Posts Tagged ‘Flora’

Mayflowers c. 1840 by Maria Morris Miller

April showers bring mayflowers.  Sometimes in May… sometimes in April.

It’s raining today which is good news for all things green and growing.  Mayflowers  (aka trailing arbutus ~ Epigaea repens) are among the earliest native blooms to appear in Nova Scotia.  Half-hidden on the edge of the woods, their leathery leaves may look ragged and browned in spots, but the flowers are nonetheless fresh and pristine.  Their petals fade from light pink to white as spring progresses.

Mayflowers enjoy the moist, acidic environments that are typically found near bogs.   They are also shy plants, with a preference for shade. 

Over a century ago mayflowers were designated the floral emblem of Nova Scotia.  Found throughout most of eastern North America, this native evergreen plant is now considered an endangered species in Florida and vulnerable in New York. 

Unbeknownst to many gardeners who unsuccessfully try to transplant them, the roots of mayflowers have a secret relationship with fungus.  In this mutually beneficial liaison (also known as a mycorrhizal association), fungi gain direct access to carbohydrates through the roots of the mayflower.  At the same time, the fungus  makes the mayflower more resistant to disease and drought. 

In the language of flowers, mayflowers mean welcome.  Welcome to Nova Scotia.  Welcome to spring.

The image of mayflowers at top left was scanned from a postcard I purchased at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History over two decades ago.  I photographed the mayflowers just a short walk from the bottom of Flandrum Hill Road last week.


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Warnings are posted along the Salt Marsh Trail to remind people to stay away from the poison ivy.  This plant causes extreme itching on contact with the skin of both humans and animals.  Swellings, bumps and blisters may follow.

Poison ivy plants are characterized by green leaves arranged in groups of three.  They look fairly harmless and are either found by themselves in a large mass or hidden among other plants.   Along the Salt Marsh Trail, they are right at the edge of the path in some places, making it very easy for an unsuspecting child or dog to brush up against.

This year’s especially wonderful growing season has enabled most plants to grow earlier in the season and larger than usual.  Poison ivy is no exception.  Please exercise caution along the trail and in the woods as you enjoy the outdoors this summer. 

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sensitive ferns

Sensitive Ferns

Ferns add a touch of freshness and elegance to Nova Scotia’s forest floors in late spring.  These beautiful green plants can also be found growing along ditches and in rock crevices.

Ferns first appeared on the planet hundreds of millions of years ago and are still thriving.   They reproduce by spores or rhizomes and are quite resistant to disease.  Ferns provide the surrounding soil with mineral nutrients while the structure of their rhizome root systems reduce soil erosion.  The sensitive leaves of these bioindicators are easily damaged by acid rain.

Cinnamon Ferns

Even in Nova Scotia’s temperate climate, ferns can grow to several feet in height.  Their leaf litter is so great that mounds are often formed in forest areas where they thrive from year to year.

polypody ferns

Polypody Ferns

Moisture, shade and acidic soil attract the growth of both ferns and mosses.  Polypody ferns, shown above, crop out of rocks near the salt marsh.

Bracken Ferns

In springtime, many people enjoy eating fiddleheads, the shoots of young ferns.  Ostrich ferns are especially tasty.  However, the safety of bracken ferns, shown above, is questionable.  Its consumption has been implicated in cases of stomach and esophageal cancer, especially in Japan where it is widely eaten.  Water from sources near growths of bracken ferns is also considered suspect.  (For more information on the toxic effect of bracken ferns on water, see The Fatal Fern).

Northern Beech Ferns

Shaded northern beech ferns, shown above, capture bits of sunlight through gaps in the forest canopy.  The effect is enchanting.

In Finland, gathering fern spores on Midsummer’s Eve is believed to give the gatherer the ability to become invisible.  Also, if one was to perchance acquire the elusive fern bloom on this special night, one would be able to uncover the treasure hidden beneath the magical lights of the Will o’ the Wisp.

Even if you don’t believe in the magical powers of ferns, or partake of fiddleheads in spring, they nevertheless make a wonderful contribution to the biodiversity of the forest ecosystem.

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Imagine a secret code of communication that doesn’t rely on the written word.  One that allows exchangers to express a range of emotions that might never even be spoken.  Such is the language of flowers, developed during the reign of Queen Victoria, whose birthday is celebrated today in Canada.

