Do you remember taking field trips to nature centers as a kid? Sticking your hand into the mystery boxes to guess by feel what they contained? My favorite was the taxidermied deer leg, as close as I thought I’d ever get to petting a live one. Don’t think too hard about that, though… There’s something creepy about feeling a limb, only to find it’s not attached to any body on the other end.
I loved those field trips.
Inevitably, it would rain on field trip day, confining us to the dreary building full of dusty, dead animals. But if we did get a chance to walk the nature trail, I would spend the whole hike shushing the other kids. “Be quiet!” I would hiss. “You’re scaring away the animals!” Spotting a deer browsing in the woods, or a fox slinking into the brush would have been the highlight of my life, and those noisy hooligans were the only thing standing between me and wild mammal nirvana. Alas, by the time our little troupe passed, any wildlife had scurried miles away. Thwarted, again.
I hardly glanced at the backdrop that set the stage for our vignette. To us kids, the plants of the woods were homogeneous, green noise notable only for hosting the fearsome ticks that would suck us dry, or the spiders that strung their webs across the trail to tangle little people in sticky, invisible hairs. But my childhood perception was pretty far from the truth. These days I go into the woods much more often – and sometimes specifically to look at plants. They have an advantage over secretive mammals: they don’t run away.
Last week, on a hunch, I took a trip to one of my spots hoping that a particular stand of shrubs would be in bloom. Garden rhododendrons were flaunting their blossoms, and this plant resembles a rhododendron. Seeing the flowers would clinch the ID.
There’s nothing as satisfying as confirming a hunch – the flowers were blooming. Few things are more facepalm-inducing than finding your camera’s batteries are dead. So I went back the next evening, camera charged, and submitted myself to the appetites of a million mosquitoes to capture the evidence on record.
These cloud-bushes are mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), not rhododendron, but they belong to the same family. It’s an evergreen plant, which is one reason I’ve been waiting for it to bloom. It caught my attention a few winters ago, but I haven’t seen it in flower until this year.
If you look closely, you can see the ten pink dots surrounding the center of each flower. These are pockets in the petals that lodge the spring-loaded, pollen-bearing stamens. When an insect bumbles around for nectar, she trips the trap, and gets bashed in the head with a load of pollen, which she unwittingly carries on to pollinate the next blossom. Neat, huh? Nature is so smart.
I have it on good authority that this is the best bloom for mountain laurels here in years. I’m really glad I caught it. Rather than chalk it up to serendipity, being in the right place at the right time, I’d prefer to consider mine an “educated hunch.” That is, getting friendly with my patches of woods opened my eyes to the barely perceptible changes that herald the best things nature has in store. Next year, I’ll come back betting on a better bloom. And I’ll know what I’m looking for.