Green Immigrants of June

In June our home is afloat in a sea of orchid or so it seems because dame’s rocket blankets the back slope. Locals call it phlox, but wild phlox is a native wildflower that has five-petaled flowers and dame’s rocket is a Eurasian immigrant with four-petaled flowers that forms a showy cluster along its two-to-three foot stems.

First brought here as a garden flower by European immigrants, it has adapted well to its new home, spreading along roads and byways and providing nectar to our native butterflies, such as spicebush swallowtails, red admirals, cloudy-winged and silver-spotted skippers and the large and showy tiger swallowtails. Hesperis matronalis, the “lady of the evening” was so-named by Pliny because its fragrance increases in the evening. Its several colors–white, pink, and pale and dark purple–make a stunning bouquet that stays fresh in water for several days. Dame’s rocket is also called damewort, dame’s violet, and sweet rocket and was said to be Marie Antoinette’s favorite flower.

Dame’s rocket, like many of our June wildflowers, is technically an invasive, defined by the United States Department of Agriculture in its book, Biological Control of Invasive Plants in the Eastern United States, as “species that, after they have been moved from their native habitat to a new location, spread on their own.” The Weed Society of America recognizes approximately 2100 invasive plant species in the United States and Canada. Many of these are wildflowers that grow in abandoned fields and pastures like our First Field, and most were deliberately brought to the New World by immigrants because of their perceived herbal or medicinal value. Green Immigrants, Claire Shaver Haughton called them in her book, subtitled The Plants That Transformed America. “A weed,” she wrote, “is a plant whose virtue is forgotten.”

Take common yarrow, for instance, that grows in scattered patches throughout our overgrown field. Ancient Greeks carried it into battle because they thought it would staunch blood. Supposedly, Achilles first used it when he stormed Troy, hence its genus name Achillea. Its species’ name–millefolium–means “thousand leaves,” and an alternate common name for yarrow is milfoil, along with a host of others–soldier’s woundwort, staunchweed, bloodwort, thousand weed, thousand seal and noble yarrow.

Early immigrants brought it to the New World for its blood coagulant properties and also because it clarified and flavored a beer more potent than that made with hops. More recently it has been used as a pest repellent and an agent against blight in vegetable gardens. Its flat-topped clusters of pungent-smelling, small, white flowers last long in summer bouquets and are often dried for winter use.

Common St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum), another field flower from Europe, also had medicinal uses. According to medieval monks, it healed wounds and relieved lung and throat inflammations. Most of all, it was known as the sacred herb of the sun because of its golden color, its bushy stamens that give every five-petaled flower the look of a sunburst, its translucent dots on its leaves through which the sun shines, and especially because it is heliotropic, meaning that its flowers follow the sun across the sky.

Its genus name Hypericum is Latin for the Greek Titan Hyperion, father of the sun god Helios. As such, the Greeks and Romans burned the flower at the Festival of the Fires on Midsummer Eve–June 24–when the sun seemed to stand still. Early Christians transformed this ancient nature worship into the Feast of Saint John when they declared June 24 to be the birthday of St. John the Baptist. St. Johnswort became a plant sacred to Saint John who, they believed, had blessed it with healing powers. The Pennsylvania Dutch knew it as the “blessed herb” and thought that it protected newborn children. St. Johnswort was also “the wonderful herb whose leaf will decide/ If the coming year shall make me a bride.”

Self-heal, all-heal, or heal-all (Prunella vulgaris) by its common names would seem to be still another medicinal invasive. And so it is, brought over by settlers who used it to treat wounds, mouth and throat ulcers, internal bleeding, bruises, and diarrhea, among other ailments. Largely discredited by modern herbalists, most recently researchers have discovered that it does have antibiotic qualities and also contains ursolic acid, an antitumor compound. A wildflower of lawns and fields, its attractive, bluish-purple flowers grow in a densely-packed head above opposite leaves and is a member of the Mint family. It has a ton of common names, some of which include blue curls, heart of the earth, and sicklewort, the latter referring to a sideways view of the flower’s shape that resembles a sickle.

Yellow hawkweed (Hieracium caespitosum), while also used as a medicinal, was reviled by farmers in both the Old and New World as king devil because it quickly spreads over fields by seeds and runners. Looking like a miniature dandelion, it grows on a tall, leafless, hairy stem. But in Europe it treated lung diseases, stomach pains, cramps, and convulsions and, according to the English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, writing in 1649, “The distilled water [juice] cleanseth the skin and taketh away freckles, spots, or wrinkles on the face,” making it a boon for young and old. Its genus name Hieracium means “hawk” because the English believed that hawks liked to swoop down and eat the juice of hawkweed to sharpen their eyes, thus its other common names hawkbits and speerhawks.

