I dreamed that I was in a dark room. I was a child. There were voices. I heard my sister’s voice in the distance. She was in distress. Muffled, her crying voice slowly disappeared. Cautiously, I felt around every corner of the black room with my small hands but I could not locate her. She seemed to be no longer a part of my life. I was alone and left to my devices. Scared and bewildered, I burst from the room through large closed doors and into white light. Outside I was surrounded by green forest. Tall pines shadowed over my small frame. Giant ferns blew in the wind. A nearby stream flowed lazily through a narrow wetland. I was alone but free. A smile came to my face as a vole scampered amongst the sedges. And then I woke suddenly; still sweating but comforted by the way things had turned out in this other world.
On some days it seems like thus far life has been a long, long journey. At other junctures, time travels at nearly the speed of light. As a young pup I found myself alone in the woods often in retreat and hiding from a twisted childhood. There I could be free, temporarily safe from an unstable reality, and there I could find solace in what I would learn to be my real world for years to come. These years of running from my childhood, all of this time finding peace and quiet beauty in another world, has left me with an obscure but enlightened point of view. If nothing else I have learned, really learned, that there is absolute elegance in this world if we only take the time to notice the detail, perhaps the miniscule, that is intertwined and woven into all parts of this planet we call Earth.
Of no little consequence on this day I am sitting on a ledge outcrop that faces north. Sunlight filters through branches above that host new foliage not fully developed. The shadows on the ground are thin and dance about with the mellow breeze; almost appearing like tiny marionettes moving about the forest floor on a dimly lit background from filtered sunlight. The rock on which I sit is cool and moist. Water dribbles from cracks in the weathered stone plating and drips through the lichen and moss that call the rock home. My pants absorb some of this water behind my knees and cools my legs that have carried me to this isolated area. On this day I am elated that spring is finally here and am enjoying the warm, clear day that so typically signifies another season.
A few feet in front of me I notice amongst last years decaying leaves a group of green plants with feathery delicate foliage. I stand and approach the plants and get on my hands and knees for close examination. Above the feathery leaves is a thin stem and from the stem hangs a group of oddly shaped yellow and white flowers. The flowers resemble old fashioned pantaloons hanging from a clothesline; hence the given name “dutchman’s breeches” (Dicentra cucullaria). This plant, common to rich soils in central New England, is a bit unusual in these acidic soils. We are more likely to have “squirrel corn” (Dicentra canadensis) in these parts. Squirrel corn is very similar to Dutchman’s Breeches but has more rounded spurs and a thick corn-like knob at the root crown right at the surface of the soil. That this area has dutchman’s breeches tells me that the soil is a little sweeter in this part of the forest. Perhaps the predominate schist rock that accounts for most of the bedrock in the area had a band of calcareous minerals that influenced the soil Ph. Who knows?
Dutchman’s breeches are completely reliant on specialized bees for pollination. Only bees with long tongues can navigate the deep pocket where the nectar is held, unintentionally come in contact with pollen, and fertilize another nearby plant as it reaches in for more pollen. Some long tongued bumble bees, mason bees, miner bees, and anthophoridae bees qualify for this task. Without these wonderful pollinators the dutchman’s breeches would be in a very bad way.
Another unusual relationship that this plant has with the animal kingdom is with the ant. Some species of ants carry the dutchman’s breeches seed to their nests. There they eat elaiosomes that are found along the shell of the seed. The elaiosome is a fleshy organ that is filled with lipids. After the ant consumes the elaisome it discards the remaining seen in debris piles outside of the nest that are rich in organic matter. The seeds often sprout and grow successfully in these locations spreading the Dutchman’s Breeches to new parts of the deep woods. Given ants carry the seeds for good distances this seed dispersal technique can distribute the plant over large areas of the forest. This type of seed dispersal by ants is referred to as myrmecochory by ecologists.
Native Americans, particularly the Menominee tribe used dutchman’s breeches as an aphrodisiac. It was believed that chewing on the flower gave a male sweet breath that a woman could not resist. The flower and plant is known to be toxic to cattle and other farm animals, so it would be strictly ill advisable to swallow the plant after chewing it. In fact it makes sense to stay away from this tradition altogether!
While down on my hands and knees examining the dutchman’s breeches I see that amongst the decaying leaves another, even smaller, wild flower graces the forest floor. Spring beauty (Claytonia caroliniana), six white petals with dark pink stripes and tinged with a spot of yellow at the base of each petal, raises its tiny terminal cluster flower between leaves in search of pollination. Like many of nature’s most beautiful species the flower spring beauty holds a secret. Unlike almost every other living entity, plant or animal, it does not have a fixed number of chromosomes. For instance humans always have 46 chromosomes, whereas the chromosome numbers vary from one individual to next with this wondrous flower. One study showed that the number of chromosomes in spring beauty varied widely from one site to another; perhaps a sign that the number of chromosomes is related to environmental conditions. The rhizome attached to the root of this inconspicuous plant is very starchy and is sought after by deer and humans who understand it tastes like chestnuts when roasted. Eastern Native Americans held this plant as plentiful bounty because of its unusual and delicate flavor.
A few trout lily (Erythronium americanum) leaves, flowers already gone by, also graced this land where nothing seemed too conspicuous. This wonderful plant, has six yellow petals on a flower that is shaped like a lily, and grows in dense colonies in rich woods. It is one of the first wildflowers to bloom in the forest and is known for its green leaves mottles with reddish shapes that can cover large areas of understory in the forest. Is plant is also known as adder’s tongue and dog toothed violet (although it is not a member of the violet family). Interestingly, long ago Iroquois women chewed the leaves as a contraception to prevent pregnancy.
I stand slowly, my aching back reminding me that I am a great distance in years from childhood. I look east where this mountain drops off and the view of wooded landscape goes on for as far as the eye can see. Although I have witnessed this view hundreds of times I am still surprised by the serene picture and vastness of these woods; a truly humbling experience.
And then this one thought occurs to me. I am no longer closed in dark rooms nor have I been for many years. I am alive. I am free. And I have my whole life in front of me to admire these northern forests.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in May 2011.
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