Viola renifolia A Gray
Also known as White Violet, Northern White Violet
Poking through moist leaf litter or deep moss, the Kidney-Leaved Violet is one of the first signs that spring has truly come to the hills. In the four years that I have photographed this little beauty, all images were taken between the last days of May and the end of June.
The species name renifolia refers to the kidney-shape of this violet’s leaves. They are further described as orbicular, or rounded-convex, and cordate, heart-shaped. (source) They are toothed and slightly hairy on the underside.
One of many violets native to North America, the Kidney-leaved violet can be found across Canada and south to the northern United States. Rising above the loose cluster of leaves, its flower is classic violet distinguished by its white colour with purple striping on its lip petal and wings (side petals), although most that I have found have very sparse striping on the wings or none at all. The stripes are thought to be guides for insects, encouraging them to push into the flower’s throat for nectar. V. renifolia has no beard to comb pollen from visiting insects and a very short spur.
Many violets produce a late-season flowers if the first blooms remain unfertilized. They bloom so soon after the snow has retreated from under the thick coniferous canopy that often pollinators are not yet active. These late blooms are closed and hidden and self-pollinating. Violet seeds are dispersed in small explosions and carried away by ants attracted to a special oil on their surface.
One half cup of violet leaves contains as much vitamin C as 4 oranges. They are also high in vitamin A. All above-ground parts of the violet are edible but the rhizomes, fruits and/or seeds of some are poisonous. The plant was used by the Cree in salves, tonics and as a (mildly laxative) relaxing tea. (source)
I can’t imagine gathering enough to do anything with, without wiping out entire populations. I have, however garnished the odd salad with ‘johnny-jump-ups’, which volunteer en masse in my garden.
Quandaries With Identification
Of three slightly different-looking violets that I’ve found in the local woods, the Kidney-Leaved Violet is the most abundant. It’s easily distinguished from the Early Blue Violet V. adunca by its white flowers. I’m less sure about one that might be Western Canada Violet, V. canadensis only because it has a point at the tip of it’s heart-shaped leaves. There are other features that make me less sure. A closer look next spring will hopefully tell.
‘My’ violets are very tiny but I’m not quite as concerned with this as sources vary in their estimation of leaf-width and plant height. (My finger behind the top leaf in the above image is about 12mm wide.)
There is also conflict in my resources as to whether this plant has rhisomes (link) or not (link) but I’m reluctant to dig one up to find out. I’m tempted to do a little scratching next spring however because the absence of stolons is apparently one of the best ways to distinguish it from V. pallens, which is listed in Rare Vascular Plants of Alberta by Kershaw et al. I don’t think it is though, because the ones I’ve photographed have leaves that are slightly hairy on the underside.
Other common names: Hookedspur Violet, Early Blue Violet, Sand Violet, and Western Dog Violet
O wind, where have you been,
That you blow so sweet?
Among the violets
Which blossom at your feet.
The honeysuckle waits
For Summer and for heat
But violets in the chilly Spring
Make the turf so sweet.
Cristina (Georgina) Rossetti
Symbolizing the love of truth, or the truth of love, blue violets feature in many legends. They sprang from the blood of Greek god Attis and from where Orpheus laid his enchanted lute. Zeus created them for Io (the Greek word for violet) after turning her into a cow. Venus beat her rivals until they turned into violets and yet violets came to symbolize modesty or humility for Christians. In Iroquois legend, the first blue violets sprang from where the bodies of two lovers had fallen after being murdered by her people. (source)
Although I realize V. adunca may not have been the exact species to inspire the mythology and literary arts of the past, it’s easy to imagine how any of its sisters may have. I have, so far, only found them on one east-facing slope above a narrow forest ravine. And what a find! What joy to come upon these sparkles of blue among litter of the previous summer’s decaying cast-offs.
