Category Archives: Wildflowers

Exploring the Red Road

If yesterday’s pic wasn’t a clue… I went on a pretty intense botany trip to the Pine Barrens on Sunday. MevetS was nice enough to invite me along, but probably didn’t properly prepare me. Sure, he said to bring lunch and bug spray and the directions led me to an unmarked sugar-sand road in the middle of the Pine Barrens, but…

Seeing this really scared me. Adding to the fashion faux-pas of tucking their pants into their socks, these folks were using packing tape around their ankles to further geek themselves out/protect against chiggers.

Chiggers? Huh?

Yesterday was brutally hot and the pines in the pygmy forest did little to provide any shade from the sun, but we wandered and wandered, with the promise of a ‘wetland’ somewhere along the way.

After a couple hours walking in the blazing sun, I was fantasizing about a cool blue pool of water and cabana boys, but…

These people were all about plants… and most of them weren’t even flowering plants!


I’ve learned that plant people, as they progress and learn more, get really into sedges and rushes and grasses. This is kind of too much for me just now, kind of like shorebirds and gulls are too much for me as a birder.

I need colors and blooms and flashy stuff that catches my eye!

Digging up a sedge to be able to identify it based of the shape and fibrous nature of its roots?

Feels too much like aging gulls based on primary molt or whatever.


TMI, especially when it’s 95 degrees and you’ve been walking for hours looking for the pool – which turned out to be nothing more than a mucky stream we had to bushwack our way through.

I’ll share a couple pics tomorrow of the few flowers we did manage to stumble across. I sound like I’m making fun, but mostly I’m almost awed by the knowledge and enthusiasm I witnessed with this group and wonder how long it’ll take me to be ready to tackle (and get excited about!) sedges (or gulls).


Blue-eyed grass

BLUE-EYED grass in the meadow
And yarrow-blooms on the hill,
Cattails that rustle and whisper,
And winds that are never still;

Blue-eyed grass in the meadow,
A linnet’s nest near by,
Blackbirds caroling clearly
Somewhere between earth and sky;

Blue-eyed grass in the meadow,
And the laden bee’s low hum,
Milkweeds all by the roadside,
To tell us summer is come.

Mary Austin

I love the contrast of the yellow throats with the purple petals! Another from the Chiwaukee Prairie in Wisconsin.

Under a prairie sky

It seems to me nothing man has done or built on this land is an improvement over what was here before.

An example of one such place, land that hasn’t ever been tilled for agriculture or improved in some way for development, lies halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. A genuine tallgrass prairie, the Chiwaukee offers a delightful mix of native grasses, uncommon sedges and drop-dead gorgeous orchids among the many wildflowers that bloom within its swells and swales.

It’s an excellent place to test your plant identification skills. I was fortunate to have a botanist and walking-encyclopedia along with me to identify plants. I’d point and Jim would spit out a Latin name. Kinda Pavlovian and fun.


I was tickled to spot this beauty first, after he walked right past it.

The Prairie White Fringed Orchid is a federally threatened species and like most orchids, rather mysterious in its growing habits… some years there’s lots, others not so many. We found just two, I think, on the small portion of the Chiwaukee’s 225 acres that we walked through.

Swaying back and forth among the grasses… delicate and exquisite… and tall at about three feet, it was easy for me to see why there are volunteers sufficiently enthralled with this particular orchid to stand in for their hawkmoth benefactors and pollinate them by hand, with toothpicks, at various sites within their range. So beautiful were they that I hardly saw any of the other wildflowers that surrounded them.

Pristine as it may be, the Chiwaukee and all its wonders are surrounded by houses and sprawl and represents just a small fragment of the native prairie that once existed in that part of the country.

It’s hard for me to imagine anyone plowing these under to grow corn or soybeans or heaven-forbid-Walmarts, but that’s not my reality. Far removed, I see only the interplay between an ancient prairie threatened by people, even as it’s watched over and appreciated by others.

The queen of them all

Back to Orchid Week.

Look awake!


Said to be fussy, we found Showy Lady’s Slippers growing in the dappled shade along someone’s driveway in Bailey’s Harbor, Wisconsin.

In someone’s driveway!

Like a common weed!

The location of the most prized orchids are oftentimes kept a secret so people won’t dig them up and carry them away. The kind people at The Ridges led us to these for photos.

Aren’t they pretty?

Ever seen any?

Wandering out to the driveway to see what I can find there…

Grass Pinks

A wild rose torn to bits, then glued back together by someone who had never seen a flower before, might look something like a Grass Pink.
–Raphael Carter

Isn’t that a great quote about a really odd-shaped flower?


