Thursday, January 19, 2012

Winter flowers

This was the scene when I departed the office today. Winter has roared back into town, complete with icy temperatures and snow. But up until now, it's been unseasonably balmy in central Ohio and we've been completely lacking in snow cover.

So, yesterday I got a call from Ben Gelber (be sure and click his name!), legendary weatherman for NBC 4 tv. Ben is a total natural history buff and a great proponent of the environment. He regularly does little snippets about nature and once in a while he'll connect with me to do something. Because of the relatively Floridian weather around here, we did a thing about the response of plants to the balminess. I was able to find a few species in bloom right outside my office building, and brought my camera in today to photograph them, right before the snow hit.

In a funny coincidence, at the very time that Ben and I were outside filming our spot, Dave Horn emailed me the above photo of snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, ready to burst into bloom in his Clintonville garden. Just about everything that you'll find flowering in the dead of winter around here is, like snowdrops, of Eurasian origin. The native plants seem much more tied to photoperiod - the length of daylight - for their trigger to erupt from the soil and start to flower. The hardy Eurasian invaders quickly respond to favorable weather conditions.

Looking every bit as bright as your lovely salad greens is this prostrate mat of common chickweed, Stellaria media. This chickweed is a very short-lived perennial and colors up quickly with the advent of mild weather. A few more warm days and it may well have started pushing out flowers.

You've probably got this one in your yard. It's hairy bittercress, Cardamine hirsuta, a tiny winter-annual mustard. Like all of the other plants in this post, it is naturalized from Eurasia. I couldn't find any blooms yet, but like the chickweed, had the weather remained warm and snowfree it wouldn't have been long before its little white flowers popped.

Another soon to bloom weed and - excepting the snowdrops, which tends to remain pent up in the garden - the showiest of this lot is this hen's-bit, Lamium amplexicaule. These beautiful little mints can always be found in bloom in February in southernmost Ohio in any year, and I saw a few today that had the beginnings of buds.

Mark my words, this homely little weed is one of our toughest plants - a real botanical cockroach. It's common groundsel, Senecio vulgaris, and this specimen is in full bloom. Common groundsel inherited few of the charms of many of its brethren in the ragwort group (Asteraceae). What it lacks in looks, it makes up for in sheer tenacity. This species can grow nearly anywhere and flower at any time. It'll long outlast humans, easily surviving the worst of our ravages: nuclear holocausts, Walmart parking lots, possibly even fracking.

We move in close so that you can appreciate the true glory of common groundsel flowers. That's it. There are no showy petals, only tubular discoid flowers tightly enwrapped by a cup of leafy phyllaries. One wants to wait around and see if the flowers might do something a little more spectacular, but they don't.

Finally, that bane of every well-groomed yard, the dandelion, Taraxacum officinale. Like the groundsel, dandelions are ultra-tough members of the aster family and prone to blooming all winter long if given even a slight chance.

I've got to confess to liking these ugly little weeds, if for no other reason than they offer hope of the impending spring. And right now, with blowing snow and temps in the 20's, spring seems quite distant.


Auralee said...

There's nothing to take the sting out of the winter than visiting the witch-hazel collection at Dawes Arboretum. Flowers? FRAGRANT flowers? In the bitter cold? Yes indeed. In fact it's time to send an email to their horticulturalist to get a read on when they might start to bloom, probably in the next few weeks. If you haven't seen witch hazels blooming in the dead of winter cold, you are in for a real treat.

zippiknits said...

I truly love winter here in mild SoCal, since so many edibles come up to eat, for me and for the birds and butterflies. We have Lamb's Quarter, Dandelions, fennel, and mallow right now.