With wings lightly bearded at the pale, darkly penciled throat, the soft violet flower stands above juicy green leaves like a diminutive queen above her ladies laden with sustenance. There are at least 15 species of violets in Alberta, all beloved for their charming flowers in various shades of blue, yellow and white. What flower lover doesn’t recognize the five petaled princess: two petals in pairs at either side, a usually striped or penciled lower lip and a spur.
The species name adunca refers to the Early Blue Violet’s hooked spur, which I haven’t (yet) succeeded in photographing.
More about violets in general can be found on the Kidney-Leaved Violet page.
The little Chipping Sparrow is just another common LBJ (Little Brown Job) that we hear all the time and often see flitting around the ground and shrubs but can’t distinguish from all the other LBJs doing more or less the same thing. Although passerine just means “little sparrow” and spizella simply identifies it with a few other little sparrows, it is distinctive once you take a closer look. It’s named for the sharp chip it sends out to let its mate know where it is (its call). Its song can also be described as a series of super-fast chips but a rattle, or single-noted trill is more precise.
Those in the know claim that males who have staked territories near one another impressively develop their one repeated note into individual songs. The Chipping Sparrow’s song sounds a lot like that of a Dark-eyed Junco, but the sparrow’s note is repeated more quickly and is less metallic-sounding. A third sound this bird makes is an extended seep, warning of a nearby hawk or other predator.
The Chipping Sparrow shouldn’t really even qualify as an LBJ since once it turns around, or you can see it from below, its smooth, pale grey breast, along with the dramatic black eye-line accented by a white eyebrow are giveaways. Its orangey-pink legs and feet are also characteristic. Migration takes this bird from far north of here in the Canadian sub-arctic all the way south as far as Nicaragua in the winter, where its bright rufus cap fades a bit and as if taking a tan, its breast and belly become a little darker. Fairly solitary during the breeding season, afterwards these birds form loose groups intriguingly known as a tournament.
Males are quite territorial and will guard their lifetime mate as she builds her flimsy nest and incubates the eggs. Although light can be seen through the loose weave, she indulges her future nestlings with a soft lining of hair or fur. Chipping Sparrows were once known as “Hair Birds” for this reason. Although quite adaptable when it comes to the location for her nest, she prefers conifers (wild or ornamental) and usually builds among thick foliage at the ends of branches not more than 10′ from the ground. Like many other birds, the female develops a fluid-filled bare patch on her abdomen during breeding season that helps to keep her eggs warm during incubation.
Seeds and small insects form most of the Chipping Sparrows diet. It will readily visit backyard feeders where it pays for its dinner by picking off some of the mosquitoes and flies.
In 1929, Edward Forbush called the Chipping Sparrow “the little brown-capped pensioner of the dooryard and lawn, that comes about farmhouse doors to glean crumbs shaken from the tablecloth by thrifty housewives.” Source
Also known as Spoonbill
The first pictures this year of the Northern Shovelers on the marsh near my work were taken on May 21. Two pair, or at least 2 males and 2 females floated, paddled and mostly put their heads down like a snow-plow’s bucket and skimmed the water beneath the surface for nourishment.
As dabblers, Northern Shovelers feed on any little animal or vegetative matter they find in shallow water and prefer marshes like the small wetland I visit most days. Their enormous, spoon-like bill and comb-like projections on the tongue give them the advantage of being able to strain small invertebrates from the mud at the pond’s bottom. The scientific species name clypeata means ‘furnished with a shield’ referring to this duck’s unique bill.
At first it wasn’t obvious that these ducks are monogamous. The four of them seemed quite content to dabble together, but within days it was clear that my little marsh might not be large enough for them all as at least one male would spring from the water towards the other whenever he came too close to his mate. Rising in a rush like a spring, he cut a low, direct path to the intruder, briefly scolding him, “took, took, took”, in his restrained but obviously effective way. Then circling to return and skim the water, with one strong wing stroke he would come to a skidding stop close to his mate. It was comical to see how quickly he would return to feeding as it was all in a day’s work.
