Wild Flowers





After all the wind and rain, the ground was chilled sludge. Half-rotted leaves weighed heavy, keeping out the faint clear sunlight of early spring. The trees were already misted with green, spritzed for St. Patrick. But I hardly expected to see any wildflowers along the trail.

On the hike out, I focused on the boulders that had tumbled downhill ages ago. Can anything glow greener than moss on a damp rock? That saturated color, velvety against the hard rock, kept me mesmerized. On the way back, though, I watched sunlight skim the dark surface of a wetland, the pools of water nearly a foot deep, the straight thin trunks of bare trees reflected in perfect geometry. Just past that makeshift swamp, I glanced down at a fallen log and grinned. Bright white flowers, a tiny cluster of them, framed by big round silver-backed leaves, some of them curling around the stalks, enclosing new buds. Bloodroot, I will learn later, named for the red juice that infuses their stalks and can dye baskets or repel bugs.

Bloodroot is the only species in its genus, Sanguinaria. The Latin word refers to bleeding. But the adjective “sanguine” has come to mean “optimistic or positive, especially in an apparently bad or difficult situation.” And that is all too fitting.

Wildflowers are simple. They are flowers that grow in the wild, not where we demand them to grow. They do not obediently line our sidewalks, arrange themselves by order of height in our mulched beds, fill our wrought iron boxes, spill over our terra cotta pots. Wild means self-determined, free, priceless. It also means, in this case, flowers that have not been genetically manipulated. And that are native, meant to be where they are, not swooped up and plunked down in an alien climate.

Back home, my husband and I have been working on the native part. We have butterfly weed, so bright it looks like orange fireworks, and gaillardia, and red columbine, and various sunflowers and coneflowers, and evening primrose, and any day now, wild violets and butterweed will dot our less than manicured lawn.

Gardeners are new to this loose, easy sort of planting, which sometimes looks like a raggedy mess, sometimes flies out of control, sometimes was never in control. For centuries, people have sought out the exotics instead, controlling their size, shape, color, and site. We preferred the flowers we chose, cultivated, planted, and tended ourselves, our little works of art. Gardens are full of these strangers, and we feed and mulch them and spray soap against the pests and water every time we turn around. The wildflowers we pull as weeds, meanwhile, are disease-resistant, pest-tolerant, and water-efficient. They give themselves for free, so how could they be worth our attention, ask the capitalists.

But now that things are desperate, wildflowers are here to humble us. They do not suck up precious water from our reservoirs. They create habitat for insects we came too close to wiping out. They are ephemeral, but they are sturdy, surviving the new extremes of climate that scorch or drown the exotics. Wildflowers show us what it means to be resilient.

They will have to work harder to prove themselves in coming years, because climate change is causing the trees to leaf out sooner, and that will shade out the sunlight that coaxes these delicate little shoots to the surface. If they try to come out sooner, they will freeze. If they wait, they will starve for light. They are being squeezed into an impossible sliver of time. Researchers in Concord, Massachusetts, found that in warmer springs, trees leafed out only ten days after the native wildflowers, giving the blooms about 25 percent less full sunlight. Less photosynthesis means less energy, shorter lives, less reproduction.

Weirdly, trees in North America are more sensitive to temperature, so wildflowers here will fare worse than those in Europe, where the trees and flowers are shifting in tandem, and Asia, where the wildflowers are responding to the change faster than the trees are and thus lengthening their season.

But these are here now. I kneel to photograph the bloodroot and, a few yards away, a clump of nodding Virginia bluebells. A deep peace settles in my chest, and a thank you rises. Doomscrolling leaves me grateful for this crazy old world that, like Houdini, keeps managing to reappear.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.