Sunday, May 31, 2015

Summer Snow

     I was having a brief "Oh no! Not again," moment. On Rt. 40 between Argyle and Greenwich I thought I saw snowbanks beside the road. But it was almost June and after last winter we didn't deserve this. Thankfully, I was mistaken. It wasn't snow but a profusion of tall, white-flowering plants that created the illusion.

     Ever the curious naturalist, I pulled over to take a closer look. We all know what curiosity did to the cat and I was about to make my second mistake of the day. I didn't have a field guide with me so I carefully examined the plants, noting the fern like leaves, the ribbed stalk, the flower clusters known as umbels. When I checked my references at home it turns out these are all characteristics of Poison Hemlock. Just ask Socrates what Hemlock can do to you.
     So here I was with no life insurance and lots of exposure to Poison Hemlock. Or maybe not. I wasn't absolutely sure of my identification and this could be Hemlock-Parsley, a non-poisonous but similar looking member of the large Parsley family that also includes the familiar Queen Anne's Lace. There are books and websites galore devoted to poisonous plants and if I survive my recent encounter I plan on reading all of them. On the other hand, if this ends up being my last post, consider my identification verified. Meanwhile, unless you're more botanically confident than I, it might be wise to avoid these plants. It isn't just the winter snowbanks that can get you.

     If you just can't get enough of summer "snow" then Black Locust trees might be your fix. All across Washington County they are dazzling in their white blossoms this week. Oddly, locust is a legume related to alfalfa, clover, beans and peanuts. Most legumes have symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria in nodules on their roots resulting in increased soil fertility where they grow. The locust tree is a member of the pea family, look at its flowers now and seed pods later in the season and you'll see a resemblance to the common garden pea. The flowers, which hang in clusters called racemes, are very attractive to bees. Every locust I looked at this week was buzzing.

     The trees spread by seed and root suckers and tend to be found in groups. Locust Grove Smokehouse just south of Argyle takes its name from one such clump. I can picture other copses of Black Locust on Scotch Hill Road, Owl Kill Road, Co. 59 and Reafield Farm Road. That's just a short list from memory, they are widespread and now's an easy time to find them.

     Locust is an incredibly hard, rot-resistant wood often used for fence posts. When I was a boy over fifty years ago I helped my Dad build fence with locust posts. They're still standing and I still remember how hard it was to drive a staple in them.
     Honey Locust is a closely related tree that doesn't seem to be as common. It has delicate double multiple leaves, curly-cue seed pods and the most wicked thorns imaginable. There was a beautiful Honey Locust by the road just a mile from my farm. I often stopped to admire it, but never hugged it - not with those thorns. Then one day there was just a stump and some sawdust. I guess the road crew thought it was too close, that some drunk might run into it. I kinda hope they got pricked by its thorns. If anyone knows of a Honey Locust in Washington County I'ld love to hear about it before the highway guys do.
     Hope you get out and enjoy the locust/hemlock "snow" (from a safe distance) before it all "melts".

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