Wait…what was that?!
Frequently my lead foot (it’s genetic I swear!) and my want to enjoy every plant around me are at odds. At my speeds, you have to have a pretty impressive display to catch my eye! Such was the case with this stunner. I zoomed past it, noticing a flash of blue as I hurried down the back road I had opted for over highway travel. I know, what’s the point of taking back roads if I am just going to fly past all the scenery at warp speed? I don’t have an answer for you.
I continued on a little ways but that blue flash was really nagging me. I slowed down, because at Mach 10, you can’t stop on a dime in case you see another batch of beauty, planning to stop at the next patch I saw. But I only saw one plant here and one there, nothing like the spot of blue that managed to pierce the blur of trees and shrubs that was my adventure home. As is often the case with us speeders, U-Turn it is! I swung around, backtracking, more slowly this time, to get a closer look at this mystery flower.
I am not new to plant ID at high speeds. In my woody plant and herbaceous plant identification courses, we would take field trips to see plants in a variety of settings. All of us college kids would pile into a big white passenger van and think we wouldn’t need to “think plants” until we reached our destination. WRONG! No sooner do we settle into our vinyl clad seats then we start to hear random latin names come flying towards the back of the van out of the mouth of our instructor. As soon as he gets “Quercus alba!” out of his mouth we all turn to the side of the van he is pointing to and watch a blur fly by, in unison our heads turn to the back of the van to capture the fleeting glimpse of scaly trunk and a green blob of leaves through those little square windows. Before we can swing our heads back to the front, another latin name comes flying back and so it goes until we finally reach our destination, heads already full of latin names and class is just starting!
Unlike those field trips in the college van, I am able to go back and take a closer look at the plants that catch my eye. And so I did. This was a new plant for me, meaning I couldn’t identify it right then and there in the field. I didn’t have my field guides or my fancy camera with me but I needed to document this plant and needed to figure out what it was! Geez, I hope this wasn’t one of the plants I was supposed to have learned in college!
Figuring it out.
I knew I was going to have to use some field guides – yes books, paper books – to figure out this plant. So I needed to document the details. In addition to photos of identifiable characteristics of the plant (I did have my iPhone with me) I also noted the following:
– Where was it growing?
Growing in the center triangle of an intersection. Mounded. Full Sun. Dry. Northeastern Pennsylvania.
– What was growing with it?
Lots of ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare), other common roadside ‘weeds’
– What is the date and time?
6.18.14 1:30 PM
– What is the soil like?
Gravelly, dry, large stones, not much organic content
The answers to these 4 questions, coupled with your photos, will help you identify a plant by narrowing down possibilities. They are details you may not think to photograph or be able to photograph, but will be essential when figuring out what your mystery plant is. If you are not a photo taker (this shutterbug can’t even imagine it, but some people NEVER take pictures, of ANYTHING!) make a sketch noting the details so that you will be able to remember this plant when you get to where the identification process will commence.
Sketches don’t have to be perfect or even good, they just have to remind you of what you saw. They need to work for you.
After I have the documentation done, ignoring people slowing down wondering why I am snapping pictures in a big weed patch in the middle of the road, I head home to my books. Sure you can start on the web. Googling a descriptive phrase such as “purple flowers, hairy stem, roadside” and looking at images may get you what you need. This may help you narrow down your search. Use any field guide that you have around or invest in one. If you are going to invest in one, try to find one specific to your region. I find those for North America a bit too general to help me find what I am looking for.
My determination after all this, is that this is Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare). Likes gravelly soils – check! Likes full sun – check! Blooms in summer – check! Hardy in this region – check!
Identification is in the details.
One thing that really helped me figure out this plant was the spotted hairy stem. If you notice details like this when trying to figure out your mystery plant, you will certainly be able to narrow down what Google throws at you.
I know what it is, now what?
Well, I am a little disappointed this wildflower is an invader. (Visit here for general horticulture information about Viper’s Bugloss.) It is native to Europe, probably brought here as an ornamental – who wouldn’t want these flowers in their garden?! Or it may have been brought here along with the European Honeybee, as it is highly prized by them. It has escaped cultivation, making its way it to nearly every state and country, which is why it occurs in an intersection in quantities large enough to slow down a speeding driver. It is a biennial – meaning once it flowers, it will die, leaving seeds to carry on the lineage. They are very deep rooted, which explains why they can tolerate gravelly poor soils. They are able to mine nutrients from the depths of the soils layers and their deep roots don’t succumb to drought as easily as surface rooted plants. From each of those spots on the hairy stem a prickle will occur. This plant will bite and should be handled with caution. Perhaps that’s why it hasn’t become a very popular landscape plant? I did learn that Viper’s Bugloss has some of the smallest pollen of any flowering plant – fascinating! Take a look at these beautiful microscope photos of this plant. It becomes even more fascinating, and beautiful, up close.
No Viper’s Bugloss for Me.
So I won’t be collecting seed from this plant, or running to my favorite nursery for a pot or two for the garden. No, I’ll just have to enjoy the bright blooms from the roadside, perhaps remembering to slow down on those back roads to enjoy the view.