Christmas Count: wren, weeds and celandine
Christmas day: Breakfast consumed, presents opened, the tree not twinkling ( we’ve given it a bye this year) and Baby, it’s warm outside – time for a cookie-redemptive walk.
Never mind the cliches about perpetual November, our bit of the mid-Hudson Valley is eerily like March. At the suet feeder, the usual crew of woodpeckers ( downy, hairy and red-bellied, one of the worlds more misleadingly named birds, photographed here by Edward Russell)
has a visitor, a Carolina wren.
The wren is not mind-bendingly out of place – our 1980 Peterson field guide says “fluctuating in north; cut back by severe winters” – but personally myself I get a chill when I see Carolina in New York on Christmas day.
The forsythia at the top of the hill has been blooming for the last month, so the flowers are no longer a surprise, and neither is the clump of blewits that came up 2 weeks ago in the oak leaves by the roadway. They’re multiply frost-walloped but still hanging on, only slightly the worse for wear.
The weeds never were surprising; cold-resistance is one way biennials like wild phlox, garlic mustard and verbascum get such a jump on everything else. But we’ve seldom seen so much greater celandine , Chelidonium majus, even though, being a poppy , it’s perfectly happy to wax fat for next year in low light and cold-but-not-frozen soil.
The deeply scalloped greens were lovely, and a reminder of how close some weeds are to relatives on the approved list. This one looks a lot like our native woodland poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum, a rarer plant with larger flowers and less aggressive habits.
It’s easy to tell them apart when they’re blooming – C. majus has small, pale yellow flowers; S. diphyllum has good sized, deep gold ones – or when you see seed pods (C. majus = long skinny sticking up; S. diphyllum = sort of football-shaped, drooping ) but at this time of year the best way to know what you’re seeing is to simply assume the worst, especially if the plant is by the roadside or in some other highly disturbed ground.
Greater Celadine is a present from the New England colonists, who brought it as a medicinal herb, primarily for digestive complaints and to cure skin diseases. A brief google suggests the medical theory is hair-of-doggish; the bright orange sap of C. majus is very irritating to the skin and extracts of the plant have been implicated in liver disorders. It’s also supposed to help with sneezing, which I can testify it causes bouts of if you break the stem while pulling it up.
Greater celandine. The sap is as orange as the roots