Archive for Wildflowers: Red

The Symmetry of the Sumac

The Symmetry of the Sumac . . .

Symmetrical branches of Smooth Sumac, Rhus glabra, reach up toward a gray January sky along the High Line. (photo taken 01 13 2012)

A gray windy day in January is one of the few times one can find solitude on the High Line. During a walk there this week, I found time to watch and to listen to this outdoor space on its own, without the hum and hover of humanity.

I perceived that there must be as many varieties of brown in January as there are green in June. The wind sounding through the dry stalks and branches contained as many subtle tones as the murmur of multiple conversations. What stood out the most to me was found in the basic forms of the plants. The skeleton, the architecture, of a flower, shrub, or tree is delineated at this time of year. One of the most impressive examples of such naked form can be seen in the Smooth Sumac, Rhus glabra.

A native shrub family, Anacardiaceae, found throughout the eastern United States, the sumacs are known more for their summer and autumn dress: the feathery, serrated, compound leaves that turn crimson in October. The Smooth Sumac commonly forms colonies from its root system, often along roads and railways, making its appearance on the High Line both appropriate as well as aesthetically pleasing.

The Smooth Sumac is also one of the most distinctive flowering trees. The large upright panicles are the color of rich Chianti. These clusters of drupes (seeded fruits) are edible, and can be picked and soaked in cool water to make a refreshing sumac-ade. One recipe for “Wild Smooth Sumac-ade” was described by the Staten Island nature writer Ava Chin in her “Urban Forager” column for The New York Times.

The dense, upright panicles of Smooth Sumac can last throughout the winter. (photo taken 01 13 2012)

A group of panicles silhouetted against the leaden sky caught my eye, gave me inspiration and a subject for a winter wildflower. I paused in the wind, which was making whitecaps on the steel-colored Hudson in the background, and there I contemplated the forms of the Smooth Sumac branches. I was delighted by the symmetry of the tips, which spread like the pointed fingers of an open hand. I noticed also that the branches did not just spread opposite and parallel, like arms and hands. The fingered projections themselves were twisted and bent in the exact same manner as well.

The Classical orders of architecture, the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian being basic examples, were derived by the Greeks and Romans from organic forms. The Smooth Sumac, in winter, reminded me that humanity with its mathematics does not possess a monopoly on graceful, even symmetrical, functional form.

Fodder for natural philosophical thought as the annual and perennial wildflowers hibernate.

"Hand" over the High Line. (photo taken 01 13 2012)

— rPs 01 13 2012

Postscript: Ava Chin’s recipe for “Wild Smooth Sumac-ade” can be found by following this link:

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Red, White, and Blooms

Red, White, and Blooms . . .

Today is the Fourth of July, 2011: Independence Day; the 235th birthday of the United States of America. Wildflowers of the West Village would like to celebrate the holiday with three local flowers, each sporting one of the nation’s three patriotic primary colors.

Red Clover (Trifolium pretense)

Red Clover (photo taken 06 2011)

Field Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis)

Field Bindweed (photo taken 06 2011)

Asiatic Dayflower (Commelina communis)

Asiatic Dayflower (photo taken 06 2011)

– rPs 07 04 2011

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Bloomsday 2011

Bloomsday 2011 . . .

Wild Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, blooms in Central Park on . . . Bloomsday, of course. (photo taken 06 16 2011)

Today, June 16th, is Bloomsday, the date into which all the Dublin world of the character Leopold Bloom was condensed in the novel Ulysses by James Joyce.

Last year I wrote an extensive essay that ties together all the threads of meaning this literary holiday holds for me as a writer. Here is the link for further reading:

During my years in Philadelphia, I spent Bloomsday in and around the Rosenbach Museum & Library, which has the original handwritten manuscript of the novel in its extensive holdings. Every June 16th, rain or shine, the 2000 block of Delancey Place becomes a gentile gathering place for fans, and lovers, of the novel. There, on the Rosenbach’s stoop, the novel is read aloud with musical interludes culled from the text. Various celebrities, literary and otherwise, take turns reading passages from the big good book. I had the pleasure to do so on the 100th anniversary year, 2004. The placard placed in front of the microphone as I read my script listed me as:

ron P. swegman

Angler & Author

This moment in the literary limelight still makes me smile. Squeezed between Mister Mayor and Madame University President was this “Angler & Author” fellow who read the “Proteus” section of Ulysses with an ear for the complex cadence of Joyce’s prose. Who was he? Well, at that time, he was the author of the forthcoming collection of stories Philadelphia on the Fly.