Another orchid from The Ridges and one that I’ve seen here in NJ in the bogs of the Pine Barrens.

The upper petal should be triangular, according to the books, tho this one doesn’t look it; the important thing to know is that the bearded lip is the uppermost petal on a Grass Pink… the other pink bog orchids wear their beards on the lower lip.

What do you guys call that?


The flower that walks

This might turn into orchid week here, so be warned…


Mostly I prefer simple common flowers, but orchids and their variety of forms can’t be denied.

Look at those sweetly twisted sepals!

I geeked out for a moment there. Sorry.

So… flower fanciers, which do you prefer: the pink or the yellow?

Yellow Lady’s Slipper Orchid photographed at The Ridges Sanctuary in Door County, Wisconsin.

I really, really like the yellow.


There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.
— Albert Einstein

Twinflowers are tiny! That I’d somehow spotted a miniature forest of them blanketing a spot of sun in the cool damp woods of Northern Michigan was the first miracle. Surviving the swarms of mosquitos long enough to get a couple shots was the next.

An orange hemiparasite and lily

A beautiful Indian Paintbrush glimmers from damp sedgy meadows on the Door Penisula of Wisconsin. This gorgeous member of the figwort family is saddled with the rather ignominious rank of a hemiparasite. Oh! What is a hemiparasite you may ask… a hemiparasite is a plant that derives some of its sustenance from other plants. In the case of our beautiful paintbrush, it taps into the roots of various grasses.

Our orange flamer has a bit of Spanish flair to it… the genus name is Castilleja. This name honors the great Spanish botanist Domingo Castillejo, who plucked plants in the 18th century. The specific epithet is coccinea, which means scarlet – a fitting descriptor for our showy hemiparasite.

Many believe the brilliant orange floral parts to be flower petals. No, they are not. The eye-catching sprays of orange are in fact brightly colored bracts, which are modified leaves that subtend the true flowers. And it’s a good thing the paintbrush is adorned with those festive bracts, as the true flowers are greenish bits of nothingness.

Beads of water glisten like jewels on the tepals of a stunning Wood Lily. Uncommon and always a treat, these lilies glowed like beacons from the perennial gloom of a boreal forest edge in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I think that orange flowers are especially attention grabbing. Perhaps this is because orange is not a particularly common color in nature. In any event, these plants, when in full bloom, hit the eye with the force of a barreling Mack truck.

Another reason that the Wood Lily is conspicuous is that it is our only native Lilium in which the flowers are held perfectly upright. All of the others droop or nod.

Suffer a spider bite lately? Native Americans would have you believe that this is the cure… they ground up Wood Lily plants and made a thick paste, which was then slathered onto the area affected by the spider bite.

The allure of lilies dates to the beginnings of the written word… witness this quote from the bible: “… Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin; and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Matthew 6:28-29)

Nature stark naked

Every new flower’s my favorite for a while… so bear with me here. Turkey Beard is a characteristic Pine Barrens plant and, according to all my books, quite common and easy to find.


The knowing where to look is key, apparently.

Mostly I just wander on my own when I go there; a precarious thing considering my poor sense of direction and how easily one might get lost among the intersecting sand roads. My always-turn-right strategy has served me well enough so far, but one of these days…


It must be the strange, hard-won beauty of the place that captivates and distracts me so… the craggy pines and impenetrable scrub that holds the promise of something new at every visit. I don’t always find something new, of course, some days I just wander aimlessly and get eaten alive by skeeters and deer flies. Or practically freeze to death in the winter. Those things are pretty fun, too, when done in the spirit of exploration.

There is something grand, charming and desirable in this vaguely despised country… the sand, the pines… it is Nature stark naked.” –Phillip Vickers Fithian, a Revolutionary War chaplain

The tables turned

Consider the cunning necessary for a plant – about the slowest-moving life form on earth – to lure, capture and consume a fast-moving insect.


Sundews set their insect traps well below where their flowers bloom and lure prey by means of a sticky substance secreted by hairs on each of the leaves… it glistens in the sunlight and serves as a beacon to passing insects (and wandering photographers).

I was surprised to find spatulate-leaved sundews, as well as thread-leaved sundews, outside of a bog in the mostly dry sandy soil near the Speedwell entrance to the Franklin Parker Preserve.

Here is a bloodthirsty little miscreant that lives by reversing the natural order of higher forms of life preying upon lower ones, an anomoly in that the vegetable eats the animal.” –Neltje Blanchan