Enchanter’s nightshade

I’ve passed this Ontario wildflower a thousand times because it’s inconsequential to my eyes. Minor details are the very things I look for when exploring with the macro lens. It reveals the obscure beauty of a forest sprite. This wildflower is new to me.

Enchanter’s nightshade has the rare distinction of possessing only two petals, though they seem like four. Native through much of the Northern Hemisphere, Circaea lutetiana has purported magical properties, Circe being the Greek enchantress and Lutetia being the Latin name for Paris, or “witch city.” It isn’t a true nightshade and isn’t poisonous, but is of no apparent use to the casual herbalist.

Cottage vignettes: flora and fauna around the dock

Canada's largest spider

Since I’ve been practicing all winter with the macro lens, it’s going to be fun exploring the cottage environs this year. All the photos here were taken on or from the dock on our lake in Algonquin Highlands, Haliburton County, Ontario over the July 1 weekend.

Here’s a shot of one of several Dolomedes dock spiders inhabiting the dock. These are terrifying to behold, Canada’s largest spider with about a 3″ leg span. However, they are timid and not aggressive. They don’t spin webs but are skilled fisherman. They can both dive and walk on water. Last summer I observed one subdue and eat a large dragonfly equal to its size, which must have accidentally landed nearby.

Apparently these spiders can bite people if grabbed or caught in clothing. The bite is painful but not dangerous unless you’re allergic. However, I’ve been interacting with them all my life and have never known one to bite anyone even when handled accidentally. They are more interested in escaping.

They trigger my arachnophobia less than most spiders. But this weekend even I was a bit creeped out by three large dark ones (male, I think) running around and vying for attention from an even larger grey one (female). Males die within hours after mating.

Canadian tiger swallowtail

This wasn’t the first Canadian tiger swallowtail I photographed this year. In fact there were two on this same mountain-ash tree at the same time. There seems to be a strong flight of Papilio canadensis this year.

These two were special because my partner and I had just arrived at the cottage on Thursday, I went to admire evening sunlight over the lake, turned around, and found two of them feeding on the mountain-ash tree right beside our dock. They stuck around.

I ran to get my camera. I had to attach the rarely-used zoom lens because they were 8 feet up in the tree over shallow water. I could see them clearly, but couldn’t get near. When I returned, they were still there. After a minute I ran back for the tripod, and persuaded Danny to come look.

The swallowtails weren’t going anywhere. Spring has been so delayed by cool weather and rain, some aspects of summer seemed to be barely seeping into cottage country. Many animals are guided by the sun, but plants have had to wait for the weather to guide them. I guess there were few summer flowers for these butterflies to sip.

They found our isolated Sorbus americana, and there they drank and drank. Swallowtails I’ve seen along roadsides and in the city park have been constantly moving, passing all kinds of flowers, looking for whatever – or smelling whatever it is they smell for.

These two hardly moved all evening. One flew a desultory circuit around the bay before returning to the same few flowers. The one with a damaged wing posed for me, and posed and posed again. It was missing one swallowtail. After I had been photographing it continuously for 10 minutes, the other butterfly suddenly moved in good view of the camera, and spread its wings. They were perfect… Snap!

On the wing 2

Standing on the dock in the evening I attracted a cloud of mosquitoes, which in turn attracted this common baskettail dragonfly, Epitheca cynosura. These were abundant around the lake over the July 1 weekend. They seemed more dimwitted than other dragonflies. Driving slowly along the road I couldn’t avoid them flying in front of the car. At least there were many of them.

This is one of my first efforts at photographing an insect mid-flight. The dragonfly would hover in place for a moment before snatching a mosquito.

Round-leaved sundew

Round-leaved sundews (Drosera rotundifolia) are ubiquitous carnivorous plants around the lake at our cottage. You’d hardly notice them they’re so small, crowded along the waterline where moisture leaches all the nutrients especially nitrogen out of the soil.

The sundews seem to be thriving with so much rain, perhaps because there are more bugs than usual. When I stopped to photograph this clump, the cranefly in the upper right was struggling uselessly for its life. The leaves trap insects on the sticky hairs. When a bug struggles it pulls the leaf closed around itself and gets digested.

These plants were littered with arthropod carnage. The sundews looked bigger, stickier and more vigorous than usual. Good to see something benefitting from weird weather.



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.