Monday, March 15, 2010

`Its Pretty Little Blue-Veined Face'

Nige made the sun rise a second time Sunday with this dazzling photo of Veronica, known on both sides of the Atlantic as speedwell. Like their lepidopteral cognates, the blues, distinctions among species are too fine for non-specialists to discern, but the genus Veronica has been a reliable sight in the five states where I’ve lived. Thoreau knew them in Massachusetts (probably Veronica serpyllifolia), and readers impatient for spring’s arrival will welcome this passage from the journal of May 27, 1852:

“The fruit of the sweet flag is now just fit to eat, and reminds me of childhood, -- the critchicrotches. They would help sustain a famished traveler. The inmost tender leaf, also, near the base, is quite palatable, as children know. I love it well as muskrats (?). The smooth speedwell, the minute pale-blue striated flower by the roadsides and in the short sod of fields, common now. The sweetness which appears to be wafted from the meadow…is indescribably captivating, Sabean odors, such as voyageurs tell of when approaching a coast.”

“Critchicrotches?” Thoreau means the fruit of the sweet flag or calamus, Acorus calamus, a common wetlands plant resembling cattail, much prized by Walt Whitman for obvious reasons. In 1860, the poet added the “Calamus Poems” to the third edition of Leaves of Grass. In 1882, Whitman’s friend, the naturalist John Burroughs, visited Thomas Carlyle’s grave in Scotland, picked from it “a spray of speedwell” and mailed it Whitman with a letter.

One of Thoreau’s most rhapsodic celebrations of wildflowers can be found in his journal entry for May 8, 1854. Read the whole thing but here’s a sample:

“Lee’s Cliff is now a perfect natural rockery for flowers. There gray cliffs and scattered rocks, with upright faces below, reflect the heat like a hothouse. The ground is whitened with the little white cymes of the saxifrage, now shot up to six or eight inches, and more flower-like dangling scarlet columbines are seen against the gray rocks, and here and there the earth is spotted with yellow crowfoots and a few early cinquefoils…To which is to be added the scent of bruised catnep [sic] and the greenness produced by many other forward herbs, and all resounding with the hum of insects. And all this while flowers are rare elsewhere. It is as if you had taken a step suddenly a month forward, or had entered a greenhouse. The rummy scent of the different cherries is remarkable. The Veronica serpyllifolia out, say yesterday. Not observed unless looking for it, like an infant’s hood, -- its pretty little blue-veined face.”

1 comment:

Nige said...

Well thank you again Patrick - and believe it or not, there's a Thomas Browne connection here. Sweet flag was cultivated in Norfolk, especially as a fragrant rush for strewing on floors, and it spread. Browne says in a letter ' this elegant plante groweth very plentifully and beareth its Jules [the phallic flower-cones you illustrate] yearly by the bankes of the Norwich river... and also between Norwich and Hellsden Bridge, so that I have known Heigham Church strewed all over with it. It hath been transplanted and set on the sides of the marish ponds in severall places of the county...' It is still quite common in the Norfolk Broads.