This year, as a New Yorker, the “work-in-progress” is Wildflowers of the West Village. I spent this Bloomsday to that end in Central Park. I first fly fished at Harlem Meer where the purple pickerel weed was in full flower. I next hiked through the North Woods, down through the heart of the park, around the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, finishing up at Columbus Circle. Seven plus hours of shoe leather in total; kind of like Joyce’s own epic wanderer.

The star bloom on this day turned out to be Wild Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, a member of the family Ranunculaceae (Joyce would probably appreciate my generous use of the Latin). This pretty flower is a native perennial, fond of woodlands (where I found the plants I photographed), and one of the more delicate red wildflowers to be found near the cusp of spring and summer.

Happy Bloomsday . . .

Closeup view of the distinctive bell-shaped bloom of Wild Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis. (photo taken 06 16 2011)

– rPs 06 16 2011

Postscript: Visit the Rosenbach Museum & Library online here:

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An April Shower’s Wildflowers

An April Shower’s Wildflowers . . .

A view of Prospect Park Lake in Brooklyn captures the cold colors of early April. (photo taken 04 10 2011)


The transition from winter to spring really does resemble the way a rainbow emerges from a storm. First, there is the monochromatic gray sky, opening up with wind and water until it begins to thin out. A hint of pale blue emerges, followed by the electrum sun and the full spectrum of visible light manifested by the prism of that same rainfall, now receding.

April 2011 followed this manner of blooming, at least in New York City. A season opening fly fishing trip to Prospect Park Lake in Brooklyn was accompanied by the somber colors of early spring. The lake itself was charcoal grey and surrounded by the tan stalks of last year’s cattails and the brown mesh of tree branches just beginning to bud. A week of cold rain followed. The spring season appeared to be as late as the Passover and Easter holidays.

When Easter Sunday did arrive, it turned into the first balmy warm day of the year. The humidity appeared in an instant, bumblebees filled the air, robins and purple finches trilled in the trees, which like the grounds all around town had gone a bright pastel green. The wildflowers, too, had arrived, including . . .

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Chickweed (Stellaria media)


Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)


Ground Ivy (Glechoma  hederacea)

Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea)


Heartsease (Viola tricolor)

Heartsease (Viola tricolor)


Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)


Red Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)

Red Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)


Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)

Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)


Siberian Squill (Scilla siberica)

Siberian Squill (Scilla siberica)


Wild Violet (Viola papilionacea)

Wild Violet (Viola papilionacea)


The first act of Manhattan’s spring blooming is complete. The stage is now set for May’s flowers.

–  rPs 04 29 2011

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Happy (1st) Anniversary

Happy (1st) Anniversary . . .

A carpet of Red Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) soaks up the afternoon sun in Hudson River Park. (photo taken 03 20 2011)


One year ago today, on March 22, 2010, I wrote:

“Welcome to Wildflowers of the West Village . . . 

. . . where nature and the city intersect . . . in New York City.”

So began my first foray into the blogosphere. Thirty-four posts, and nearly 2,500 visitors later, I have enjoyed following a trail of discovery and documentation that has introduced me to over thirty varieties of native and immigrant wildflower species, each one residing somewhere within this Manhattan neighborhood. The search for these plants has been a pleasure and, as I have found with the arrival of the new spring, ongoing. Recently I discovered several more early-season wildflowers that I either overlooked or missed outright last year, which promises to make this second season of investigation equally as active. The fun has just begun.

To celebrate, in part, my wife and I took a Sunday stroll along the Hudson River Park waterfront. We retraced the path we took last year that lead me to the spot of initial inspiration: a young oak tree that had blue Siberian squill blooming around its base. The sunlight was much stronger than last year, but we found the same tree along with the same perennial companion. I took a photo from roughly the same position:

The view that inspired Wildflowers of the West Village: one year later. (photo taken 03 20 2011)


Nearby, I found a grassy hummock carpeted with Red Deadnettle, Lamium purpureum, in full bloom. This member of the mint family, a relative of Henbit, created a sun-bathed scene as pretty as any image of the English (or Catskill) countryside. The view provided me with another example of my basic philosophy regarding such plants:

“Wildflowers, NOT Weeds”

