Friday, March 25, 2011

Another Kind of Oenophile

In keeping with my attempts to require the onset of spring, I've dipped again into my photo archives and found this Hooker's Evening Primrose with an insect guest hovering over it. The scientific name Oenothera elata, and the generic name derives from a word meaning "wine." Apparently the fragrance reminded an early botanist of wine. I've gathered lots of lore about this plant which I'll add here later. For now, let me just say I woke up to another foot of fresh snow, snow electricity, a demise of our front yard plum tree and two out of three birches, followed by more than two hours of shoveling the white stuff. My springtime fantasies were renewed when I arrive at the school parking lot, the place where I've recently photographed earthworms, to find a robin tugging at a work that was clinging to a crack in the pavement. Pretty tough worm. It didn't break, but eventually lost its grip and snapped into the robin's face which made her very happy. Even while my home town is under four feet of snow, I manage to find symptoms of spring. Meanwhile, I've included here two close relatives of Hooker's Evening Primrose. The second photo from the top is Birdcage Evening Primrose, and the bottom one is Fireweed. These as well as Fuchsia are all in the Evening Primrose Family, Onagraceae. Evening Primrose family lore will be posted here later.
Here I am a couple of days later (3/27/11). Having trouble "reining it in," which may be the title of another essay forming in my mind. Having morning coffee with friends/colleagues, discussing writing and the various challenges writers encounter. I was thinking about the assortment of facts I have discovered about the evening primrose family, and how I would organize them into a coherent essay here. Our discussion was about "writer's block." I think I have the opposite problem. Thus, my idea of "reining it in."
One friend's jacket had the label "Charles River." It set my mind on fire. Ridiculous, and I was drinking decaf! Immediately a map of Cambridge Massachusetts, cameto mind, and host of memories from my one year of college in Cambridge. Crossed the bridge from M. I. T. to B.U. many times. But, those particular memories don't belong here. Had practically nothing to do with natural history. Then, I revisited my memory of Charlestown, Mass., where my dad spent time in a naval hospital during WWII, and Charleston, SC, a sister city of sorts, where I met my wife. Ironic that her grandparents were a Bay Stater and a Palmetto Stater, just like us. Anyway, while we were talking about writer's block, my mind was racing, probably writing essays, based on this little label that said Charles River.
I don't think I've experienced writer's block since high school, and even then, it was mostly a response to an assignment I didn't like. When left alone, I wrote quite a bit. Since all of my writing on this blog starts from an observation in nature, sometimes preserved by photos, there is no shortage of "material" to write about. It may take some imagination to develop prose from these observations, but it seems to me that's easier than purely imaginative writing, such as much fiction and poetry.
I think a naturalist is one who notices a lot, and possibly is more inclined toward curiosity. I've been curious about nature as long as I can remember, certainly since elementary school. I cannot imagine being otherwise. The other day I was horrified when I heard an artist say he has "never been inspired by nature." This artist clearly has developed a high degree of drawing and painting skill and lots of his work includes studies of human anatomy. I wonder if he ever experiences "artist's block." With the abundance of human anatomy in the world it seems he could never run out of material. But, what to do with that skill? With some artists and writers, the pressure to earn money often enters the picture. One's motivation for certain kinds of creativity may be compromised, if that's the word, by the commercial motive.
Now, in the spirit of reining it in, let me return to the Evening Primrose family.
I found that Oenothera is derived from a couple of Greek words meaning "wine" and "seeker of." Apparently, the roots of some species of Oenothera gave people the desire for wine. Some members of this family are poisonous, so I wouldn't advise experimenting before you acquire a lot more knowledge about this than I currently have. Besides, I've never had the need to artificially stimulate the desire for wine. Another genus in this family is Epilobium, which includes Fireweed and Fuchsia. I think the Latin describes something about the position of the seed pods. The latter plant is named after a German botanist, Fuchs.
Most species in this family are pollinated by moths. This makes me wonder if the hovering insect in my top photo might be some kind of moth.
A fascinating species of Oenothera I've seen in Sierra Valley, eastern Plumas County, is Birdcage Evening Primrose (middle photo), and it is so named because then the flowers and leaves wilt and fall off, the remaining stems dry out and curve inward so a cluster of them resembles a birdcage. For those overly influenced by the concept of "original sin" and all its attendant pathologies, this plant is sometimes called "Devil's Lantern." Sad.
By the way, in pursuit of the etymology of Oenothera, I came across some alternative suggestions for the origin, such as "donkey catcher," "wine seeker," and "a plant whose juices cause sleep." I cannot imagine what the "donkey catcher" reference might be about.
Last, but not least, the genus Clarkia, is in this family. I written here before about Farewell-to-spring, and Diamond Clarkia, two common examples of this genus, and I won't repeat that material except to say the name comes from William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
This has not been a tightly-woven essay, although that may come later in some other venue. It has been fun, however, sharing my musings. Can't wait for the snow to melt so I can see these flowers again.

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