Other ducks and even the resident muskrat don’t give him a moment’s pause. I often saw the Shovelers sleeping or preening on a raised mound of muskrat-mud with the much smaller green-winged teal, or sometimes a blue-winged teal close at hand.
Floating, sitting or standing – bright orange legs and feet displayed – the female seemed to be always either feeding or sleeping. The male, in contrast, appears to spend the majority of his time preening himself. Perhaps that’s how he entertains himself while keeping watch.
Almost as large as the Mallard, with a wing span of nearly a metre and a similarly coloured, iridescent green head and neck, the fairly common Northern Shoveler is often at first confused with this ubiquitous duck.
A closer look will end the confusion. As the marsh vegetation grows, it becomes more and more difficult to see the residents but the male Northern Shoveler often stands out with its yellow eyes, bright white breast and belly, and rufous chestnut sides, a fleeting sparkle in the reeds.
The female in contrast, as most female ducks do, blends in well with the vegetation and its reflection in the water with the dappled-looking chevron pattern of her back and wing feathers. I look for her huge yellow-orange rimmed bill shining in the sunlight. The Northern Shoveler’s profile is the give-away.
Now I believe they are nesting. The marsh is quiet. The female should be sitting on eggs in a nest hidden in the thickest vegetation, purportedly away from the water. It’s getting more and more difficult to discern whether there are still two pair in residence. If there are, they are staying well clear of each other as I only occasionally see a lone male to reassure me that they’re still around.
I’m very curious to find their nest since the little wetland is bordered by a thin strip of conifer forest rising right into town. Northern Shovelers are said to nest 75-200 feet from water. If that’s the case, although I am a poor judge of distance, I’d say they’re into the well-worn forest very close to industrial on one side (including an oil well) and residential lots on the other.
For more information on the Northern Shoveler:
For some great pictures of the Northern Shoveler:
Epilobium angustifolium, also Chamerion angustifolium
Other common names: Great Willowherb, Rosebay Willowherb(GB), Blooming Sally, and Common, Perennial and Narrow-Leaved Fireweed
Fireweed is the floral emblem of the Yukon.
It grows throughout the temperate Northern Hemisphere.
Fireweed grows in my gardens.
I let it.
The forty or so years since the forest was cleared to build my neighbourhood has not been enough to discourage this stalwart troop of botanical disaster relief. In fact generations would not be enough, as London discovered when firewood appeared to console and heal the (destroyed) city after World War II. It became known then as ‘Bombweed’ since it speedily transformed bomb craters into sunken gardens.
My garden is disturbed ground. A pioneer species, Fireweed appears wherever the earth has been scraped, or especially burned, leaving exposed soil and an open canopy letting in lots of light. Its rhizomes can extend to about 45 cm. deep, knitting and holding the soil, preventing erosion while other more slowly growing vegetation can become established. The rhizomes are so tenacious they often survive forest fires. They survived the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption.
The flowers vary in colour from pink through purple and rarely white. They bloom on their raceme from the bottom to the top, transforming the profile of plant as they fade and morph into long curved seed-pods.
About 200-500 gossamer winged seeds are produced within each seedpod, up to 80,000 per plant. These seeds can survive up to two years – they do not go dormant – and can travel from 100-300 kilometres on their plumes in the right conditions.
In autumn, the first frosts paint the leaves a rich red, changing the swaths of purple-pink flowers to compliment the firey tamaracks and currant bushes.
Even the most botanically uninterested residents of Fireweed country recognize this plant once it’s in bloom, but in spring and fall it might help to remember that the Fireweed has a uniquely circular vein pattern on its narrow leaves. (The latin angusti, means narrow and folium, means leaf.)
Fireweed is very abundant in the Swan Hills, quickly colonizing after forest fires and logging. It has a relatively long blooming season and is an important source of nectar for honeybees and hummingbirds, and food for moose, deer and hares.
