A Bunch Of Herbs
( Originally Published 1881 )
FRAGRANT WILD FLOWERS
THE charge that was long ago made against our wild flowers by English travelers in this country, namely, that they are odorless, doubtless had its origin in the fact that, whereas in England the sweet-scented flowers are among the most common and conspicuous, in this country they are rather shy and withdrawn, and consequently not such as travelers would be likely to encounter. Moreover, the British traveler, remembering the deliciously fragrant blue violets he left at home, covering every grassy slope and meadow bank in spring, and the wild clematis, or traveler's joy, overrunning hedges and old walls with its white, sweet-scented blossoms, and finding the corresponding species here equally abundant but entirely scentless, very naturally infers that our wild flowers are all deficient in this respect. He would be confirmed in this opinion when, on turning to some of our most beautiful and striking native flowers, like the laurel, the rhododendron, the columbine, the inimitable fringed gentian, the burning cardinal-flower, or our asters and goldenrod, dashing the roadsides with tints of purple and gold, he found them scentless also. " Where are your fragrant flowers ? " he might well say ; " I can find none." Let him look closer and penetrate our forests, and visit our ponds and lakes. Let him compare our matchless, rosy-lipped, honey-hearted trailing arbutus with his own ugly ground-ivy; let him compare our sumptuous, fragrant pond-lily with his own odorless Nymphaea alba. In our Northern woods he will find the floors carpeted with the delicate linnaea, its twin rose-colored, nod-ding flowers filling the air with fragrance. (I am aware that the linnaea is found in some parts of Northern Europe.) The fact is, we perhaps have as many sweet-scented wild flowers as Europe has, only they are not quite so prominent in our flora, nor so well known to our people or to our poets.
Think of Wordsworth's " Golden Daffodils:"
"I wandered lonely as a cloud
"Continuous as the stars that shine
No such sight could greet the poet's eye here. He might see ten thousand marsh marigolds, or ten times ten thousand houstonias, but they would not toss in the breeze, and they would not be sweet-scented like the daffodils.
It is to be remembered, too, that in the moister atmosphere of England the same amount of fragrance would be much more noticeable than with us. Think how our sweet bay, or our pink azalea, or our white alder, to which they have nothing that corresponds, would perfume that heavy, vapor-laden air !
In the woods and groves in England, the wild hyacinth grows very abundantly in spring, and in places the air is loaded with its fragrance. In our woods a species of dicentra, commonly called squirrel corn, has nearly the same perfume, and its racemes of nodding whitish flowers, tinged with pink, are quite as pleasing to the eye, but it is a shyer, less abundant plant. When our children go to the fields in April and May, they can bring home no wild flowers as pleasing as the sweet English violet, and cowslip, and yellow daffodil, and wall-flower; and when British children go to the woods at the same season, they can load their hands and baskets with nothing that compares with our trailing arbutus, or, later in the season, with our azaleas; and, when their boys go fishing or boating in summer, they can wreathe themselves with nothing that approaches our pond-lily.
There are upward of thirty species of fragrant native wild flowers and flowering shrubs and trees in New England and New York, and, no doubt, many more in the South and West. My list is as follows : —
White violet (Viola blanda).
The last-named, horned bladderwort, is perhaps the most fragrant flower we have. In a warm, moist atmosphere, its odor is almost too strong. It is a plant with a slender, leafless stalk or scape less than a foot high, with two or more large yellow hood or helmet shaped flowers. It is not common, and belongs pretty well north, growing in sandy swamps and along the marshy margins of lakes and ponds. Its perfume is sweet and spicy in an eminent degree. I have placed in the above list several flowers that are intermittently fragrant, like the hepatica, or liver-leaf. This flower is the earliest, as it is certainly one of the most beautiful, to be found in our woods, and occasionally it is fragrant. Group after group may be inspected, ranging through all shades of purple and blue, with some perfectly white, and no odor be detected, when presently you will happen upon a little brood of them that have a most delicate and delicious fragrance. 'The same is true of a species of loosestrife growing along streams and on other wet places, with tall bushy stalks, dark green leaves, and pale axillary yellow flowers (probably European). A handful of these flowers will sometimes exhale a sweet fragrance ; at other times, or from another locality, they are scentless. Our evening primrose is thought to be uniformly sweet-scented, but the past season I examined many specimens, and failed to find one that was so. Some seasons the sugar maple yields much sweeter sap than in others; and even individual trees, owing to the soil, moisture, and other conditions where they stand, show a great difference in this respect. The same is doubtless true of the sweet-scented flowers. I had always supposed that our Canada violet — the tall, leafy-stemmed white violet of our Northern woods -- was odorless, till a correspondent called my attention to the contrary fact. On examination I found that, while the first ones that bloomed about May 25 had very sweet-scented foliage, especially when crushed in the hand, the flowers were practically without fragrance. But as the season advanced the fragrance developed, till a single flower had a well-marked perfume, and a handful of them was sweet indeed. A single specimen, plucked about August 1, was quite as fragrant as the English violet, though the perfume is not what is known as violet, but, like that of the hepatica, comes nearer to the odor of certain fruit trees.
