Down to Earth: Learning wildflowers the easy way

Sprays of tufty, slim purple petals encircling a golden center on a tall, daisy-like plant.

Philadelphia fleabane.

A platoon of lilac-hued flat faces peeking from a wet ditch in partial shade.

Wild geranium.

A tangly mat of knee-high green, studded with triangular indigo blooms and yellow stamens.

Virginia spiderwort.

Lately, I’ve been walking around with a chunk of magic in my pocket. It’s my cellphone, but I’m armed now with a new app: PlantSnap. Like some multitool out of “Star Trek,” all I have to do is point it at a wildflower and take a photo, and after a moment’s pondering, the app spits out an identification.

I’m no plant expert, having spent most of my training as a naturalist learning about birds and animals. Botany enthusiasts, I’ve noticed, often wield near-encyclopedic knowledge, so learning flowers with experts has always felt intimidating.

This spring, though, I’ve found I can begin making inroads on my own into the vast array of wildflowers that bestrew the woodlands and fields of the Pioneer Valley. One of quite a number of similar plant ID options, PlantSnap relies on artificial intelligence and machine learning to automatically identify plants using a database of over 150 million images.

It performs best with flowers — I’ve had maybe 20 percent success with my attempts to ID plants without blooms. But despite occasional limitations, the app arrived in my life with perfect timing.

I recently moved to a new house and am planning to put in some native flowers as we redesign our garden.

The redesign feels particularly urgent because of a visitor we’ve spotted several times this spring. The other morning, my partner Paul gasped from upstairs, “Naila! There’s a hummingbird trapped in our window!”

I bounded up the steps to find a female ruby-throated hummingbird hovering in an open awning window between the screen and glass. The buzz of her wings filled the bedroom.

A moment’s observation sufficed to reassure me. The bird was quite calm, not thrashing like a trapped bird would. From time to time she darted her long beak up into the window hinge — and I realized she was simply snacking on tiny flies hiding there. A minute or two later she serenely flew away out the side.

That sighting and a few others encouraged us to go on a hunt for hummingbird-friendly perennials.

A field trip

The quest took us over the weekend to Wing and a Prayer Nursery in Cummington. Run by head gardener Amy Pulley and Alice Cozzolino, the nursery exclusively sells plants relied on by pollinators like butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. Most of their stock is native to the northeast U.S.

We arrived on a day when the nursery was serving tea and scones to visitors. Feeling spoiled, I roamed among rows of blooming plants with a china teacup and saucer in one hand, a raisin scone dripping with butter and peach jam in the other. The sunny garden hummed with tiny native bees and butterflies.

Many pollinators are in trouble right now. Honeybees are famously struggling, but many species of native bee are in even worse straits, some threatened with extinction. Monarch butterfly populations have declined 68 percent in about 20 years, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Some species require specific native plants for their caterpillars to munch on, for sources of nectar, or for habitat.

Hummingbirds and long-tongued bumblebees prefer tubular flowers over the showy flat blooms often preferred in gardens.

For protecting pollinators, “it’s not just what we plant, it’s our gardening practices,” Pulley said. She grows her plants outdoors from seed in spring. She uses no fossil fuels, so has no heated greenhouses. She uses no pesticides, which could linger in plant tissues and be harmful.

She noted that she doesn’t clear dead growth from her beds until mid-spring, because many species overwinter among dead leaf litter.

One species of native bee, for instance, drills nest holes in the dead stems of plants like New York ironweed. Pulley’s ironweed bristled with brown pithy stalks among the new growth. We stared at the holes at their tips until a bee’s tiny iridescent green face peeked out at us, antennae waving.

“I have this plant right now that has a lovely infestation,” said Pulley, leading us among the wooden plant stands. We arrived at a pot of pearly everlasting, a plant with furry greyish leaves that later will bear white clumps of flowers.

The leaves were festooned with silky threads that Pulley pulled back to display several rice-sized black caterpillars. The American lady butterfly caterpillar, Pulley explained, eats just a few types of native plant.

The infestation makes the leaves ragged until later in summer, not most gardeners’ preference. However, Pulley said, “this is why I’m planting it: so the American lady butterfly will persist in our world.”

Reader, I bought the plant.

A deep history

In our region, wildflower identifying has a distinguished pedigree. The great-grandmother of poetry, Emily Dickinson, loved wildflowers and used her extensive knowledge of them in her poems.

Dickinson and her friends would traipse out on collecting trips, seeking plants to bring home as specimens, explained Marta McDowell, author of “Emily Dickinson’s Gardens,” during a recent wildflower-themed event at the Emily Dickinson Museum for Amherst Arts Night Plus.

They were so eager they stripped the woods of them. While studying at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Dickinson wrote in a letter, “There are not many wild flowers near, for the girls have driven them to a distance, and we are obliged to walk quite a distance to find them.”

The students pressed the flowers, leaves, and stems to add to their herbaria. These catalogues of labeled dried plants affixed to sheets of sturdy paper were a popular pastime for young women in Dickinson’s time.

The poet herself created a herbarium of over 400 plants.

“While at home,” she wrote, “there were several pleasure parties of which I was a member, and in our rambles we found many and beautiful children of spring, which I will mention and see if you have found them — the trailing arbutus, adder’s tongue, yellow violets, liver-leaf, blood-root, and many other smaller flowers.”

Dickinson’s writings fingerprint the changes in the wildflower community since her day. The trailing arbutus, for instance, a creeping mat whose delicate pink blooms emerge in early spring, must have been common in the 1800s. Dickinson and her peers gathered quantities to decorate the table or send to friends, McDowell said.

Now, the little plant is so rare it’s listed as endangered or vulnerable in some states, likely because it’s highly sensitive to habitat disturbance.

Other plants in Dickinson’s herbarium were more difficult to find than the then-common arbutus.

“The more I’ve tried to find these flowers, the more amazed I’ve become by Dickinson,” said Elizabeth Bradley, program coordinator at the Emily Dickinson Museum. “I realized how much knowledge she really must have had. You have to know precisely what habitat they live in, what week they’ll flower.”

Maybe someday. For now, it’s PlantSnap for me.

Naila Moreira is a writer and poet who often focuses on science, nature and the environment. She teaches science writing at Smith College and is the writer in residence at Forbes Library. She’s on Twitter @nailamoreira.

Author: Going Green

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