Just a short ways down the road from my parents’ house is this little creek. I don’t know its name, or even if it has a name. It meanders through the woods to either side of the road, backing or crossing through various properties. I’ve always wanted to wander down its length, but never plucked up the courage to brave the potential encounter with a displeased property owner.
But I admire it from the road’s edge whenever I drive through. My sisters and I would come down here sometimes when we were young. We liked to drop sticks into the flowing water and see whose came out from the other side of the bridge first. I recall occasionally pushing through the vegetation, either to look at the little chub that swam in it, or to pursue the damselflies that danced along the water’s edge. In the summer it’s lined with grasses that will slice your skin like a papercut, so I either had to be especially keen or otherwise well-covered to want to approach the water.
Every spring I watch it for the first signs of the Marsh Marigolds. They’re such a cheery spring flower, and the first ones out in the creek corridor. There were some blooming last week when I visited, and I thought that was the show, but this week they abound. I’ve noticed they’ve been featured on a couple of other blogs that I read, in particular A Passion for Nature; they’re just that eyecatching.
They’re part of the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae. There’s about 2500 species in this group of plants, found across all continents, but most prominently in the palearctic. Most species have flowers that are radially symmetrical (meaning it will look the same from any direction), though a few are bilaterally symmetrical (have a definite up/down/left/right). In their centres they have a small forest of pistils (the female organ) surrounded by stamens (the male organ). Insects come to collect pollen and also to sip at the nectar that is produced at the base of the pistils. In doing so, the pollen sticks to their bodies and they spread it from one flower to the next, easily done when the parts are all so close together.
All members of the family contain a compound called protoanemonin, which is toxic to people and animals. Many species also contain additional compounds, especially concentrated in the sap and in new shoots; buttercups and clematis contain glycosides, which are potent skin irritants, while Marsh Marigold, delphinium, monkshood and larkspur, among others, contain highly toxic alkaloids. One site recommends only handling these plants while using gloves. Some particularly sensitive-skinned people may find that necessary, but I’ve never had any reactions to handling any of these plants (for instance, buttercups – kids pick them and hold them under their chin to see if their chin glows yellow… which means something. Probably to do with love, since that’s a popular theme among kids games. But I’ve never heard of kids getting rashes from doing so).
Apparently these properties make it useful for a number of medicinal purposes, however, including removing warts (I guess the sap effectively burns the tissue). A tea made from the leaves can be a diuretic and laxative (that would be the poison aspect of it kicking in there), and other aspects of the plant can be used to treat fits, anemia, and even the common cold.
They tend to grow in discrete clumps, rather than as broad swaths of the flower. This patch was in the ditch right next to the road and I didn’t even need to get my feet wet to photograph it. They aren’t limited to streamsides, though that’s often the place they’re most easily seen since road bridges allow unobstructed views of the water’s edge. They can also be found in the soggy ground around wetland and marsh edges, and in bogs, fens, and swamps. Partial shade is their favourite, they’re unlikely to do well in heavily canopied forest swamps or wide-open marshes.
In some areas they’re a common garden flower, planted in water gardens or soggy areas. They grow well, and their showy, early flowers make them very appealing. They can be easily bought from many nurseries, and there are a number of different cultivars now available.
According to Wikipedia, the common name, Marigold, apparently refers to the flower’s use in medieval churches at Easter in celebration of the Virgin Mary. However, I know there’s more than one plant called marigold, so it may be that, like the North American robin, one was the species truly used and the others were just flowers that reminded the namer of the first species.
The species is also sometimes called Kingcups, though I’ve never heard them called that myself. They’ve got many local or little-used, but colourful names as well: Mayflower, May Blobs, Mollyblobs, Water Blobs, Water Bubbles, and the Publican, among others. I have no idea where they get “blobs” from, or even Water Bubbles, since they look like neither to me. I would suggest that these names were inserted into Wikipedia by someone as a lark, but I have actually seen them mentioned elsewhere, as well. Wikipedia suggests that these other names for the species reflect the plant’s persevering nature, especially through the often inclement weather of spring. I don’t get that either, really…