“Today is the Fourth of July!”—“You lie.” That is the fabled call of my uncle (in a tunnel) and the response of his echo.
Other than that and a few family birthdays and anniversaries, July is just a stretch of more-of-the-same. It is not June, with its surge of excitement, or August, bringing fear of summer’s end. It is somewhere in the middle, in a long expanse of summer.
But for my husband and me, there’s one exception to July’s broad uniformity: first flowering dates.
We have a quaint hobby of recording the first date of flowering for the plants that grow in our valley, near Alsea, in the Oregon Coast Range. The hobby grew from our personal lifelong compulsions to identify plants, and our desire to get to know the property we bought together in 2010.
At every weekend visit, we pull out our list to check what is not marked but could have flowered already, and what else could flower in the upcoming days. Then at lunch and after dinner we read the list to one another, and write down dates for everything new. The next day before we leave, we will make sure we visited all the plants we could. If we missed some, we will dispatch one or both of us for a quick check for the plants, and their flowers. We must look! It is our fun.
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The weekly quest for open blossoms gives my year a certain momentum. As this plot shows, the first blossom may open in November (see my post about that), after fall rains have started. Blooming picks up in January with a whopping eight species—and that, in itself, has been a surprise to me. But April and May are peak: on average during those months, more than more than two species have their first bloom every day. Two per day? That means if we leave the cabin on a Sunday and return on Friday, ten species may have begun to flower since we left, and four more may join them before we leave on Sunday–week after week after week!
July and August, are typically dry, each month with less than an inch of rain, and so it is not surprising that the number of first flowering dates declines in July and August. It declines further tails in August and September, and then stops. Done.
Rains start up again—2.5” in September, and 6” in October in nearby Alsea. And in November, with more than 14” of rain in a typical year, the blooming begins again.
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Likewise, our quest pulls me forward day by day, even in the good old steady month of July.
For example, if our list may say that pearly everlasting can be blooming, so on a Saturday we may check the three places where it has grown, but all we find is a few flower buds. We check again on Sunday, but see the buds haven’t done much. We check the next Thursday because we visit for another reason, and we convince ourselves that by the end of the day the floral buds will be open. But they are not, and so we check at our next visit, Saturday. Finally, we see stamens that have pollen that comes off on our fingers, or styles that look developed. (Our criteria or what counts as blooming is a little different for different plants.)
We write the date in the blank on our list. We feel good. Our anticipation has pulled us forward in time.
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Here I share that same July that I just described as lacking in landmarks.
On average, on two-thirds of the days in July, one species could open its first flower of the year. Seven of these bloomers are natives and thirteen are exotics (non-natives). On top of that, there may be first blooms from another four planted species, one native and three exotic.
Our July Natives:
Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea): Makes great dried flowers, even right there on the hillside. We treat it with familiarity, and just call it “Pearly.”
Short-styled thistle (Cirsium brevistylum): We see its rosettes of foliage every year, but we’ve only seen its blossoms twice.
Rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia). An orchid—but the flowers aren’t showy (they’re in the pale green-yellow spike in the photo). The leaves—rubbery, splotched—stop us in our tracks. It’s very abundant on one wooded hillside, but absent everywhere else we have looked.
Floating marsh pennywort (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides). The flower is well hidden just below the pond’s surface in this aquatic plant. This plant was hard for us to identify. It’s in the same family as English ivy and Schefflera.
Tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis). This plant is in the same “tribe” as dandelions and lettuce. In its first year, it has a basal rosette like a dandelion, but the next year, it spikes into a festoon of foliage and little purple-blue composite flowers. After it dies, those lifeless spikes can persist through the winter, like quiet gray ghosts.
Common goldenrod (Solidago elongata). Showy. We have only found one on our property, so we snitched a little seed from nearby abundant path. We hope it will grow up some time soon.
Oregon stonecrop (Sedum oreganum). What’s not to love about a succulent that survives on cliffs and dry places? (no photo) This is a native that we planted. We are trying to introduce it in habitats where it could have grown naturally. Ironically, most of the individuals we have put in are shrinking.
Our July Exotics (Non-natives):
Powell’s amaranth (Amaranthus powelii). In the veggie garden.
Stinking chamomile (Anthemis cotula). In the gravel road or barnyard.
Field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis). I love it for those twisty flowers that open into morning-glory disks and the stems that spiral upward—although I do not love that it is here.
Toothed coast burnweed (Erechtites minima). Our original specimen plant was quite the mystery. We brought a flowerless piece back and got help identifying it. We are seeing more since we thinned part of the forest.
Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum). All sorts of fun! The leaves look like toad skin, and the pairs of leaves make cups that water can pool in. The flowers, such a pretty lavender, bloom first from the center and then continue in a wave upward and downward. Sometimes the seeds germinate right on the head in the winter.
Peppermint (Mentha piperita). An invasive weed, with striking foliage with an underlying black tinge. Smells great when we walk through it. I often slip a leaf into my mouth to suck.
Yampah (Perideridia gaidneri). We’re still not positive of this identification. Whatever this plant is, it takes two years to flower, and then dies. The seeds/fruits don’t look quite right, but we think this has to be what it is.
Wild basil (Satureja vulgaris). Another invasive, and like peppermint, quite pretty.
Woodland groundsel (Senecio sylvatica). A nice slightly-fuzzy leaved composite that could be easy to just plain not notice, but it’s quite common.
Black nightshade (Solanum nigrum). This plant teases me into thinking it will make little eggplants, but it doesn’t.
Sandspurry (Spergularia rubra). Tiny, and only graces us with blooms when the sun is bright. I can come back earlier or later and can’t find it anywhere, and the leaves are so tiny, the plant sort of disappears.
Pale mustard (Descurania). Oh, there are a lot of mustards. This is just a tentative ID because we need floral parts in lots of stages. The tractor seems has clip it before we the fruits developed, the two times we have seen it.
Tarweed (Madia sativa). Gooey, sticky, hairy leaves! We pull most of these tarweeds up, but let a couple bloom first because they really are otherworldly.
Yarrow (Achillea margaritacea). Gray foliage, fine, like filigree. Some of our flowers are pink, but most are white. They bow gracefully when a breeze tickles the meadow. And yarrow feels like an old friend.
Our July Planted Exotics:
Shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa). A common ornamental in western gardens (no photo here).
White thyme (Thymus). Same ole’ that we have in our garden in Corvallis (no photo).
Lemon balm (Melissa officianalis). Our predecessor planted this invasive plant—we’ve been pulling it up everywhere except one spot inside a fence. The foliage is aromatic (mint mixed with lemon), and bees visit the flowers in large numbers.
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Regardless of our daily energies, it is hard not to be driven to look for these flowers. They are so varied, they offer such diverse displays, they lead is to nooks that are practically unreachable—and they also provide us with such puzzles. On a Friday night, we may argue whether we can count that slightly-open bud–when we know full well that we cannot. The suspense! We will wonder why a plant is late this year, or early. We will laugh at our far-flung hypotheses. We know that the plant knows the answer, but that we do not.
Once a species has bloomed, and once we have recorded a date, my husband and I get a satisfaction. With our monitoring, we have a feeling of belonging to the world, rather than resistance to it; of concordance, rather than shock—in July, and when July has passed, in August. Then September. Then October, then November. December. January and February and March, and the big months of April and May—and June. And then July again.
We have a handle on something, my husband and I. We have a handle on something in this astonishing-—and sometimes unpredictable, sometimes unpleasant, and quite often deeply satisfying—world.