The general opinion surrounding the subject of native versus invasive plants is quite lopsided. The call for the complete extirpation of invasive plants is next to unanimous. My dissenting minority view is that first, invasives should be respectfully referred to as immigrants, as these plants are to this country’s flora what all but native Americans are to North America’s human inhabitants. Then there is the Quixotic futility inherent in an attempt to remove foreign species – many of which have a cosmopolitan distribution –  from the American scene. I shall willingly support and happily assist all organized efforts to restore native plant species to park lands and undeveloped wildlife habitats, but in tight urban areas, especially, I will welcome the presence of any blooming thing.  Complete eradication from our nation’s borders is impossible from a practical standpoint, so invasive species are here to stay, meaning they have, by default, become naturalized. They all are now, going forward, American natives. Any blooming wild plant can be an asset (a protection against soil erosion, for example) and an object of beauty (especially in an urban environment starved for green space). RED clover, WHITE bindweed, and BLUE Asiatic dayflower blooming in an AMERICAN city where tree pit and vacant lot provide the nature for a neighborhood is better than dead space filled with miscarded (my word for improperly discarded) plastic bags and bottles.

My opinion is that of a distinct minority, but what else could one expect from an author who is best known for writing about fly fishing in urban settings? Long focused on the art of the city fish story, I found metropolitan wildflowers to be a natural offshoot of my quest to develop further as an urban(e) nature writer. Many of the narrative passages in my two collections of fly fishing essays, Philadelphia on the Fly and Small Fry: The Lure of the Little feature passing descriptions of wildflowers. Marsh Marigold, Chicory, and Queen Anne’s Lace are so prevalent along ponds and streams that I would have been remiss had I not made mention of their presence on the scene. Only after I began to mull over subjects for my third book did I consider wildflowers as a central theme. The idea quickly bloomed into a serious project and, ironically, it was not because of the writing. I have included original line drawings of fly patterns in my first two books and botanical illustration has been one of my lifelong interests. The concept to write about what I love to contemplate, photograph, and draw made for one of those light bulb moments. The result of that yearling idea is the illustrated manuscript-in-the-making presented here before you.

Happy (1st) Anniversary, Wildflowers of the West Village . . .

– rPs 03 22 2011

Postscript . . .

You can view the original photo of the tree that inspired Wildflowers of the West Village here:

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White All Clover

White All Clover . . .

White Clover, Trifolium repens, has reappeared on the uncut Freedom Lawns of the West Village. (photo taken 08 16 2010)

Continuing the white theme into November, the most common white wildflower of all may very well be the White Clover, Trifolium repens, which has reappeared in New York City’s parks now that the late season lawns are being mowed less frequently.

The White Clover, source of the lucky shamrock, is a perennial immigrant from Europe. Unlike most species of foreign origin, this one arrived on purpose as a pasture crop.

A book published in 1993 by Yale University Press illustrates one of the silver lining benefits of this now frowned upon horticultural practice. In Redesigning the American Lawn by F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, and Gordon T. Beballe, two types of lawn are described: the Industrial Lawn, a monocrop of grass like that found on a golf course or ball field; and the Freedom Lawn, an organic, free-range mix of low green plants, including grasses, plantain, and White Clover.

Freedom Lawns can remain green even in marginal soil conditions and require little or no chemical fertilizer. The chief reason is clover, being a legume, can fix nitrogen, a major nutrient, into the soil in which it grows.

The White Clover sports an attractive bloom. Each flower head consists of twenty to forty florets that give the familiar cotton ball shape that attracts honeybees and human picnickers on balmy afternoons. The leaves below are trifoliate, and each one possesses a pale triangular mark called a chevron. Clover plants spread throughout a lawn on subsurface creeping runners, creating the appearance of scattered white wildflower colonies on the cultivated green.

White Clover spread on subsurface creeping runners. (photo taken 08 16 2010)

A close relative of White Clover, the Red Clover, Trifolium pretense, remained elusive until late October when I found a single specimen sporting a single pale red blossom within the confines of a Tenth Avenue tree pit. True to its general description, the plant was taller and more upright than a White Clover. Four lucky leaves were not to be found anywhere on the plant, but I did consider myself lucky to have found that one wildflower growing on far edge of the West Village. And with that, my investigation of the clover was complete . . .

A single Red Clover, Trifolium pretense, hangs out on Tenth Avenue. (photo taken 10 20 2010)

. . . Clover and out.

– rPs 11 01 2010

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