Thursday, July 22, 2010
Micro-flowers of City Sidewalks
Racing season starts here in Saratoga Springs tomorrow. For those of you who have no idea what that means, let me tell you, it's a very big deal. Some tens of thousands of horse-racing fans pour into our little city each day, bringing with them their big-city attitudes and lots and lots of cash, which they spend very freely, not just at the racetrack, but also in hotels and restaurants and retail establishments. To express its joy at this influx of cash, the city and its businesses go all out to spruce up the town with masses of flowers everywhere. And yes, all those flowers are pretty. But they tend to stir up the contrarian in me (could it be because I've grown to detest racing season?), and the sight of all that flamboyant flora sends me off in search of weeds.
I don't have to look very far, of course, since the weeds I am seeking pop up in every alley and parking lot and crack in the sidewalk. But sometimes I do have to look very close, since some flowers are so tiny I'm not sure I see them until I blow up my photos of them. This is particularly true of Doorweed, which is just about the tiniest flower imaginable. But for all its minuteness, it's also one of the toughest, seeming to thrive on the hardest-packed dirt and the most-frequent foot traffic. Other common names for this plant are Knotgrass and Ninety-knot, referring to its many-jointed stems.
A close relative of the Doorweed is Lady's Thumb. Its spike of bright pink buds is not hard to see at all, especially since they tend to grow in masses, but the individual open flowers often bloom unnoticed. A distinctive feature of Lady's Thumb is the V-shaped smudge that marks its leaves like a thumbprint and suggests how this plant got its name. Sorry, I didn't show a leaf in this photo, but I did find two tiny pink flowers in bloom.
Another almost invisible flower is that of the Prostrate Spurge, which loves to creep into manicured planters and flower beds and cover the gardener's carefully-applied mulch with its sprawling green leaves and tiny pink flowers.
Galinsoga, too, loves the fertile soil of tended flower beds, but will also grow in exceedingly inhospitable places, like the cracks between pavement and walls. Another name for this plant is Quickweed, which it probably earned because of its ability to sprout from seed soon after that seed is shed, producing several generations in a single growing season.
Carpet Weed is another tiny-flowered, adaptable weed that is equally at home in tended fertile ground or the aridest waste places. I found this growing in gravel that edged a downtown parking lot.
Edwin Rollin Spencer, in his marvelous All About Weeds, calls Carpet Weed "a sprawling example of designed humility. It is so humble that it is a genuine Uriah Heep among plants. It is one of those self-effacing, unobtrusive individuals that gets all and does all it was intended to get and do, and yet no one is aware that it is getting and doing it. The weed is seldom noticed by any one but the man with the hoe, and he sees it only as another weed, or if its persistence and shape awaken a thought as he hoes it into the soil, it is, 'How can such a frail little thing become such a nuisance?' " (Spencer's book, by the way, is a genuine gem. Ostensibly all about plants that nobody loves, the author can barely contain his admiration of the weeds he writes about. A man after my own heart!)
Not all the sidewalk weeds are that nondescript or nearly invisible. Asiatic Dayflower, for example, announces its presence quite vividly with its radiant blue flowers that sparkle with iridescence. If you get there in time, that is. As its name suggests, this plant has flowers that last but a day, and that day ends early, by noon. I think they are worth rising early to catch them in bloom. I have heard that the flowers are tasty, but I guess you would have to eat them for breakfast or, at the latest, an early lunch.
Another flower that is brightly colored but with a tendency to hide from view is Scarlet Pimpernel. I was lucky to find a whole bunch of these blooming near a downtown sidewalk today, although they are so small (1/3 inch) most folks walked by without noticing them. (Some folks, however, might have noticed me lying down in the dirt to photograph them.) Their remarkable color scheme is worth a close look, so be sure to click on this picture.
The open blooms must mean fair weather, since these flowers are known to close up when the barometric pressure falls, earning them the folk-name of Poor Man's Weatherglass. I guess that means good news for the opening day of racing season tomorrow. And for me, too, since I intend to get the heck out of town and join some friends for a paddle.