It became popular at the time to send coded messages by flowers or small arrangements of blooms, called posies, which were frequently worn on ladies’ dresses.  Each flower came to represent a specific message.  Although this code was well known among all layers of society during Victoria’s time, it was eventually forgotten. 

Here are a few meanings behind some of the flowers presently in bloom in Nova Scotia.

Apple blossoms, shown above at left, would send the message that you prefered the recipient over another.  If you felt sorry for someone, you could send elderflowers, shown above at centre, as they indicate compassion.  Dandelions, at top right, communicate flirting.  There are certainly enough of these bright yellow blooms to send to everyone these days.

In contrast, forget-me-nots, shown above at left, would be sent only to one’s true love.  Blue violets, shown above at centre, are symbols for faithfulness.  Considering how easily these tiny flowers can be overlooked, it’s no wonder that the white violets, shown above at right, communicate modesty.

Coded floral messages could also make it easier to deliver awkward sentiments.  If you wanted to communicate the message that you wanted to be alone, lichens, symbols of solitude, would say it well, especially dusted with a frost of snow. 

Today, the Victorian era (1837-1901) is considered an age of romance that saw a revival of family values and improved social morals, inspired in part by Victoria’s long-lasting affection for her husband Albert.  The secret code of flowers is part of that legacy.

For more information on the language of flowers see the entry at Wikipedia.

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You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and water-craft; a certain free margin, and even vagueness – perhaps ignorance, credulity – helps your enjoyment of these things…
~Walt Whitman

Sometimes, it’s good to know less than more.  Acquiring more knowledge of a subject often removes a soft veil of mystery that leaves only the bare facts visible.  The magic disappears. 

The numerous types of lichens, mosses and fungi make the woods seem more magical for many of us.  Is this because we typically know less about them than other living things in the forest?  If I encounter new, unknown varieties on a walk in the woods, why does this make the excursion more enchanting?  Perhaps, sometimes, it’s best to not know the names of things so that mystery and wonder can survive.

Though correct identification is helpful if they’re going to be eaten, nature’s myriad types of fungi need not be named in order to be enjoyed for the beauty of their subtle colours and forms.  Their ability to uplift our spirits are nonetheless.  And it may just be easier to imagine them eaten by elves or sat upon by delicate faeries if their exact variety is unknown to us.

I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.
~  Harry Emerson Fosdick

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Finding the name of a mystery flower can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.  It’s often a  frustrating task.  Where do you start?

If you’re doing an online search, two other keywords besides color can be helpful:

  • A flower’s habitat. Is it growing in a meadow? a pine forest? a bog? on a lakeshore? a seashore?
  • The English or Latin name of the flower’s family. There are 7 floral families (listed below), each with a specific set of characteristics.

yellow small

Mustard Family Cruciferae

– 4 petals
– seedpods follow a radial pattern around the stalk
– pods open from both sides to expose a clear membrane in the middle
– all edible





mint smallMint FamilyLabiatae

– 5 united petals
– square stalks
– leaves grow opposite one another
– usually aromatic
– all edible as long as they smell minty





beach pea

Pea or Legume Family

– irregular shaped flowers with 5 petals
– pea-like pods
– pinnate leaves
– vary from being barely edible to barely poisonous





star of bethlehem

Lily Family Liliaceae

– flowers with parts in 3s with 6 stamens
– sepals and petals identical
– parallel leaf veins
– produce bulbs
– some edible, some poisonous





small pink hollyhock

Mallow Family

– 5 separate petals
– column of stamens in middle of flower
– moist and sticky texture
– edible





oxeye daisy

Aster or Sunflower Family –

– composite flowers
– disk-like head
– each petal is an individual flower
– edible





lace small

Parsley or Carrot Family
Apiaceae or Umbelliferae

– radially symmetrical (5 petals, sepals and stamens)
– compound umbrella-like design
– usually hollow flower stalks
– many are not safe for eating and can be deadly




You may still have to look at several images before you’re able to find the exact flower, but these keywords should help you narrow your search.  At the very least, you should be able to identify its family.  Good luck!

For more information on floral families, see:
Learning to Identify Plants by Families

For more information on flowers in northern North America, see:
Ontario Wildflower

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