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The Asters of Autumn

The Asters of Autumn . . .

A few New England Asters snuck into the corner of a West Village garden. (photo taken 10 17 2012)

The Aster family, Asteraceae, holds court in late summer and autumn. A variety of these little daisy faces can be found gracing fall fields, roadsides, and urban greenways with their white, blue, and purple colors.

Two attractive varieties can be seen throughout the West Village even now, in November, when most flowering plants have fallen to the frost. One is the New England Aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, which can be identified by the leaves, which clasp the stem. The blooms also tend to be more sparse and reside more at the purple end of the spectrum than its close relative, the New York Aster.

Face First: Closeup view of an individual New England Aster. (photo taken 10 17 2012)

Known also as the Michaelmas Daisy, Symphyotrichum novi-belgii has stiff stems that hold alternate leaves. The blossoms have pointed rays with a lavender hue that surround a yellow central disk. The New York Aster tends to grow bushier as well, often forming tight thickets covered with flowers. This species is also popular as a cultivated planting. Large colonies can be found blooming in between the old rusted tracks of The High Line.

New York Asters bloom on the right side of The High Line’s tracks. (photo taken 10 23 2012)

One other colorful lining should here be mentioned: Both of these beautiful native perennials attract late pollinators, especially bees and butterflies.

A bush of New York Asters hosts a happy butterfly on The High Line. (photo taken 10 23 2012)

– rPs 11 14 2012

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Lily of the Village

Lily of the Village . . .

A single toad lily, Tricyrtis hirta, sits in a sun-dappled West Village churchyard. (photo taken 10 14 2012)

Churchyards afford quiet green corners in any city. A reflective atmosphere can be found and, if one searches the garden edges, so can wildflowers, decorative motifs not unlike the colorful illustrations rendered on the margins of illuminated manuscripts.

This past Sunday my wife and I enjoyed a mellow brunch and extended that mood with a stroll around the grounds of a nearby church. We found an open bench beneath a crab apple tree full of fruit. Sparrows visited us as we chatted in the dappled shade. Butterflies and honeybees buzzed by, too. A kind of city traffic humming with a much more relaxed timbre.

When we stood up to return home, I noticed a tiny patch of color nestled within the undergrowth shaded by the surrounding red brick walls. What I saw up close affected me as much as the first flowers of spring. There, within the thinning, fading green of autumn stood a single, distinctive bloom.

The flower resembled an orchid in some respects. The six pale cream tepals were sharply pointed and displayed a vibrant purple leopard print. An exaggerated pistil resembling a tropical sea anemone was likewise spotted. The leaves below were alternate, perfoliate, lanceolate, and somewhat smooth. The entire plant stood less than a foot in height. There were no other examples but this one to be seen in the garden, which left the impression I had found a wild, or at least feral, flower species that bloomed in the fall.

Back home, I felt excitement, a visceral enthusiasm that wells up less frequently now after writing about the West Village’s flowering plants for nearly three years. My personal discoveries of new species have steadily become fewer and further in between.

What has increased is my knowledge base. I ignored the football and baseball games on television and went to work, cross-referencing details with those found in my ever-growing collection of print and online resources. I used a kind of information triangulation that allowed me, after about an hour, to close in on a specific identification. The flowering plant I found in the churchyard is, in fact, a fall perennial, small in stature, with a richly spotted bloom. An Asian immigrant from Japan, it is not of the orchid tribe but rather a member of the genus Liliaceae.

Toad Lily, Tricyrtis hirta

A hardy, shade-loving, herbaceous species that grows well left to its own, the toad lily is so named for the way this flower makes its appearance in the garden. Like a little spotted amphibian sitting beside a mountain stream (the environment where it is found in its native land), this flower does resemble that handsome prince in disguise.

Reflecting on this most recent path to discovery, I found another good reason to visit church on Sunday, as well as a reminder to stay alert. You do not know the day or the hour . . . leading to the discovery of another flower! The single toad lily I found growing wild in an otherwise carefully cultivated garden reminded me that wildflowers can be found at almost any time and just about anywhere, even in a city as built up as New York.

Closeup of the leopard print coloration and exaggerated pistil of the otherwise diminutive toad lily. (photo taken 10 14 2012)

– rPs 10 16 2012

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Anything but Plain

Anything but Plain . . .

Why mow this pretty lawn . . . It’s in bloom! (photo taken 09 25 2012)

One immigrant wildflower of the West Village arrived on the western hemisphere with the earliest of the European colonists. The presence of this plant along the margins of their settlements inspired neighboring natives to call it White Man’s Footprint. Lawns and sidewalk cracks everywhere today sport the bigfoot oval leaves and stubby green spikes of the common Broadleaf Plantain, Plantago major.