It is only for a brief period that the blossoms of our sugar maple are sweet-scented ; the perfume seems to become stale after a few days : but pass under this tree just at the right moment, say at nightfall on the first or second day of its perfect inflorescence, and the air is laden with its sweetness; its perfumed breath falls upon you as its cool shadow does a few weeks later.
After the linnaea and the arbutus, the prettiest sweet-scented flowering vine our woods hold is the common mitchella vine, called squaw-berry and partridge-berry. It blooms in June, and its twin flowers, light cream-color, velvety, tubular, exhale a most agreeable fragrance.
Our flora is much more rich in orchids than the European, and many of ours are fragrant. The first to bloom in the spring is the showy orchis, though it is far less showy than several others. I find it in May, not on hills, where Gray says it grows, but in low, damp places in the woods. It has two oblong shining leaves, with a scape four or five inches high strung with sweet-scented, pink-purple flowers. I usually find it and the fringed polygala in bloom at the same time; the lady's-slipper is a little later. The purple fringed-orchis, one of the most showy and striking of all our orchids, blooms in midsummer in swampy meadows and in marshy, grassy openings in the woods, shooting up a tapering column or cylinder of pink-purple fringed flowers, that one may see at quite a distance, and the perfume of which is too rank for a close room. This flower is, perhaps, like the English fragrant orchis, found in pastures.
Few fragrant flowers in the shape of weeds have come to us from the Old World, and this leads me to remark that plants with sweet-scented flowers are, for the most part, more intensely local, more fastidious and idiosyncratic, than those without per-fume. Our native thistle — the pasture thistle — has a marked fragrance, and it is much more shy and limited in its range than the common Old World thistle that grows everywhere. Our little, sweet white violet grows only in wet places, and the Canada violet only in high, cool woods, while the common blue violet is much more general in its distribution. How fastidious and exclusive is the cypripedium ! You will find it in one locality in the woods, usually on high, dry ground, and will look in vain for it elsewhere. It does not go in herds like the commoner plants, but affects privacy and solitude. When I come upon it in my walks, I seem to be intruding upon some very private and exclusive company. The large yellow cypripedium has a peculiar, heavy, oily odor.
In like manner one learns where to look for arbutus, for pipsissewa, for the early orchis ; they have their particular haunts, and their surroundings are nearly always the same. The yellow pond-lily is found in every sluggish stream and pond, but Nymphaea odorata requires a nicer adjustment of conditions, and consequently is more restricted in its range. If the mullein were fragrant, or toad-flax, or the daisy, or blue-weed, or goldenrod, they would doubtless be far less troublesome to the agriculturist. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule I have here indicated, but it holds in most cases. Genius is a specialty : it does not grow in every soil ; it skips the many and touches the few; and the gift of perfume to a flower is a special grace like genius or like beauty, and never becomes common or cheap.
"Do honey and fragrance always go together in the flowers ? " Not uniformly. Of the list of fragrant wild flowers I have given, the only ones that the bees procure nectar from, so far as I have observed, are arbutus, dicentra, sugar maple, locust, and linden. Non-fragrant flowers that yield honey are those of the raspberry, clematis, sumac, white oak, bugloss, ailanthus, goldenrod, aster, fleabane. A large number of odorless plants yield pollen to the bee. There is nectar in the columbine, and the bumblebee sometimes gets it by piercing the spur from the outside as she does with dicentra. There ought to be honey in the honeysuckle, but I have never seen the hive-bee make any attempt to get it.
