Friday, August 5, 2011

Common Yarrow or Northern Bedstraw?

It was a dark and stormy afternoon . . . no, really!  Tuesday afternoon at Colorado’s Golden Gate Canyon State Park was characterized by multiple rain-storms.  It was not ideal tent-camping weather.  Our tent was weather-proof, and the canopy over the picnic-table kept our cooking area dry.  On the other hand, we couldn’t venture far from camp.  Between downpours, my son trotted down to the little creek to float bits and pieces of wood down the increasingly quick current.  I, on the other hand, would wander around the campground, camera in hand, to look at the amazing variety of wildflowers that surrounded us.

I was amazed by the number of different kinds of plants; there must have been twenty to thirty different species within a 50’ radius of our fire-ring.  I’m no expert at botany.  My parents were pretty devoted wildflower people – identifying and photographing teeny little plants in the short grasses on mountainsides.  I dutifully went along – but not much of their passion stuck (at least the details of the plants).  So, a sojourn in the mountains this week brought back a lot of memories and an appreciation of the details associated with identifying the flowers.

There are a lot of plants that look similar!  The one above is known as “Northern Bedstraw”.  It was named/featured on a nature walk at the Visitor’s Center, but it was NOT in my Wildflowers of Colorado field guide.  What that book does contain are a lot of flowers that are similar, from “Common Yarrow” to “Cowbane” to “Caraway” – even “Cow Parsnip”!  I was able to eliminate pretty much all contenders except “Yarrow.”  To an experienced eye, there were probably many differences; I only noticed one frustratingly major one:  the leaves were different on the mystery plant.  And, in our campsite, the overwhelming majority of plants were Common Yarrow.

If I’d assumed, through a cursory glance over all of the white-clustered flowers, that they were all the same, I’d have missed the glory of Northern Bedstraw!*  Circumstances were such that I had the (almost necessary) luxury of delving a bit deeper into the wonders of wildflowers.  And I was reminded that our human tendency to “lump” – whether wildflowers, or people – can blind us to the significant, wonderful, differences found in creation, or human society.   It takes some discipline, but yields great rewards!



*  And, yes, early settlers used the plant as mattress-stuffing, finding it more resilient than regular straw!

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