A Silent Firework Display

Over the recent 4th of July celebration I saw, and heard, a great many pyrotechnic displays. It seemed that every backyard erupted with flares, popping firecrackers, and smoke – lots of sulfurous smoke. As darkness fell, the official community firework programs began as rockets were launched high into the night sky and terminated with explosive starbursts.  Like giant sizzling flowers with luminous stems they briefly sprouted and quickly faded. The remnant smoke shadows slowly drifted down and away as new blooms took their place. I was struck how closely these phantom smoke patterns looked like dandelion heads, or to be more specific, like Goatsbeard heads.

I am using floral language to describe these fireworks extravaganzas because they did remind me of several current blooms. A number of summer plants can be viewed as silent firework displays. Although their actual scale is far less impressive than the aerial bombs, on their own terms they are equally as impressive (and visible in full daylight, I might add). I am specifically referring to the pom-pom blooms of the milkweed, the arching spray of the iris, and the smoky puff balls of the Salsify seed head.

The circular flower clusters of the Common Milkweed (see above) are not to be ignored this time of year. Theirs is an explosion of pink. If fireworks, they would explode with a “poofs’” rather than loud booms. They are irresistible to nectaring insects and rare is the milkweed flower that doesn’t have a visitor of two at any given time (such as the Banded  Hairstreak shown below). They emit the heady odor of old lady perfume rather than that of sulfur and saltpeter.

In the category of Roman candle fireworks – those that spray up and out like fountains – the Wild Blue Iris fits the bill. One fine example of this flower caught my eye while walking the backside of Tawas Point over the holiday weekend. While all the tourists were on the Lake Huron beach side, I was seeking inspiration in the marshy wetlands on the wind-protected side of the point. A tiny blue iris, sheltered within the scanty shade offered by a lone willow sprig, stood out on the barren flats.

I was struck by the minuscule size of the flower (see above the scale as compared to the mayfly on one of the petals). I briefly held out hope that it was an example of the precious Dwarf Lake Iris of northern beach fame, but the rare Lake Iris is a much smaller plant overall with blooms only a few inches across. This bloom was more like 3 inches across and the stem about a foot tall. No, this was a perfectly dwarfed specimen of Blue-Flag Iris. Normally these plants would be several feet high with large floppy blooms. It appears that the rigors of open beach life  forced this individual to do its thing on a small scale. It was an exquisite little piece of miniature fireworks.

Perhaps no other plant looks more pyrotechnic than the seed head of the Salsify (see beginning photo). When in bloom, this large relative of the dandelion looks impressive enough with its yellow petals, but is not especially noticeable amongst the summer greenery. The seed heads, however, do command attention due to their large size. They form perfect balls with the seeds attached to a center button and the silky parachutes facing outward – again, like dandelion seed heads, but on a massive scale. When framed in the morning sun, these puffy seed heads glow with a firework-like intensity.

The Salsify heads are, of course, temporary. They are meant to be blown apart by the winds or immediately disassembled by a child’s breath. The Salsify is often called the Goatsbeard, due to the hairy nature of the seed heads, but they are also known as Oyster plants. This name refers to the oyster-like taste of the roots which can be harvested and cooked.  No matter how you look at it, the Salsify is a plant of visual and literal good taste.

All of the above plants are worthy of their share of “oohs” and “aahs.”

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