One is tempted to say that the most human plants, after all, are the weeds. How they cling to man and follow him around the world, and spring up wherever he sets his foot ! How they crowd around his barns and dwellings, and throng his garden and jostle and override each other in their strife to be near him ! Some of them are so domestic and familiar, and so harmless withal, that one comes to regard them with positive affection. Motherwort, catnip, plantain, tansy, wild mustard, — what a homely human look they have ! they are an integral part of every old homestead. Your smart new place will wait long before they draw near it. Or knot-grass, that carpets every old dooryard, and fringes every walk, and softens every path that knows the feet of children, or that leads to the spring, or to the garden, or to the barn, how kindly one comes to look upon it ! Examine it with a pocket glass and see how wonderfully beautiful and exquisite are its tiny blossoms. It loves the human foot, and when the path or the place is long disused, other plants usurp the ground.
The gardener and the farmer are ostensibly the greatest enemies of the weeds, but they are in reality their best friends. Weeds, like rats and mice, in-crease and spread enormously in a cultivated country. They have better food, more sunshine, and more aids in getting themselves disseminated. They are sent from one end of the land to the other in seed grain of various kinds, and they take their share, and more too, if they can get it, of the phosphates and stable manures. How sure, also, they are to survive any war of extermination that is waged against them ! In yonder field are ten thou-sand and one Canada thistles. The farmer goes resolutely to work and destroys ten thousand and thinks the work is finished, but he has done nothing till he has destroyed the ten thousand and one. This one will keep up the stock and again cover his field with thistles.
Weeds are Nature's makeshift. She rejoices in the grass and the grain, but when these fail to cover her nakedness she resorts to weeds. It is in her plan or a part of her economy to keep the ground constantly covered with vegetation of some sort, and she has layer upon layer of seeds in the soil for this purpose, and the wonder is that each kind lies dormant until it is wanted. If I uncover the earth in any of my fields, ragweed and pigweed spring up; if these are destroyed, harvest grass, or quack grass, or purslane, appears. The spade or the plow that turns these under is sure to turn up some other variety, as chickweed, sheep-sorrel, or goose-foot. The soil is a storehouse of seeds.
The old farmers say that wood-ashes will bring in the white clover, and they will; the germs are in the soil wrapped in a profound slumber, but this stimulus tickles them until they awake. Stramonium has been known to start up on the site of an old farm building, when it had not been seen in that locality for thirty years. I have been told that a farmer, somewhere in New England, in digging a well came at a great depth upon sand like that of the seashore; it was thrown out, and in due time there sprang from it a marine plant. I have never seen earth taken from so great a depth that it would not before the end of the season be clothed with a crop of weeds. Weeds are so full of expedients, and the one engrossing purpose with them is to multiply. The wild onion multiplies at both ends, — at the top by seed, and at the bottom by offshoots. Toad-flax travels under ground and above ground. Never allow a seed to ripen, and yet it will cover your field. Cut off the head of the wild carrot, and in a week or two there are five heads in place of this one; cut off these, and by fall there are ten looking defiance at you from the same root. Plant corn in August, and it will go forward with its preparations as if it had the whole season before it. Not so with the weeds; they have learned better. If amaranth, or abutilon, or burdock gets a late start, it makes great haste to develop its seed; it foregoes its tall stalk and wide flaunting growth, and turns all its energies into keeping up the succession of the species. Certain fields under the plow are always infested with " blind nettles," others with wild buckwheat, black bindweed, or cockle. The seed lies dormant under the sward, the warmth and the moisture affect it not until other conditions are fulfilled.
The way in which one plant thus keeps another down is a great mystery. Germs lie there in the soil and resist the stimulating effect of the sun and the rains for years, and show no sign. Presently something whispers to them, "Arise, your chance has come; the coast is clear;" and they are up and doing in a twinkling.