Although yellow hawkweed, self-heal, and St. Johnswort grow sparsely in First Field, swaths of ox-eye daisy and billowing, foamy, white clouds of white bedstraw or wild madder cover large sections of the field in June. Farmers in both Europe and American also disliked these invasives because they take over cultivated fields. Poets once wrote of the snows of June to describe fields of ox-eye daisies.

The scientific name for the ox-eye daisy–Chrysanthemum leucanthemum–means “golden flower, white flower,” a more apt description of this lovely flower than “ox-eye.” As English naturalist Marcus Woodward once put it, “The flower, with its white rays and golden disc, has small resemblance to an ox’s eye, but at dusk it shines out from the mowing-grass like a fallen moon.” And those daisies or “day’s eyes” continue to bloom throughout the night so that the field glows in moonlight, much as it does in the winter when it is snow-covered. Because the ox-eye daisy grows so profligately, I gather bouquets of them, and they last even longer than dame’s rocket in water.

The ox-eye daisy was dedicated to Artemis, the goddess of women, because people thought it was useful in treating women’s diseases, in addition to whooping cough, asthma, and wounds. Christians declared the ox-eye daisy to be the plant of Mary Magdalene and renamed it Maudelyn or Maudlin daisy, but among its two dozen common names, I especially like moon penny.

White bedstraw or wild madder (Galium mollugo) has tiny white flowers and handsome, whorled leaves. Like most in the bedstraw genus, it creeps over fields. Its generic name Galium means “milk,” because some varieties were matted together and used to strain milk. The name “bedstraw” refers to its use as a bed stuffing after it was dried.

After more than a quarter of a century, we welcomed back the Asiatic invasive, the orange or tawny daylily (Hemerocallis fulva). When we moved here 35 years ago, our back slope was a showplace of hundreds of orange daylilies. But as the deer herd grew, the daylilies disappeared. Year after year, they sent up green shoots in early spring, and year after year they were chomped down. The deer even ate those in our yard. Then, as our deer-hunting program expanded, a few orange daylilies survived to bloom. Unlike true lilies, which grow from bulbs, daylily species grow from fibrous root stalks or rhizomes. Their genus name Hermerocallis is Greek for “beautiful for a day,” and the species’ name for orange daylily fulva means “tawny.”

Back in the days when we experimented extensively with wild foods, I picked daylily buds and boiled them because I knew that it was a popular, though mucilaginous, vegetable in Asia. None of us cared for them so I didn’t try dipping them or the flowers themselves in batter and frying them as they do in China and Japan. Still others add young greens to salads, cook the spring shoots like asparagus, chop up and boil the rootstock like potatoes, and eat the little tubers raw or roasted. Truly, the orange daylily offers a cornucopia of food for willing gourmets.

Despite its gustatory delights in the Far East, the orange daylily came to North America as a garden flower from Europe. By 1695 it was well established by the Dutch, who had planted it in Manhattan, the English in New England and Virginia, and the Quakers along the Delaware River. “It is,” English botanist John Gerard wrote, “fitly called Faire and beautiful for a day and so we in English may rightly terme it the Day Lillie.”

Another “day flower” has more recently established itself in a wet patch on our Greenbrier Trail. The Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis) also blooms for only a day or even half a day because as soon as it is pollinated by bees, it closes, often by midday. Then the petals collapse in a still blue, but gelatinous mass that mixes with the nectar, making another sweet mixture beloved of bees. The three-petaled flower has two sky blue, showy petals above and below, almost hidden, is one small white petal. Its color is probably the reason why it was first brought here as a garden flower.

Our invasives or green immigrants of June have been on this continent for centuries. Although they are dominant in First Field in early summer, natives soon take over–three milkweed species in July and the goldenrods and asters of late summer. But invasives continue to cause huge problems throughout North America, often creating havoc in forests, fields, wetlands, and waterways, especially with the incredible increase in global trade and travel. Instead of being imported for their perceived value (and plenty of that still occurs), many enter by mistake. Because of this deluge of invasives, we plant only native wildflowers in our garden and native trees and shrubs in our yard. Even though they may not have quite the ancient “history and romance,…legend and folklore,” as Haughton put it, of many green immigrants, the natives evolved here, along with the insects, birds, and mammals that depend on them.

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