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Friday, June 29, 2012

Phenology: Of cow parsnips and lightning bugs

My friend Arleen and I like to notice the comings and goings of wild plants and animals. For years I kept a journal of first appearances of welcome spring friends like trout lilies, Virginia waterleaf, and redwing blackbirds.
Some nice Web images of trout lilies. We have the white variety in our woods.
That journal is gathering dust, but I still watch.

It seems that every year is different, judging by which plants thrive in the wild world. One year the climate will favor mullein, say, or bergamot, and we’ll have a bumper crop of those plants. (When bergamot thrives, it’s extra fun because I can say “Look at all the bergamot! And look over there, there’s some oswego tea! Oh, hey – look at all the bee balm! Check out that monarda! That’s a nice crop of horsemint over there.” …And it’s all the same stuff.)
A nice picture of monarda (bergamot, oswego tea, bee balm, horsemint) from the Web.
This year, most plants are coming and going early compared to other years. For instance, I’ve been noshing on wild black and red raspberries during my morning walks, but their season is almost done and it’s only June 29. Typically, we Wisconsinites think of July as berry season. (As I eat the berries, I remember my dad who used to delight in saying “Blackberries are red when they’re green.” Then he’d laugh till he wheezed.)

This year is a wow year for cow parsnip. It’s always a tall plant, but today I beheld a ten-foot behemoth beside the old railroad right-of-way where I walk. I stood in silence and stared.
This photo from the Web gives you an idea of how BIG cow parsnip can get.
Different years can also be hard on certain species. In this year’s dry June, I’ve only seen a couple of lightning bugs. I always knew when it was my son Brian’s birthday, June 28, when I could go outside of an evening and walk through hundreds of the tiny flying lanterns. This year I could have missed Brian’s birthday if I were depending on fireflies to announce it. (Mosquitoes are also rare in this dry heat. Those pore thangs, boo hoo.)

I used to think the noting of wildlife progression was called “phenomenology.” Only recently have I discovered that my watching of nature is known as “phenology.” (Dang, I hate being wrong about a word!) Phenomenology is something else that’s a lot more philosophical. But I still prefer that word with its extra syllable – it’s as fun to say as bananarama or lollapalooza.

One thing is for sure: there’s a lollapalooza of nature out there to behold.


  1. Gail, I see that you're staying ahead of me on the writing. Nice piece!

    Hope you are enjoying your summer.


    1. Thanks Dennis. Are you trying to tell me that you don't have anything to complain about lately (in writing, of course)??

  2. No, just not focused on the writing this summer. Some of us need direction (or a swift kick - writing wise, of course).

    That's one reason why I keep coming back to your class. You need more like me, Gail. You'd fill even more sessions up that way. :)


  3. Well come back any time, Dennis. Next semester is my last semester teaching the Tues. evening class. They're only gonna offer it on campus, not at MFHS. Then second semester I'll be teaching one class only, Wed. afternoon. I call this semi-retirement so I can concentrate more on my writing!