Identifying spring wildflowers: why bother?

My last two posts have been about some of the Italian gardens I visited recently while leading a small group of women on a 9-day tour. I still have a lot to write about what I saw, and what I thought of it, but in the Eastern Townships in Quebec, where my garden Glen Villa is located, it is full, glorious spring. Finally.

Crabapple trees bloom in the lower field, by the old split rail fence.
The daffodils are like icing on the cake of spring.

Or rather, it was spring. The season lasted only two weeks or less. But during that time the wildflowers bloomed more vigourously and abundantly than I ever remember.

Many years ago I bought a small book to help me identify wildflowers: A Field Guide to Wildflowers, by Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny. I used it a few times, then put it away. I decided that knowing the names of plants wasn’t important, in fact, that the knowledge got in the way of enjoyment. What difference did it make what a plant was called? It was beautiful or it wasn’t, and that was all that mattered.

I’ve changed my mind. And my field guide shows it. The corners are dog-earred now, and pages stick together. This handy reference is well used. But still, identifying wildflowers is tricky. Some, like marsh marigolds, are easy.

Marsh marigolds (caltha palustris) grow profusely in damp spots in fields and along banks of streams.

Bluets aren’t hard. The yellow eye in the centre tells me this is Houstonia caerulea rather than Houstonia longifolia. 

Bluets (Houstonia caerulea) scatter themselves along a sunny bank.

Others, like violets, are tricky. It’s easy to determine that a flower is a violet, or a member of that family.  But what kind of violet?

The yellow at the centre of the petals and the purplish tinge on the back
makes identification easy: it’s Viola canadensis, or Canada violet.

Does it matter? A yellow violet is a yellow violet, whatever its botanical name.

Smooth yellow violet, or viola pensylvanica.
‘Slyvanica’ tells you this plant likes to grow in the woods.

And a purple violet just a violet? Right?

Is this a common blue violet or the woolly blue violet, viola sororia?
Or maybe it is Le Conte’s violet. Or the Northern blue. Or the New England blue.

Well, no. The violet shown above could be one of about half a dozen different members of the violet family, all with five petals and a spur, all with heart-shaped leaves. I can’t tell you its botanical name because I didn’t look hard enough. I didn’t pay enough attention to the details.

Being able to name a particular plant may not add to the pleasure of seeing it, but for me it adds to a wider pleasure, one that is based on the need for careful observation. Before I started looking for names, I didn’t know that there were stemmed and stemless violets.  I’d never noticed that some violets had long spurs, some had short ones, or that they had spurs at all. I’d never noticed that their leaves could vary as much in shape and texture as they do.  Or, indeed, that they came in so many different shades and colours.

Paying attention to detail is not my strong suit — I’m more an overview type, always looking at the broader picture. Still, I was intrigued this year by an explosion of a tiny white flower that was blooming everywhere. Where did it come from? How did it appear so suddenly, and in such numbers?

Cardamine pratensis in full bloom beside the pond.

The truth is, it didn’t appear suddenly. A quick search through my photos turned up this close-up of the same plant. From last year. And another search turned up a photo from the year before.

This wildflower has naturalized in North America but is indigenous to Europe and the British Isles.

So this plant has been flowering in my neighbourhood for at least three years, and maybe for many years before that. How is it that I’ve noticed it only this year? Because clearly I have seen it before. I have noticed it enough to photograph it, but not enough to remember it.

I think the explanation is easy. In previous years, I never took the time to identify it. I never looked at it closely, or tried to give it a name. But now that I have, I’ll never forget it. How can I? Cardamine pratensis is called cuckoo flower

Why that name, I wonder? It’s also known as lady’s smock. By either name, the flowers were said to be sacred to fairies, so it was considered unlucky to bring them into the house.

An amusing common name certainly helps the memory but combined with the botanical name, it can lead to odd and interesting stories. The second part of the cuckoo flower’s botanical name, pratensis, is Latin for meadow, which is understandable, since this is where they commonly grow. The second part of the marsh marigolds’ name is palustris, which means ‘of the swamp or marsh.’

You never know where a piece of information will lead. I didn’t need to search my Field Guide to identify the marsh marigolds that were blooming a few weeks ago, or to learn that in some places they are called cowslips. But until I started looking, I didn’t knowthat these wildflowers are one of the UK’s most ancient native plants, flourishing in the damp conditions left behind as ice age glaciers receded. And I certainly didn’t know how many common names they had: kingcups, or mayflowers, May blobs, or mollyblobs, horse blobs, water blobs or water bubbles. In some places they are even called gollins.

Gollins? Blobs? No, thank you. I’ll stick with marsh marigold. Or rather, with caltha palustris.

A blue-eyed grass, possibly Sisyrinchium augustifolium