contrast make them look their best.

Crystalline creek 1

But during the time spent in my virtual dark room I forget other things like a pair of dogs playing uproariously in the park, their two owners standing by to watch, maybe conversing, maybe saying nothing to one another. These direct impressions, once lost, might never be accessible again to me as a writer, not in quite the same way.

Last summer I spent time in the woods sitting and writing, recording things as they happened. A mink swam past, oblivious to my presence. Damselflies battled and mated over a few square metres of languid stream.

Ebony jewelwing

Winter doesn’t provide such physical luxury to the writer. But today by the winter stream the weather wasn’t too cold or blustery. So I opened a note on the phone and tried to swipe a description of the scene before me.

 The creek runs through a crystal palace. 
Angles and tangents record the wisdom of water,
whatever ideas it held when it froze.
A memory storage of lines leading nowhere and everywhere.
A dream and anxiety of ice.

It’s all too easy to take a few mindless photos on a homeward rush. It’s too easy to hurry. It’s easy not to think about the small, rich gifts of life.

Crystalline creek 2

Today I’m glad I paused and tried to put into words what can’t be put into words. My clumsy swiping said something photography couldn’t express: a personal response. There was more to what I wrote beside the stream today, but it’s harder to share. I’ll save it for a deeper context than this.

The power of language is different from that of images. I remain torn between. It’s a good place to be.

Crystalline creek 6

Tracking the elusive muskrat

Muskrat tracks and ice

A muskrat lives in the creek under the bridge where I cross into the woods every day. Ondatra zibethicus are particularly reclusive, so it took me a while to wise up to its presence. Danny and I saw one three years ago a little way upstream.

I didn’t see it here until last summer. I had been standing quietly on the bridge with my camera for several minutes, focusing on something else, when I heard a quiet rustle below. I peeked over the railing and there was a muskrat, perched on its hind feet eating a weed. When it saw me, it froze. As soon as I tried to manoeuvre to take a picture, it broke away, dashed clumsily across some rocks, splashed through a pool, and disappeared under a bank.

Muskrat resemble beaver and are adapted for similar habitats and lifestyles. They are even known to cohabit beaver lodges and look out for their mutual predators. Both have blunt brown heads and strong tails for swimming, but muskrat are much smaller than adult beaver. A beaver’s tail is wide and flat. The beaver will use it to slap the water in alarm, but I’ve never seen one move quickly like the muskrat last summer. The muskrat’s tail is long, thin, and flattened on the sides.

Cedar Creek

Above is the place where I saw the muskrat last summer (shot here during milder winter weather). The storm drain produces a trickle of water that keeps some open ice in all but the coldest weather.

Marsh muskrat build lodges of weeds, but along river habitats they burrow into the bank. Now that I know one lives here I always look out for it. The signs are few. For months I’ve seen nothing except the hollow under the bank where it vanished that day.

Since the creek started freezing over, the muskrat has left indelible clues. Its tracks are easy to distinguish from raccoon and squirrel, because the muskrat drags its heavy tail designed for smooth propulsion through water. The sinuous line is visible in the top photo.

Below are the clever-pawed tracks of a raccoon left along the same part of the creek a few days ago.

Raccon tracks on frozen creek

This morning I saw something new: the hole where the muskrat moves between the worlds of air and water. Muskrat don’t hibernate and are well equipped for winter survival. They gnaw holes in the ice with their teeth. They can remain underwater for 15 minutes without coming up for breath. Muskrat would probably prefer to forage for submerged roots and weeds. However, in this shallow stream the animal must range above the ice in search of additional food. Muskrat also cache food in their burrows.

Last summer I spotted a mink wending its way upstream. A few minutes later a small animal screamed from the vicinity of the bridge. At the time I assumed it was a squirrel or rabbit. Now that I’ve seen the muskrat there, I think the victim must have been one of its family. I hope both wildlife species manage to survive the winter under this bridge, a stone’s throw from my office window.