Yet another important role that Fireweed has played throughout its range is its historical importance as food and medicine. All parts are edible. The leaves contain Vitamin A & C and can be eaten fresh or cooked. Like most greens can become somewhat bitter with age. Be aware, though that over-indulgence can be slightly laxative for some people. Use of the flowers range from simple salad garnish to candies and the ambrosial Firewood honey has become a popular commercial product in Canada & Russia.
Medicinally the plant has been used for worm medicine, stomachaches and poultices. The Dena’ina mixed cooked plants into the food they gave to their sled dogs.
Fireweed is so abundant it has been put to such a humble use as surface for cleaning fish and probably rush-like flooring. The stem fibres were used as thread by many native North American peoples.
Even in winter and early spring this plant is recognizable, decorating the clearings with the intricate tracery of its remains.
U.S. Forestry Service Study (very detailed)
Northern Bushcraft: Foraging in the Pacific Northwest
Montana Plant Life
Plants for a Future
Plants of the Western Boreal and Aspen Parkland
Sweetness and Light
Veronica alpina or Veronica wormskjoldii – (I cannot confirm…see Pan-Arctic Flora for more confusion)
Also called American Alpine Speedwell and Alpine Veronica
Poking through tangled grasses and horsetails in the marshy ravine bottom, the tiny blue flowers catch the eye as they gather the blue of the sky to their four-parted corollas. The little cluster sits on the end of the stem like the coloured bead on the head of some of my dressmakers pins that have been bent and warped by my inept use on denim alterations. The delicate flower cluster seems out of proportion to the lanky and hairy stem with its well-spaced lance-shaped pairs of leaves.
Alpine Speedwell is not listed in my favourite plant book and I’ve had a hard time confirming the species. Superficially similar to another Veronica, American Brooklime, it distinguishes itself by its terminal flower cluster and stem-clasping leaves.
I have exhausted sources trying to specify this little plant’s exact identity but am leaning towards Veronica alpina subsp. pumila because of this qualifier:
“The differences between subsp. pumila and subsp. alpina are small but constant in stem usually flexuous vs. straight, upper internodes densely hairy with long (multicellular) hairs vs. sparsely hairy with minute hairs…” (source)
Online sources vary greatly in the species’ range and even its habitat. As well, apart from the comparison above, I have not found good botanical descriptions. As always, I welcome the input of any reader that can help me with this mystery.
Please see the post on a cousin, American Brooklime for details on the edibility and medicinal qualities of the this genus.
Veronica americana (alsoVeronica beccabunga ssp. americana)
Also called American Speedwell, Water Pimpernel
Gently semi-reclining in the shade at the marshy edge of the forest, like a delicate multi-headed princess posing in her mud-bath, American Brooklime soaks languid legs with such lassitude that they begin to take root at the supine nodes, anchoring the languid beauty even more firmly into the soggy soil. Displaying her paired stamens like alabaster eyelashes and drawing her colours from the ground, she paints her pretty four-lobed faces blue or violet, lilac or white, securing her prominence among the transition zone grasses and horsetails.
Looking closely at any plant’s many names and parts of names can reveal clues to its history, mythology, morphology and habitat. Veronicas are named for a Christian saint. ‘Americana’ denotes this plant’s status as a North American native. But most interestingly, I learned about a practice called ‘birdliming‘ as apparently ‘Brooklime’ came from this plant’s muddy habitat, which has been known to catch birds who are unfortunate enough to become mired in it. (You, on the other hand, might know about birdlime if you studied Othello: “I am about it, but indeed my invention/Comes from my pate as birdlime does from frieze…”.)
Botanary gives two possible origins of this perennial species’ peppy alternate name, beccabunga, which appears to refer to the European variety.
“Apparently derived from the German Bachbunge (brook+bunch), Another possible derivation is from the Flemish beckpunge (mouth smart), referring to the pungent leaves.”
