Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Soapwort's Sweet Fragrance and Stately Beauty

The downward spiral has begun. Well, it began back in June, on the first day of summer. Now, the sun sets a wee bit sooner and rises just a touch later. And one of my favorite wild plants, soapwort, Saponaria officinalis, comes into bloom at this specific sun time.

It took me years to get this lovely flower established at my place. Seeds failed and transplants died. But eventually, I managed to coax two or three plants into existence. And from them, this European biennial took hold and now, it enlarges its territory each year.

Soapwort, so-called on account of its ability to produce soapsuds when placed in a vessel with water and vigorously shaken, has considerable value as an emergency form of soap. It has a gentle effect, like that commercial product that proclaims that babies won’t shed tears if they get it in their eyes.

But I rarely use soapwort as soap. The double flowers, white-and-pink, have a delicious, I’d say Heavenly aroma. Besides that, I just like to look at them. They are wicked pretty.

Soapwort, like most of our other favorite wild plants, has a brief window where it sets flowers, the flowers get pollinated by visiting insects and then produces seeds. The flowering cycle doesn’t last more than two weeks, but during that time the soapwort in front of my house gives me two weeks of sweet fragrance and old-fashioned, stately beauty.

Could anyone ask more of any wild plant?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Sitting outside my place the other night, a welcome sight greeted me. It was the nightly dragonfly invasion. My two farm ponds prove fertile grounds for these prehistoric insects, a good thing for me.

In midsummer, biting insects descend upon my yard…well, call it a yard. Really, it’s an opening in the woods. Anyway, deerflies and mosquitoes make outdoor living difficult and at the least, less-than-pleasant.

Fortunately, just when that magic time arrives when the sun sinks low behind the tall white pines and the sky turns pink and gauzy-white, the dragonflies come around, picking off insects in mid-flight. Dozens and dozens of these helicopter look-alikes fly anywhere from ground level to perhaps 50 feet in altitude. And as they go, the blessed critters catch mosquitoes and other devilish pests by grasping them with their front legs.

I can just picture how it goes. The dragonfly sees a target, acquires it in its radar (okay, so it doesn’t have radar. But it has some kind of built-in acquisition device) and then ZAP! Gotcha! After being thus embraced, the hapless mosquito is then brought to the dragonfly’s mouth and summarily eaten.

There was a time when I used dragonfly nymphs for trout bait. These are easily gotten by walking along the shore of any small pond and with a hard-toothed rake, bringing bottom debris up on shore and watching as the alien-looking nymphs crawled back toward the water. But that was then. Now, realizing that not only are dragonflies beneficial as mosquito catchers, some species of dragonflies are becoming quite scarce, I wouldn’t think of harming any dragonfly.

For more info on dragonflies and their ultra-colorful cousins, damselflies, I suggest investing a couple bucks in the Maine Dragonfly Survey foldout fact sheet. This, courtesy of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, contains a full written description as well as accurate color drawings of all of the dragons and damsels in Maine.

To learn more, just go to www.mefishwildlife.com.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Don't believe everything you read

A recent trip to a chain bookstore opened my eyes to the vast number of new books about the medicinal virtues of wild plants.

After thumbing through one offered by a well-known national publisher, I was astounded at what lay inside.

Here’s what bothered me the most. The book listed a number of common wild plants, none of which are known for their medicinal properties. In many instances, it seemed that the author stretched the point by listing all the various ills that the plants were supposed to treat. And that seems at best, misleading.

Such books typically target “newbies,” folks who have only recently become interested in wild plants and their uses. So they buy these books and consider information therein as gospel. But this can be terribly dangerous. Here’s why.

Lots of people can’t afford medical treatment for their health problems. Others simply eschew visits to the doctor. For these folks, wild medicinal plants offer hope and in some cases, panacea. But in so many cases, treating a serious condition with some plant that may or may not have any worth is risky business at best.

Even worse, books, not just the new batch of books to erupt out of the “green revival,” but even books of some generations ago, go out of their way to list every conceivable use for any given plant. Typically, we might read something like (I’m making this up, it’s only an example), “Cattail pollen, mixed with water, was traditionally used by Zuni Indians to treat pneumonia.”

In truth, anyone who thinks he or she may have pneumonia should head to the nearest doctor, hospital or clinic, pronto. Delayed treatment means delayed recovery, something that can lead to tissue scarring, not a good thing at all.

Of course lots of excellent wild plant medicines exist out there, but nowhere near as many as some people would have us believe. And worse, some plants can have serious interactions with prescription medications. In other cases, using wild plants as medicine can be dangerous for people with certain medical conditions.

It is always advisable to check with a qualified medical practitioner first before ingesting any wild plant as medicine. And relying on some obscure reference in a book may be even more dangerous.

So think before treating. And don’t believe everything you read.