Weeds are great travelers; they are, indeed, the tramps of the vegetable world. They are going east, west, north, south; they walk; they fly; they 'swim ; they steal a ride ; they travel by rail, by flood, by wind ; they go under ground, and they go above, across lots, and by the highway. But, like other tramps, they find it safest by the high-way: in the fields they are intercepted and cut off; but on the public road, every boy, every passing herd of sheep or cows, gives them a lift. Hence the incursion of a new weed is generally first noticed along the highway or the railroad. In Orange County I saw from the car window a field overrun with what I took to be the branching white mullein. Gray says it is found in Pennsylvania and at the head of Oneida Lake. Doubtless it had come by rail from one place or the other. Our botanist says of the bladder campion, a species of pink, that it has been naturalized around Boston ; but it is now much farther west, and I know fields along the Hudson overrun with it. Streams and water-courses are the natural highway of the weeds. Some years ago, and by some means or other, the viper's bugloss, or blue-weed, which is said to be a trouble-some weed in Virginia, effected a lodgment near the head of the Esopus Creek, a tributary of the Hudson. From this point it has made its way down the stream, overrunning its banks and invading meadows and cultivated fields, and proving a serious obstacle to the farmer. All the gravelly, sandy margins and islands of the Esopus, sometimes acres in extent, are in June and July blue with it, and rye and oats and grass in the near fields find it a serious competitor for possession of the soil. It bas gone down the Hudson, and is appearing in the fields along its shores. The tides carry it up the mouths of the streams where it takes root; the winds, or the birds, or other agencies, in time give it another lift, sa that it is slowly but surely making its way inland. The bugloss belongs to what may be called beautiful weeds, despite its rough and bristly stalk. Its flowers are deep violet-blue, the stamens exserted, as the botanists say, that is, projected beyond the mouth of the corolla, with showy red anthers. This bit of red, mingling with the blue of the corolla, gives a very rich, warm purple hue to the flower, that is especially pleasing at a little distance. The best thing I know about this weed besides its good looks is that it yields honey or pollen to the bee.
Another foreign plant that the Esopus Creek has distributed along its shores and carried to the Hudson is saponaria, known as "Bouncing Bet." It is a common and in places a troublesome weed in this valley. Bouncing Bet is, perhaps, its English name, as the pink-white complexion of its flowers with their perfume and the coarse, robust character of the plant really give it a kind of English feminine comeliness and bounce. It looks like a Yorkshire housemaid. Still another plant in my section, which I notice has been widely distributed by the agency of water, is the spiked loosestrife. It first appeared many years ago along the Wallkill ; now it may be seen upon many of its tributaries and all along its banks ; and in many of the marshy bays and coves along the Hudson, its great masses of purple-red bloom in middle and late summer affording a welcome relief to the traveler's eye. It also be-longs to the class of beautiful weeds. It grows rank and tall, in dense communities, and always presents to the eye a generous mass of color. In places, the marshes and creek banks are all aglow with it, its wand-like spikes of flowers shooting up and uniting in volumes or pyramids of still flame. Its petals, when examined closely, present a curious wrinkled or crumpled appearance, like newly washed linen; but when massed, the effect is eminently pleasing. It also came from abroad, probably first brought to this country as a garden or ornamental plant.
As a curious illustration of how weeds are carried from one end of the earth to the other, Sir Joseph Hooker relates this circumstance : " On one occasion," he says, "landing on a small uninhabited island nearly at the Antipodes, the first evidence I met with of its having been previously visited by man was the English chickweed ; and this I traced to a mound that marked the grave of a British sailor, and that was covered with the plant, doubt-less the offspring of seed that had adhered to the spade or mattock with which the grave had been dug."
Ours is a weedy country because it is a roomy country. Weeds love a wide margin, and they find it here. You shall see more weeds in one day's travel in this country than in a week's journey in Europe. Our culture of the soil is not so close and thorough, our occupancy not so entire and exclusive. The weeds take up with the farmers' leavings, and find good fare. One may see a large slice taken from a field by elecampane, or by teasel or milk-weed ; whole acres given up to whiteweed, golden-rod, wild carrots, or the ox-eye daisy ; meadows overrun with bear-weed, and sheep pastures nearly ruined by St. John's-wort or the Canada thistle. Our farms are so large and our husbandry so loose that we do not mind these things. By and by we shall clean them out. When Sir Joseph Hooker landed in New England a few years ago, he was surprised to find how the European plants flourished there. He found the wild chicory growing far more luxuriantly than he had ever seen it else-where, "forming a tangled mass of stems and branches, studded with turquoise-blue blossoms, and covering acres of ground." This is one of the many weeds that Emerson binds into a bouquet in his "Humble-Bee:" —
"Succory to match the sky,
A less accurate poet than Emerson would probably have let his reader infer that the bumblebee gathered honey from all these plants, but Emerson is careful to say only that she dwelt among them. Succory is one of Virgil's weeds also,
"And spreading succ'ry chokes the rising field."
