May Flowers

Having just retired after a 40 year career in medical research and practice, I am finding more time to get out and enjoy nature.  I grew up in California where my first outdoor experience was camping in Yosemite Valley.  Later in life, I lived in the Seattle area where I spent time backpacking the Cascades and Olympics and (briefly) took up mountain climbing.  Despite having the opportunity to spend time in these spectacular areas of the country, the Pennypack Preserve is one of my favorite places on earth.  This is not because it compares in beauty to the western mountain wilderness (it doesn’t) but rather because it is possible for me to go 10 minutes from my house where I can see bald eagles, migrating warblers, foxes and coyotes, a variety of trees and flowers, and even aquatic insects.  No matter how often I go there I see something new.  My photography hobby is a way to learn about nature since I usually try to identify what I see and photograph, and thereby continue to recognize species that are new to me.  So I decided to start keeping a blog of what I learned, and this is my first post, starting with some of the wildflowers that bloom in May.

Two May-blooming flowers commonly seen in Pennypack Preserve are members of the phlox family.   Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) seems to prefer damp areas since I generally see it growing along Creek Road by Pennypack Creek.

It has characteristic five petals which fuse at the base.  It survives in the preserve because members of the phlox family are apparently distasteful to deer.  The understory of Pennypack Preserve is dominated by deer-resistant plants, notably extensive growth of spicebush.  Many common woodland wildflowers which are not deer resistant are rare or not seen here, even though I think there were attempts to plant some of them here in the past.  The Blue Phlox survives largely uneaten, even though deer come regularly down to the stream.

My favorite Pennypack wildflower is American Greek Valerian (Polemonium reptans). 

Greek Valerian is also a member of the phlox family, with characteristic clusters of 5-petaled flowers.  Both Blue Phlox and Greek Valerian are found along Creek Road and typically bloom around May 1 give or take a week or two.  The common naming of this plant is confusing.  Most people locally refer to it as Jacob’s Ladder, but in field guides such as the Peterson guide or Audubon Society guide, Jacob’s Ladder is used for a related plant, Polemonium vanbruntiae, which has longer more ladder-like leaflets, and doesn’t grow in the Preserve to my knowledge.  This is the problem with common names in general, which may vary from one location to another.  Greek Valerian itself is somewhat of a misnomer because the American plant was named for its resemblance to a European flower also called Greek Valerian (Polemonium caeruleum) which grows in Europe and Asia, but is very similar in appearance to the American plant.  So call it what you like.

In late May, Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis) appears both along the creek and in the uplands. 

Dame’s Rocket is often mistaken for a phlox because of resemblance of the flowers, but is actually a member of the mustard family, which can be told when it develops the characteristic long slender seed pods.  However, Dame’s Rockets have only four petals on the flower, while phloxes always have five.  Dame’s Rockets are non natives which originated in Eurasia and were cultivated as garden flowers in England as early as the 1500’s.  They were brought to America by English settlers in the 1600’s as garden plants, and escaped into the wild where they have been naturalized for 300 years or so.  However, they are still considered invasives in some states.  The name “Rocket” was a generic English term for members of the mustard family, and derives from the French word “roquette” which in turn comes from the Latin Eruca.  Eruca is another genus of mustard and is the word from which Arugula (Eruca sativa) is derived.  So another interesting story of common names.

My new plant of the month is Aniseroot (Osmorhiza longistylis). 

I photographed this plant along Creek Road on May 14, and identified it when I got home.  It has compound leaves in groups of 3, and clusters of tiny, beautiful white flowers.  Crushed leaves smell of anise (but don’t damage the plants in the Preserve).  I had never noticed it before, but certainly may have overlooked it.  Aniseroot is in the parsley family.

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