All Veronicas are edible and high in vitamin C so were recognized early as a treatment for Scurvy. They have also been used for tea and tonics. Young plants can be added to salads, like watercress, but like many greens they become bitter as they age and should be cooked. Somewhat conflictingly, Brooklime was reportedly used by the Navajo Indians as an emetic (source) so I suspect that as in most things, moderation is the key. Gatherers must also be aware that the succulent stems contain the water that they grow in, so care must be taken to ensure that that water is safe.
American Brooklime is one of two Veronicas I have found in the Swan Hills area. The other is Alpine Speedwell.
Other Selected Sources:
Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases
Native American Ethnobotany
In a corner of our neighbour’s back yard, behind their garage and feet from the standard chain-link fences installed by the oil companies who originally planted our houses here in the 1970’s, hunkers a stunted but stalwart crab-apple tree. Its delicate springtime blossoms and bitter fall fruit go mostly unnoticed, almost hidden as it is among the utilitarian structures of adjoining neighbours’ storage sheds. I can see it though, and I watch it closely at certain times of the year since I know it is a favourite of the properly nomadic, bohemian waxwing.
I usually hear them first, their amicable and indeed garulus gabble precedes the synchronized flight of the flock, gathering for their communal winter foraging in November or returning to town in April to clean out the fruit before setting up their nests high in the pines, deep in the boreal forest.
I’ve seen their call described as abrasive, and indeed some of the audio files I came across researching this article are true to that descriptor. However, even close up I find the sound of a flock whirring through the air or busily feeding on mountain ash or my neighbour’s crab-apple tree, soft and pleasant, comforting even, like the mellow slide and sloosh of a forest stream over smoothed rocks.
With the grace and rarity of Japanese dragon kites, the undulating flight of an ear-full or museum of waxwings (who decided on and who agreed that these would be the collective terms for waxwings, I do not know) fleetingly enliven the early spring and late fall skies and draw me outdoors to clamber through new or rotting snow to visit my neighbour’s crab-apple tree.
Although watchful, with confidence or bravado, these glossily-adorned and elegant beauties have often allowed me to come to within a few metres of them as they gorge and quarrel, and often share the rotting fruit.
Waxwings get their name from the elongated yellow beads that extend from their secondary feathers, but their whole sleek bodies seem expertly crafted from softened wax, or silken fabric, fresh dyed with rich spices and woven more sturdily at wing- and tail-tips; the saffron yellow and Syrian Rue red procured from the masters. Their generic name, Bombycilla, comes from ‘silky tails’, the term directly used for their name in some eastern European languages.
Adroitly darting about on tapered wings, their limber bodies nimbly bending and twisting, keenly intent on nourishment, I am mesmerized by the intensity of exotic colour flashing through the pale winter grays, and entertained by their determination and single-mindedness.
A metre of snow may have covered a winter’s accumulation of dropped fruit, but anything visible is not wasted, the fresh layer easily mined.
Although possibly declining, the bohemian waxwing is numerous and has such a broad range (circumpolar in the Northern Hemisphere) it is considered a “species of least concern” by the IUCN Red List. See the IUCN listing for Bombycilla garrulus and Environment Canada species listing.
Wonders of the Waxwings: Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings by Robin Robinson
Wobbling Waxwings by Next Door Nature
or Common Blueberry, Huckleberry
According to Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack (Hurtig 1977), there are, “About five very similar, low, healthy shrubs found in Alberta [that] go by the common name of Blueberry, Huckleberry or Bilberry. In fact, they are all so much alike that it is necessary to consult a flora or botanical key to tell them apart.”
So it is very possible that my specific identification for this plant is inaccurate and I would only be too grateful to anyone who could confirm or contradict it.
