Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Harbinger of Spring

My parents have a nice little patch of harbinger of spring in their backyard, and it’s blooming now, so I took some pictures of it to show you how pretty these tiny little flowers are.

The scientific name is Erigenia bulbosa, and it’s also called “pepper and salt” for the way the comparatively large red (or darker) anthers contrast with the tiny white petals.

Harbinger of spring is usually found in the southern and eastern halves of the state. Hunt for it in forested bottomlands, moist upland forests, in ravines and valleys, along streams and rivers, and other moist, rich, foresty places.

Not only is this one of the tiniest wildflowers, as I mentioned before, but also, it’s probably the earliest-blooming wildflower in the state. And that’s why we get so durned excited when we see these teensy flowers: Sing praises! Spring is on its way!

Because I try to give you more than just a happy “twirling of buttercups,” I’d like to take this opportunity to pass along some botanical information to you, in case you’re not lucky enough to have learned this cool information yet.

Harbinger of spring is a member of the Apiaceae (ay-pee-ay-see-ee), also called the carrot family. You might be amazed at how many carrot family plants you’re familiar with.

Once you learn some of the characteristics of this group, you’ll be able to recognize other carrot family plants right away. Think about carrot and dill plants as you read this list.

—Stems are usually stout, often with hollow nodes.

—Leaves are alternate, usually sessile and sheathing the stem, with blades that are usually very pinnately divided (that means feathery or fernlike). By the way, black swallowtails lay their eggs on these leaves, and you can commonly find their spiffy green-black-and-yellow caterpillars quietly munching their way to adulthood on them.

—Flowers are usually in simple or compound umbels (umbel? Well, think of it like an umbrella turned inside out from the wind—a bunch of little flower stems arise from the same location at the tip of a larger stem) (oh, and “compound umbel” means the little stems then give rise to their own little umbels).

By the way, this “umbel” flower arrangement (“inflorescence type”) used to provide the name of the whole family back when it was called the Umbelliferae. In a similar fashion, the aster family used to be called the Compositae because of the “composite” inflorescences typical of asters, sunflowers, etc. But now all the family names have been standardized to be based on a representative genus within the family instead of the inflorescence type. But I digress . . .

—The flowers themselves are radially symmetrical and usually have 5 petals, which are usually white or yellow. The sepals and stamens come in fives, too. There’s only one pistil, but it has two styles, and these have swollen bases (cool, huh? these special styles are called stylopodia). (I swear, half of botany is learning ten thousand special terms for plant anatomy.) Many insects are attracted to these crowded umbels of little flowers, and this endears carrot family plants to gardeners who want pollinators to come around.

—The seeds form in pairs. (Remember the paired styles? Here’s where they lead to.) For examples of what the seeds look like, just visit your spice rack: caraway, anise, dill, fennel, cumin, and coriander.

The Apiaceae have a lot more economically important members, too, including celery, parsley, chervil, carrot, parsnip, and cilantro. Where would cooks be without this family?

Around Missouri, you will also probably know Queen Anne’s lace, which is found on just about every country roadside, plus rattlesnake master (a memorable tallgrass prairie species that looks kind of like an agave), pennywort, lovage, and sweet cicely.

There are some “bad boys” in the family: poison hemlock and water hemlock. Other plants in the family contain toxins, as well, so make absolutely certain your identification is correct before you go nibbling on plants from the wild.

. . . But it would be hard to misidentify little harbinger of spring.

I’ve often thought that the best thing botany classes taught me was how to recognize plant families. Once you can begin to distinguish roses from mustards from carrots from mallows, and sedges from grasses from rushes, and all the other major families, the whole world around you changes. . . . It’s comparable to the first day in a new job, when you’re surrounded by complete strangers you care nothing about, versus the day, some years hence, when you realize you know everyone’s story: Suddenly you’re surrounded not by strangers, but by companions.

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