Is there not something in our soil and climate exceptionally favorable to weeds, — something harsh, ungenial, sharp-toothed, that is akin to them ? How woody and rank and fibrous many varieties become, lasting the whole season, and standing up stark and stiff through the deep winter snows, — desiccated, preserved by our dry air! Do nettles and thistles bite so sharply in any other country ? Let the farmer tell you how they bite of a dry mid-summer day when he encounters them in his wheat or oat harvest.
Yet it is a fact that all our more pernicious weeds, like our vermin, are of Old World origin. They hold up their heads and assert themselves here, and take their fill of riot and license; they are avenged for their long years of repression by the stern hand of European agriculture. We have hardly a weed we can call our own. I recall but three that are at all noxious or troublesome, namely, milkweed, rag-weed, and goldenrod; but who would miss the last from our fields and highways ?
"Along the roadside, like the flowers of gold
sings Whittier. In Europe our goldenrod is cultivated in the flower gardens, as well it may be. The native species is found mainly in woods, and is much less showy than ours.
Our milkweed is tenacious of life ; its roots lie deep, as if to get away from the plow, but it seldom infests cultivated crops. Then its stalk is so full of milk and its pod so full of silk that one cannot but ascribe good intentions to it, if it does some-times overrun the meadow.
"In dusty pods the milkweed Its hidden silk has spun,"
Of our ragweed not much can be set down that is complimentary, except that its name in the botany is Ambrosia, food of the gods. It must be the food of the gods if anything, for, so far as I have observed, nothing terrestrial eats it, not even billy-goats. (Yet a correspondent writes me that in Kentucky the cattle eat it when hard-pressed, and that a certain old farmer there, one season when the hay crop failed, cut and harvested tons of it for his stock in winter. It is said that the milk and butter made from such hay are not at all suggestive of the traditional Ambrosia!) It is the bane of asthmatic patients, but the gardener makes short work of it. It is about the only one of our weeds that follows the plow and the harrow, and, except that it is easily destroyed, I should suspect it to be an immigrant from the Old World. Our fleabane is a troublesome weed at times, but good husbandry has little to dread from' it.
But all the other outlaws of the farm and garden come to us from over seas ; and what a long list it is:
Common thistle, Gill,
and others less noxious. To offset this list we have given Europe the vilest of all weeds, a parasite that sucks up human blood, tobacco. Now if they catch the Colorado beetle of us, it will go far toward paying them off for the rats and the mice, and for other pests in our houses.
The more attractive and pretty of the British weeds — as the common daisy, of which the poets have made so much, the larkspur, which is a pretty cornfield weed, and the scarlet field-poppy, which flowers all summer, and is so taking amid the ripening grain — have not immigrated to our shores. Like a certain sweet rusticity and charm of European rural life, they do not thrive readily under our skies. Our fleabane has become a common road-side weed in England, and a few other of our native less known plants have gained a foothold in the Old World. Our beautiful jewel-weed has recently appeared along certain of the English rivers.
Pokeweed is a native American, and what a lusty, royal plant it is! It never invades cultivated fields, but hovers about the borders and looks over the fences like a painted Indian sachem. Thoreau coveted its strong purple stalk for a cane, and the robins eat its dark crimson-juiced berries.
It is commonly believed that the mullein is indigenous to this country, for have we not heard that it is cultivated. in European gardens, and christened the American velvet plant ? Yet it, too, seems to have come over with the Pilgrims, and is most abundant in the older parts of the country. It abounds throughout Europe and Asia, and had its economic uses with the ancients. The Greeks made lamp-wicks of its dried leaves, and the Romans dipped its dried stalk in tallow for funeral torches. It affects dry uplands in this country, and, as it takes two years to mature, it is not a troublesome weed in cultivated crops. The first year it sits low upon the ground in its coarse flannel leaves, and makes ready ; if the plow comes along now, its career is ended. The second season it starts up-ward its tall stalk, which in late summer is thickly set with small yellow flowers, and in fall is charged with myriads of fine black seeds. " As full as a dry mullein stalk of seeds" is almost equivalent to saying, "as numerous as the sands upon the seashore."
