The How and Why Library/Flowers/Section I
|←Nature Study|| The How and Why Library by
|II. Little Lion-tooth (Dandelion) and Its Cousins→|
I. A Wild Garden and its Tenants
This is the story of a wild garden that was found near a public school on the edge of a big city. None of the children had the tiniest garden, and they were not allowed to pick flowers in the park, even to use in the school room for nature study. So this wild garden, where they could pick armsful of flowers, where they could pull plants up by the roots, where they could gather seed cases and cocoons, and watch insects at work, was a wonder and delight.
Even the teachers did not know it was a garden, at first. It was a vacant block of land two hundred feet square. All around it ran a new cement walk. The ground was two or three feet below the level of the street and would cost a good deal to fill in. Perhaps that was why there were no houses on it. The soil was very poor. From the walks the earth crumbled away in steep banks of gravel, sand and yellow clay. Water lay in sunken places, making frozen ponds for sliding in winter. There was a fallen tree-trunk and two or three rotting stumps of scrub oaks, around which mosses and low ferns grew. In the spring the ground was boggy, and scantily covered with ragged weeds and wire grass. Strips of blue grass turf below the walk, were dotted with the golden heads of the dandelion. In the wettest places a few clumps of blue flag lilies and pussy willows were found. Along one bank were brambles that, in June, blossomed the single pink flowers of the wild rose. And there were clover blossoms.
But that was all. When school closed in June the lot was covered with tall, coarse, ill-smelling weeds that gave no promise of flowers. But when school opened in September, the place was a jungle of purple and yellow, with swarms of winged visitors.
On the strip of green sod under the edge of the walks, the dandelions still showed bud and blossom and gauzy seed globe. But they did not take all the space. The grass was thick with the trefoil leaves and round buttons of white clover. And here and there was the glossy-leafed, pink-flowered spike of smart weed. Clambering up the bank grew a strong, rough-stemmed little vine with leaveslike a wild strawberry. At every twisted whorl of leaves was a tiny, star-like flower, as yellow as a butter-cup. It was the cinquefoil. Cinquefoil means five-leafed, as trefoil means three, so the little vine really was a far away cousin of the strawberry. Among the cinquefoil were clumps of mint. Their long, hairy stems and fuzzy leaves were topped with frowzy heads of lavender-pink, fringed with silver and breathing spicy smells. In every corner, and in many a crack of the sloping bank, stout burdocks were rooted. The pinkish-purple-topped green burs, in heavy knots, leaned out over the walk to catch in the clothing of passersby.
Farther afield tall thistles lifted royal purple heads, crowned with plush. They had a soldier guard of sharp lances and spears set on stem and leaf and flower. But, unafraid, wild morning glory vines twined around their spiny columns and hung out delicate pink and red and white flower bells. The morning glories clambered up the dusty stalks, and bloomed among the small, pale, yellow flowers of the mulleins.
In that wild garden were four varieties of clover—the white, creeping clover of blue-grass lawns; the pinkish purple-headed clover of farm meadows; the tall, shrub-like sweet clover, with tassel blossoms of white, and a blood-red clover, with pointed heads like pine cones. The crimson clover is a foreigner. Grown all over Europe, it is not often seen in America. In that wild garden it was a well-born emigrant among hardy and rough American weeds.
Except for the clovers, the smart weed, the morning glories, the white parasols of tansy, the mint and a few fiery spikes of the cardinal flower, the garden was a haze of yellow, spotted with purple. The long plumes of the golden-rod made a background for everything else. Against its feathery masses were set the dazzling yellow of the field sun flowers and black-eyed Susans. Much of the mustard had gone to seed. The tall plants were hung with tiny green pods, but there were still some clusters of yellow, cross-shaped flowers.
Lower down, hidden in wire grass, were yellow-flowered sorrel, with acid leaves that the children liked to nibble. There was many a sturdy bunch of butter and eggs, with their cream and gold, lipped and spurred blossoms set on spikes, the country cousin of the snapdragons of gardens. There were seed spikes and broad leaves of dock and plantain; the peppery seed sprays of the tongue grass, that gave a feast to all the pet canaries in the neighborhood, and the catnip mint that made pet pussies go into spasms of delight. But theseplants only added to the green of the leaves. The purple notes in the riot of yellow were given by the royal heads of the thistles, the reddish purple spikes of the iron weed, and the violet and lavender ray-flowered clusters of wild asters.
For several days the children were puzzled by an odor as sweet as that of lilies of the valley. It could be smelled only at night, when the garden lay dim and dewy under the moonlight. The perfume was traced to weedy stalks with small green-sheathed buds. They were not noticed by day, but opened pale, yellow, five-petaled rose-shaped flowers, after night fall. It was the evening primrose that grew in the shelter of dense thickets of golden-rod and asters. Big moths visited the primrose' by night. In the day time the shrivelled blooms held drops of honey so sweet that wasps with steel blue wings passed all the open flowers by, to drink that nectar.
Above the whole field insects were always on the wing. A little white butterfly was fond of the purple thistle. Bumble bees visited the thistles, the field clover and the butter and eggs. It was very funny to see a heavy, buzzing black and yellow bumble bee drop on the lower lip of a butter and eggs blossom, tip it down and force its greedy head into the long honey-filled spur. Little honey bees liked the white clover best. The golden-rod plumes, when in full blossom and gold-dusty with pollen, were always spotted with little black beetles that could scarcely be shaken off. This same little jetty beetle liked the dandelion pollen, too.
Gauze winged dragon flies darted here and there; grasshoppers by hundreds leaped and clicked their wings, and robins and jay birds from a nearby park made raids on the grasshoppers. A dozen varieties of butterflies were seen by day, and many a moth by night. On every dewy morning the webs of spiders were strung, with diamonds. The caterpillars had spun their cocoons on the stoutest of the weed-stalks, and flies grew sluggish in the cool nights. In dry places, and between the cracks of the walks, were little domes of sand, honey-combed with tiny holes. These were doors to underground houses of red and black ants.
Soon there were many seeds flying about—seeds of the dandelion, the thistle, the golden-rod, the milkweed. There were seeds with tails and wings and gauzy sails, and hooks and bursting pods. Every breeze loosened and scattered them. When frost came and killed the blossoms, the garden was a feeding ground for birds that ate the scarlet hips of the wild roses and the seeds of weeds.One sunny day of Indian summer, late in October, some boys digging for pupas of beetles that had gone to sleep in the ground, found a nest of field mice, and caught a glimpse of a chipmunk on a rotting stump. It was sitting on its haunches eating an acorn from the park. Alarmed by some noise they made, it whisked its tail and vanished. The hole to its underground home was found between the roots of the stump, hidden by feathery ferns and mosses. The school was wild about the discovery. So the teachers got books and pictures, and a dozen rooms were busy for a month studying and writing stories about chipmunks and ground and tree squirrels.
The wild garden furnished this school living things to study all the year around, in plants and insects. Don't you want to know some of the things they found out? You can find most of these plants and insects by many waysides in the country, and on vacant lots in cities. And you can get help in understanding them by looking up their names in this book.