Flower power

A clump of blue flowers with basal leaves blooming near the Nature Museum
A few days after writing back and forth with several of you about the charm of blue flowers, I happened on a type of blue flower I had never seen, cropping up here and there in the shady, somewhat wild stretch of plantings south of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.  The plants were large and handsome.  They turned out to be specimens of the hybrid bluebell, a cross between the English bluebell (which has droopy flowers growing on just one side of the stem) and the Spanish bluebell, which is shaped just like the plant you see but with blue rather than white stamens.  This Hyacinthoides × massartiana is a sturdy, versatile plant that some gardeners in the Pacific Northwest decry as invasive.

For the moment, however, this plant satisfies spectators’ demand for plants that bloom.  Conservatories and botanical gardens I’ve visited over the last few years are going to greater lengths to make sure that blooming plants feature prominently in their plant displays, even when the balance of blooming plants far exceeds what is “natural.”  It’s a trend highlighting the illusory quality of the “nature” that such institutions present.  To find these hybrid bulbs planted so near the Nature Museum, which is known for its relatively authentic swaths of prairie and woodland plants, was a little disturbing.

On the other hand, now that I’ve seen this strong shade-loving bluebell, I may not be able to resist planting it myself.

Snakes I’ve Seen

Brown banded snake sunning itself on a log“Maybe we’ll see a snake today,” I said as we entered the woods.  A short time later, we encountered some other hikers coming toward us on the trail who said they’d just seen a snake on a fallen tree over the river.   The snake was still there when we got to the log.  I photographed it from the bank.  The creature was probably about three feet long.

Later, I found out that it was a Northern Water Snake (thanks to a video segment from “60-Second Snakes“).  Like every other snake in Michigan (except the seldom-seen rattlesnake, which has diamonds on its back), this one is harmless.  I was at quite a distance from the snake, so I managed to stay still and get a few clear pictures.  The water snake can be identified by its behavior (it tends to hang out by the water) and by its distinctive brown and grey bands.

The head of a frightened Eastern hognose mimicks that of a cobra.It’s quite different when one encounters a snake unexpectedly on a trail.  Back in 2009, I nearly stepped on a large grey snake curled up sleep on a grassy trail.  Only several years later, when I saw a similar snake in the same park, did I learn that it was an Eastern hognose.  This snake, also known as a puff adder, has several distinctive features, the main one being that, when it is startled, it responds by imitating a cobra.  Its head fans out and the snake hisses.  It will even bite but the venom isn’t harmful to humans.  So try to stay calm if you see one.

A large black-rat snake slithering along the edge of the woods.
The black rat snake is another one likely to be found on a trail.  This snake is imposing because it can be up to eight feet long.  And when it sees a human, it is unlikely to move away.  Instead it acts very lazy or may stay completely still, leading to an awkward standoff.  In this case, the snake moved eventually and slithered off into the woods, where it could easily have passed for a length of ordinary garden hose.

Camoflage makes the ribbon snake barely discernible even when it's directly in view.
For the most part, snakes go unnoticed, and that’s how it should be.  Their numbers are in decline because humans who do happen to see them often panic and destroy them.   Sometimes seeing a snake verges on the miraculous, as here where a ribbon snake slithers through a bog.  Look closely at the upper-right quadrant for a glimpse of its distinctive yellow and black stripes, its body an upside-down and backward L.