Perhaps the most notable thing about the weeds that have come to us from the Old World, when compared with our native species, is their persistence, not to say pugnacity. They fight for the soil; they plant colonies here and there, and will not be rooted out. Our native weeds are for the most part shy and harmless, and retreat before cultivation, but the European outlaws follow man like vermin; they hang to his coat-skirts, his sheep transport them in their wool, his cow and horse in tail and mane. As I have before said, it is as with the rats and mice. The American rat is in the woods and is rarely seen even by woodmen, and the native mouse barely hovers upon the outskirts of civilization; while the Old World species defy our traps and our poison, and have usurped the land. So with the weeds. Take the thistle for instance: the common and abundant one everywhere, in fields and along highways, is the European species; while the native thistles, swamp thistle, pasture thistle, etc., are much more shy, and are not at all trouble-some. The Canada thistle, too, which came to us by way of Canada, — what a pest, what a usurper, what a defier of the plow and the harrow! I know of but one effectual way to treat it, — put on a pair of buckskin gloves, and pull up every plant that shows itself ; this will effect a radical cure in two summers. Of course the plow or the scythe, if not allowed to rest more than a month at a time, will finally conquer it.
Or take the common St. John's-wort, —how it has established itself in our fields and become a most pernicious weed, very difficult to extirpate ; while the native species are quite rare, and seldom or never invade cultivated fields, being found mostly in wet and rocky waste places. Of Old World origin, too, is the curled-leaf dock that is so annoying about one's garden and home meadows, its long tapering root clinging to the soil with such tenacity that I have pulled upon it till I could see stars without budging it; it has more lives than a cat, making a shift to live when pulled up and laid on top of the ground in the burning summer sun. Our native docks are mostly found in swamps, or near them, and are harmless.
Purslane commonly called " pulley," and which has given rise to the saying, "as mean as pusley" of course is not American. A good sample of our native purslane is the claytonia, or spring beauty, a shy, delicate plant that opens its rose-colored flowers in the moist, sunny places in the woods or along their borders so early in the season.
There are few more obnoxious weeds in cultivated ground than sheep-sorrel, also an Old World plant;
while our native wood-sorrel, with its white, delicately veined flowers, or the variety with yellow flowers, is quite harmless. The same is true of the mallow, the vetch, the tare, and other plants. We have no native plant so indestructible as garden orpine, or live forever, which our grandmothers nursed, and for which they are cursed by many a farmer. The fat, tender, succulent dooryard stripling turned out to be a monster that would devour the earth. I have seen acres of meadow land destroyed by it. The way to drown an amphibious animal is never to allow it to come to the surface to breathe, and this is the way to kill live-forever.
It lives by its stalk and leaf, more than by its root, and, if cropped or bruised as soon as it comes to the surface, it will in time perish. It laughs the plow, the hoe, the cultivator to scorn, but grazing herds will eventually scotch it. Our two species of native orpine, Sedum ternatum and S. telephioides, are never troublesome as weeds.
The European weeds are sophisticated, domesticated, civilized ; they have been to school to man for many hundred years, and they have learned to thrive upon him : their struggle for existence has been sharp and protracted; it has made them hardy and prolific ; they will thrive in a lean soil, or they will wax strong in a rich one; in all cases they follow man and profit by him. Our native weeds, on the other hand, are furtive and retiring; they flee before the plow and the scythe, and hide in corners and remote waste places. Will they, too, in time, change their habits in this respect ?
"Idle weeds are fast in growth," says Shakespeare, but that depends upon whether the competition is sharp and close. If the weed finds itself distanced, or pitted against great odds, it grows more slowly and is of diminished stature, but let it once get the upper hand, and what strides it makes ! Red-root will grow four or five feet high if it has a chance, or it will content itself with a few inches and mature its seed almost upon the ground.
Many of our worst weeds are plants that have escaped from cultivation, as the wild radish, which is troublesome in parts of New England; the wild carrot, which infests the fields in eastern New York; and the live forever, which thrives and multiplies under the plow and harrow. In my section an annoying weed is abutilon, or velvet-leaf, also called " old maid," which has fallen from the grace of the garden and followed the plow afield. It will man-age to mature its seeds if not allowed to start till midsummer.
