Wild and lovely: gettng to know the wild plants of Vermont
With their beautiful colors and shapes, and sometimes a subtle fragrance, I have always had a passion for flowers. Of course, as a gardener, I spend countless hours contemplating the best ways to cultivate and display the flowers in my garden. But, perhaps even more, I am in awe of the diversity and beauty of wildflowers that — with absolutely no help or assistance from humankind — thrive in our mountains and meadows.
Some, like clover, daisies and milkweed, bloom prolifically for months on end, and we mostly know their names and their habits. Others are less common and may be quite unfamiliar to many of us. A few weeks ago, when hiking around Hogback Mountain behind our house, I discovered a beautiful solitary lily, shown in this picture. Its gorgeous orange flowers decorated with striking purple spots, seemed to smile at the sky. Amazingly it was growing all by itself, and yet it appeared to be flourishing among the thick ferns and grasses. So, that same evening, I asked my husband Dick to take the picture you see here.
Now, with the photograph to remind me of the details of the flower and the leaves, I used a duo of wonderful new books, both published this year, to positively identify the plant I had seen.
The first book, Wildflowers of New England by Ted Elliman (published by Timber Press) is an illustrated field guide of all the perennial, biennial and annual flowers that grow wild in the six New England states: The second, New Flora of Vermont by Arthur Gilman (published by the New York Botanical Gardens) is an in-depth reference book naming and describing all the plants found growing naturally in Vermont.
In these books I discovered that its official English name is Wood Lily, and its Latin name is Lilium philadelphicum. Apparently Wood Lilies are found in dry woodlands or along the edges of fields and, in Vermont, they are considered uncommon or rare, and have only been seen in our eight southern counties.
I also learnt about two other lilies that grow wild in Vermont, the native Canada lily (Lilium canadense) and the Tiger lily (Lilium lancifolium) which was introduced from Asia.
For me the bloom-time of the many wildflowers is a sweet reminder of the passage of the seasons — spring, summer and fall. And some wildflowers bloom just briefly, making them even more special. A few days later I returned to see my lovely lily once more, only to find that it was all done flowering for this year. So, unless I find a different plant, a whole year must pass before I see the wood lilies once more.
Learning to see
We humans love to name and describe everything we encounter — from our family and friends to the numerous objects or ideas that interest us, and of course the plants we encounter in the natural world.
We also group them with similar plants, a discipline called ‘taxonomy’. Plants that share certain characteristics are grouped together in families. Thus true lilies are classified in the genus Lilium and are grouped with other lily-like flowers into a ‘family’ known as Liliaeceae.
So, if you come across an unknown plant, you can use its visible characteristics, such as the color and structure of its flowers and the shape and arrangement of its leaves, to both name it and find its position in the great hierarchy of all plants.
‘Wildflowers of New England’ by Ted Elliman
Ted Elliman, who has worked at the venerable New England Wildflower Society for many years, has created a beautiful and extremely comprehensive field guide, covering well over 1,000 wildflowers, both native and naturalized, that are found in our region.
The book is organized around flower color—first the white flowers, followed by ones that are yellow, red, blue, green, orange and lastly brown.
At the beginning of the book an easy-to-use identification key or index makes it relatively foolproof to identify and name that unknown flower you discovered on your walk. Start with the color of the flower, and then look carefully at the number of petals in each flower as well as how they are arranged. This lily was clearly orange, there were six petals and they were arranged in a circle. Next study the characteristics of its leaves. In the case of the wood lily it was easy to see that the leaves grew from the stem in whorls.
This information was sufficient to take me directly to a page showing a small number of plants with these characteristics and, by looking at the color photographs and descriptive paragraphs, it was easy to identify the plant I had seen.
The wood lily is grouped with other orange lily-like flowers including the tiger lily found today around old farmsteads but which originated in East Asia. And there is also the commonplace orange daylily that we see along Vermont roadsides in July and August. But, interestingly enough, the daylilies actually belong to a different plant family entirely.
‘New Flora of Vermont’ by Arthur Gilman
The New Flora of Vermont, the climax of years of painstaking solo research by Vermont native and life-long environmentalist, Arthur Gilman is a monumental reference book, where he both describes and categorizes over 2,000 vascular plants — from trees and shrubs to wildflowers, grasses, ferns and mosses — that grow wild in Vermont. The majority have been growing here for hundreds of years. Other have been ‘introduced’ by human activity — with some but by no means all of which considered considered invasive. Still others are relatively recent arrivals, pushing north as our climate changes.
Gilman calls his book a ‘NEW Flora of Vermont’. In his quest to document the condition of our wild plants today, his starting point was the original ‘Flora of Vermont,’ first published in 1900, with a final fourth edition printed almost fifty years ago, in 1969.
Then, every weekend for twelve long years, he would travel as far as New York and Boston to scour old plant records and dried plant collections archived in libraries, and then roam the length of the state to locate where the different plants can be found today. From here he delved into modern research, especially DNA analysis, to categorize each plant in its correct family and genus.
The culmination of his work, the New Flora of Vermont, is an amazing gift to everybody who would like to learn more about the myriad plants — from the very rare to the commonplace — to be found across our beautiful state.
While the New Flora of Vermont provides an abundance of information on any plant you might encounter, using its key system to identify an unknown plant is a somewhat cumbersome process.
A much better way is to use these two books in tandem. Use the Wildflowers of New England to find the name, photograph and a brief description of the unknown plant, as I did with my wood lily. Now use the index in New Flora to read a longer description, where it is found, as well as information on the other plants in the same genus and family.
In the case of the orange wood lily, this was how I discovered the existence of its very close relative, the beautiful Canada lily (which I missed entirely in the field guide where it is, quite logically, grouped among the yellow flowers), along with the fascinating detail that the Canada lily is pollinated by hummingbirds!
I never cease to be astonished and beguiled by the wonderful world of nature!
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at www.northcountryimpressions.com.
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