This delicious berry can distinguished from the dwarf blueberry (V. caespitosum) by its slightly taller and more open form, elliptic, smooth-edged leaves and prominent star-shaped calyx. It is also somewhat easier to pick for pies or jams (or eating on the spot, which is more my habit) since the berries are a wee bit larger and more visible among the leaves.
The blossom end of each berry, the calyx, forms the shape of a perfect five-pointed star; the elders of the tribe would tell of how the Great Spirit sent “star berries” to relieve the children’s hunger during a famine. (source)
As a child, I lived for two years in Newfoundland. One of my fondest memories is going out in a “Four-by-Four” with several families to pick blueberries. We were under instructions to make sure most of the berries went into our tins but that was extremely difficult. Large and juicy, these were temptations far too difficult to resist.
These are not those. Whether it is a matter of a differing species or ecosystems, the blueberries around Swan Hills are much more minute. It is rare to find such dense and burdened shrubs as I remember from Newfoundland; berry-picking is a labour of love.
Often after an acreage of forest has been clear-cut and before the application of devastating herbicides, an abundance of shrubs will spring up, among them several Vaccinium species. With an ear always to the sounds around, one forages a patch with caution. This is also the time of year when bears diligently gorge themselves to put in the necessary stores for the long winter ahead. It is not only humans and bears who appreciate this delectable berry. It is also important to birds, rodents and many insects. Deer will browse on the leaves and twigs. The critters return the favour by dropping the miniscule seeds.
But pick you must. Beyond the ambrosial flavour, blueberries and other members of the huge nutrients. It was one of the most important fruits for boreal dwelling native people, who used the plant in many ways. The berries were preserved with a wide variety of methods for winter food. Berries, stems, leaves and roots were all employed medicinally from cancer treatments to “women’s medicine”. The berry juice was and still can be used as a natural dye.family are stong in antioxidants, Vitamin C, manganese and fiber along with many other
Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Derek Johnson et al. Lone Pine, Alberta 1995
Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack. Hurtig, Alberta 1977
USDA Forest Service Fire Effects Information System (FEIS)
Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center (University of Texas)
Native Plant Database
or Linnaea, Deer Vine, Ground Vine, Twin Sisters
Delicate and diminutive, this distinctive member of the honeysuckle family grows with the moss among lingonberry and bunchberry. It spreads along the forest floor on lacy vines, sending up clonal shoots at intervals.The Dena’ina name for this sweetly fragrant plant is “k’ela tl’lia” or “mouse’s rope”, a fitting description of the meandering vines depicted well on this page.
This charming plant is circumpolar, but is distinguished by continent. It is interesting and perhaps a warning for other varieties that the subspecies borealis growing in Scotland is threatened by its increasing inability to reproduce due to the fragmentation of its ecosystem. (Read more here.) It is listed as threatened, endangered or extirpated through much of the United States. (link)
Twinflower was the favourite plant of Carlolus Linnaeus, who established the two-name (binomial) system of classification for plants. It was his teacher who officially named the genus, (whose only species member is the twinflower), after Linnaeus and when the latter scientist adopted it as his personal emblem, he said of it, “Linnaea was named by the celebrated Gronovius and is a plant of Lapland, lowly, insignificant, disregarded, flowering but for a brief time—from Linnaeus, who resembles it” (Wikipedia)
Blooming in the early to mid-summer, the elegant twinflower was used by First Nations people for a calming and healing tea. It likes partly shaded areas where the moss is moist and the shed evergreen needles acidify the humus somewhat.
He saw beneath dim aisles, in odorous beds,
The slight Linnaea hang its twin-born heads,
And blessed the monument of the man of flowers,
Which breathes his sweet fame through the northern bowers.
Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Derek Johnson et al. Lone Pine, Alberta 1995
Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack. Hurtig, Alberta 1977
Common Plants of the Western Rangelands: Volume 3 – Forbs by Kathy Tannas. Olds College, Alberta 2004
Wildflowers of the Canadian Rockies by George & Hälle Flygare. Hurtig, Alberta 1986