Of beautiful weeds quite a long list might be made without including any of the so-called wild flowers. A favorite of mine is the little moth mullein that blooms along the highway, and about the fields, and maybe upon the edge of the lawn, from midsummer till frost comes. In winter its slender stalk rises above the snow, bearing its round seed-pods on its pin-like stems, and is pleasing even then. Its flowers are yellow or white, large, wheel-shaped, and are borne vertically with filaments loaded with little tufts of violet wool. The plant has none of the coarse, hairy character of the common mullein. Our cone-flower, which one of our poets has called the "brown-eyed daisy," has a pleasing effect when in vast numbers they invade a meadow (if it is not your meadow), their dark brown centres or disks and their golden rays showing conspicuously.
Bidens, two-teeth, or "pitchforks," as the boys call them, are welcomed by the eye when in late summer they make the swamps and wet, waste places yellow with their blossoms.
Vervain is a beautiful weed, especially the blue or purple variety. Its drooping knotted threads also make a pretty etching upon the winter snow.
Iron-weed, which looks like an overgrown aster, has the same intense purple-blue color, and a royal profusion of flowers. There are giants among the weeds, as well as dwarfs and pigmies. One of the giants is purple eupatorium, which sometimes carries its corymbs of flesh-colored flowers ten and twelve feet high. A pretty and curious little weed, sometimes found growing in the edge of the garden, is the clasping specularia, a relative of the harebell and of the European Venus's looking-glass. Its leaves are shell-shaped, and clasp the stalk so as to form little shallow cups. In the bottom of each cup three buds appear that never expand into flowers ; but when the top of the stalk is reached, one and sometimes two buds open a large, delicate purple-blue corolla. All the first-born of this plant are still-born, as it were ; only the latest, which spring from its summit, attain to perfect bloom. A weed which one ruthlessly demolishes when he finds it hiding from the plow amid the strawberries, or under the currant-bushes and grapevines, is the dandelion; yet who would banish it from the meadows or the lawns, where it copies in gold upon the green expanse the stars of the midnight sky ? After its first blooming comes its second and finer and more spiritual inflorescence, when its stalk, dropping its more earthly and carnal flower, shoots upward, and is presently crowned by a globe of the most delicate and aerial texture. It is like the poet's dream, which succeeds his rank and golden youth. This globe is a fleet of a hundred fairy balloons, each one of which bears a seed which it is destined to drop far from the parent source.
Most weeds have their uses; they are not wholly malevolent. Emerson says a weed is a plant whose virtues we have not yet discovered but the wild creatures discover their virtues if we do not. The bumblebee has discovered that the hateful toad-flax, which nothing will eat, and which in some soils will run out the grass, has honey at its heart. Narrow-leaved plantain is readily eaten by cattle, and the honey-bee gathers much pollen from it. The ox-eye daisy makes a fair quality of hay if cut before it gets ripe. The cows will eat the leaves of the burdock and the stinging nettles of the woods. But what cannot a cow's tongue stand ? She will crop the poison ivy with impunity, and I think would eat thistles if she found them growing in the garden. Leeks and garlics are readily eaten by cattle in the spring, and are said to be medicinal to them. Weeds that yield neither pasturage for bee nor herd yet afford seeds to the fall and winter birds. This is true of most of the obnoxious weeds of the garden, and of thistles. The wild lettuce yields down for the hummingbird's nest, and the flowers of whiteweed are used by the kingbird and cedar-bird.
Yet it is pleasant to remember that, in our climate, there are no weeds so persistent and lasting and universal as grass. Grass is the natural covering of the fields. There are but four weeds that I know of — milkweed, live-forever, Canada thistle, and toad-flax — that it will not run out in a good soil. We crop it and mow it year after year ; and yet, if the season favors, it is sure to come again. Fields that have never known the plow, and never been seeded by man, are yet covered with grass. And in human nature, too, weeds are by no means in the ascendant, troublesome as they are. The good green grass of love and truthfulness and common sense is more universal, and crowds the idle weeds to the wall.
But weeds have this virtue; they are not easily discouraged ; they never lose heart entirely ; they die game. If they cannot have the best, they will take up with the poorest ; if fortune is unkind to them to-day, they hope for better luck to-morrow; if they cannot lord it over a corn-hill, they will sit humbly at its foot and accept what comes ; in all cases they make the most of their opportunities.
Writings of John Burroughs:
Pepacton: A Summer Voyage
An Idyl Of The Honey–bee
Nature And The Poets
Notes By The Way
A Bunch Of Herbs