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College Park Wild: European vacation!

by Staff

By RICK BORCHELT

Some European spring mints: left to right –Ground-ivy, henbit, and purple deadnettle
Photo credit: Rick Borchelt

It’s barely past snow season, and already stores are stocking displays of sunscreen and sandals for the big March event — Spring Break. But for those of us not so fortunate to be traveling anywhere exotic anytime soon, not to worry: We can experience our own European vacation without leaving our own backyards and local parks.

On a warm day in March, you can step out along neighborhood sidewalks and find early spring flowers nestled in the grass everywhere. And not just ornamentals from the nursery trade, but showy yellow dandelions, bright purple henbit and deadnettle, deep blue ground ivy and sky-blue speedwell. Some have even been blooming off and on during warm spells since Thanksgiving. What do all these festive spring blossoms have in common? 

They are invasive European weeds. You could just as easily be standing on a sidewalk or park trail in Vienna, Paris or London. 

Most of our native wildflowers are not foolish enough to bloom this early in the season, when cold snaps and ice storms are still a distinct possibility. And many native plants need native bees, most of which are still hibernating in March, to pollinate them. 

While these European plants are weeds to us, they are as welcome in the Old World as trilliums and phloxes and spring beauties are here. But once they reached American shores, many of these plants settled in so well they became insidious infiltrators of our lawns and gardens. 

Because they come from generally milder climates, these plants are programmed to bloom during warm winter spells — spells when our native plants are mostly dormant. And they don’t even need to depend on native bees for pollination; luckily for them, another European import stands ready to assist — the western honey bee (Apis mellifera), which is active during warm winter weather. 

So let’s go European sightseeing in the neighborhood.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is easily the most familiar of the European imports. It’s a perennial, meaning individual plants survive year after year, and has the distinction of being intentionally introduced to North America — colonists aboard the Mayflower had dandelion seeds with them. Every part of a dandelion plant is edible, from the toothed leaves for salad to the thick rootstock, which can be made into a coffee-like brew to promote urine flow.

 The leaves are what gave rise to the name dandelion, a corruption of its French name dent-de-lion, or lion’s tooth.  The leaves are grooved to funnel rain inward to the root, a trait that allows it to grow on inhospitable dry banks and in sidewalk cracks. The “flower” is actually many flowers packed tightly together, which you can see most readily when you blow apart the seed globe—every seed started as a single flower in the flat, composite flower head.

If you were a Saxon brewer, you’d know our next aromatic migrant well: ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea). But you’d probably have known it by its other common name of ale-hoof, so named for its use in flavoring ales. 

Ground ivy also made a passable substitute for rennet in cheesemaking and was esteemed for thousands of years in folk medicine for treating a variety of illnesses. These domestic uses led to ground ivy’s intentional introduction to American shores. The dark blue flowers are born in pairs along the vining stem, and like the dandelion, it’s a hardy perennial. 

Two look-alike annual mints also make the list of European vagrants: henbit (Lamium amplixcaule) and purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum). Both sport reddish-purple single flowers, usually clustered toward the top of the stem, and they often grow together in lawns and along roadways. Henbit’s stem leaves have no stalk and encircle the stem; in deadnettle, the lower leaves are always on individual,  distinct stalks. Both plants grow more or less upright instead of vining or twining, which helps distinguish them from ground ivy, which is also a mint. 

The two Lamiums are annuals that germinate in the fall and die by summer; it’s easy to spot the dark green leaves of their overwintering rosettes throughout the cold months. These leaves are superficially similar to the leaves of stinging nettle (Urticaria) but they don’t have stinging hairs, hence the common name dead nettle. 

Perhaps the most exotic stop on our European tour is, as its name implies, more accurately considered Eurasian. Persian speedwell (Veronica persica) was well known to ancient Asian and Middle Eastern apothecaries and flourished in medieval European herb gardens before it escaped into the wild. Unlike the flat flowers of dandelion or the tubular flowers of the three mints, Persian speedwell has an open, sky-blue flower with darker blue lines against a light-blue base color. Another annual, its seeds germinate in the fall, and its tough, light-green leaves persist all winter. We have native speedwells, too, but Persian speedwell is far more common today.

Like all spring breaks, our European tour doesn’t last long — all of these invasive flowers are finished by the time our hot summer weather sets in. But for that brief window in March and April, you’ll be forgiven for humming “April in Paris.” 

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Have questions for Rick about the world of nature in and around the city, or suggestions for future ”College Park Wild” columns? Drop him a note at [email protected].

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