A flowering Broadleaf Plantain displays its distinctive footprint. (photo taken 09 28 2012)

Another relative in the Plantain family is, to my eye, one of the most attractive of the naturalized wildflowers. The bloom of this plant is neither colorful nor large, and it is not rare or secluded. What it does possess is the slender grace of its basic form, the geometry of its flowering, which combined provide the primary source of its beauty.

The species I praise so highly is the Ribwort Plantain, more commonly known as English Plantain, Plantago lanceolata.

The leaves of this perennial plant are, as its Latin name states, long, narrow, and pointed; a spike unlike its curvy broadleaf cousin. Clusters of these form a tight rosette that can be either prostrate or bushy, depending on the surrounding environment. The leaves tend to grow more thickly and upright in consistently moist areas.

The flowers top tall, smooth stalks that spread outward on a slightly curved trajectory. A brownish spike resembling an inverted sugar cone shoots out miniscule white stamens that look like a lit sparkler frozen in time.

The subtle, yet beautiful, bloom of the English Plantain is carried by the white stamens. (photo taken 09 25 2012)

The sight of one of these plants always reminds me of Albrecht Durer’s intimate watercolor: “Das Grosse Rasenstuck” (The Great Piece of Turf). The blooming English Plantain creates a pretty still life wherever it grows, the reason why I love this plant so, and why my lawn will always be left to nature.

A great piece of turf: English Plantain. (photo taken 09 11 2012)

–  rPs 09 28 2012

Postscript: view an image if “Das Grosse Rasenstuck” by following this link: http://www.artofeurope.com/durer/dur21.htm

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Big and Bushy

Big and Bushy . . .

Marestail, Conyza canadensis, stands tall on Hudson Street. (Photo taken 07 2012)

After two vacations (to Connecticut and the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state), and several fishing trips, I have returned to my search for West Village wildflowers. Two examples quickly stood out because of their sheer big and bushy scale. One is Marestail, Conyza candensis, which appears by its numbers, lushness, and size to be at its seasonal peak. The other species is Common Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, a biennial that here must be in its second year of growth, as yellow blooms have begun to crown these stately plants. One especially attractive specimen is located just around the corner from my townhouse.

Common Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, blooms on Greenwich Street. (Photo taken 07 2012)

— rPs 07 29 2012

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An “Irish Spring”

An “Irish Spring” . . .

(photo taken 03 16 2012)

I discovered a pot of wildflower gold on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day. Surrounding the base of a tree beside the bike path along the West Side Highway, I found an Irish spring mix of Red Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), white Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), and blue Siberian Squill (Scilla siberica), blooming together.

The trees are bare, though budding; the ground is spongy, beginning to turn verdant. In this environment, the diminutive wildflowers of the early season are a refreshing sign of life renewing on the cusp of spring.

Breathe deeply . . .

(photo taken 03 16 2012)

– rPs 03 17 2012

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High Line Cuts Back and Expands

High Line Cuts Back and Expands . . .

Before:

(photo taken 03 09 2012)

After:

(photo taken 03 09 2012)

A sure sign of the urban spring has begun. The High Line started its annual spring cutback project. The winter song of the wind sounding through the park’s high grasses has been replaced by staff and volunteers pruning back shrubs and perennials for the new spring growing season.

Clusters of blooming Crocus vernus, now in full color, have been exposed in between the trimmed plants. The purple and white bouquets, spread randomly amongst the tans and browns of stems and trunks, can provide a lot of new still life opportunities for photographers.

As this cutback proceeds, the High Line announced its planned third expansion along the Rail Yards. This stretch around 30th Street and 10th Avenue would run east and west along a major real estate redevelopment leading to the Hudson River. The shift in orientation and new features such as a children’s area promise both challenges and rewards. A community input meeting held on Monday, March 12, in the Chelsea neighborhood took a solid first step in getting the final design right.

As for the cutback, the project plans to continue over the next month or so. Interested volunteers can visit the High Line’s “News” section for more information:

http://www.thehighline.org/news

The sign says it all:

(photo taken 03 09 2012)

– rPs 03 13 2012

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More February Wildflowers

More February Wildflowers . . .

I thought I would take advantage of Leap Day 2012 to squeeze in one more post for the month of February. The past four weeks have remained damp and cool, rather than cold, making the green spaces of the West Village resemble tundra. The park grass is spongy, close cropped, yet green, and along the edges a variety of hardy wildflower species can be found, low to the ground, in bloom . . .

Common Chickweed (Stellaria media)

(photo taken 02 12 2012)

Red Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)

(photo taken 02 19 2012)

Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)

(photo taken 02 12 2012)

Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)

(photo taken 02 12 2012)

Feral Croci (Crocus vernus)

(photo taken 02 12 2012)

And, in my own courtyard, a few Common Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)

(photo taken 02 23 2012)

– rPs 02 29 2012

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