Valerian

Valerian blooms abound



The pungent aroma from hundreds of valerian blossoms fills the air these July days in many places on Mount Desert Island. This is an easy plant to see and recognize. It can reach 5 or 6 feet tall. The large flower head is made up of tiny flowers that look pinkish white. The aroma is strong and not liked by everyone. I’ve heard it compared to “sweaty socks” by some and a lovely sweet perfume by others. Cautiously take a sniff yourself and see what you think. Varieties of this plant can be found all over the world.

Pick some of the plants and let your cat enjoy them. In your garden, the plant is useful in helping nearby plants, for valerian seems to stimulate phosphorous and earthworm activity. Add the mineral-filled leaves to your compost pile. There are all sorts of uses and attributes given to this plant. Right now, it is blooming in fields and along roadsides, so don’t miss it. Valerian is an herb with many uses.

Some friends of mine send me photos of plants and nature for me to identify. Sometimes I know right away what it is. At other times, I reach out to my many naturalists friends here in Maine, and they identify whatever it is for me. Today, I received a very nice photo of the leaves and the fruit of what I believe to be fly honeysuckle. If you happen to have the book “The Plants of Acadia National Park,” you can find it on p. 142. This book is a very helpful one to own if you are interested in plants. I also like the plant book “Trees and Shrubs of New England” by Marilyn Dwelley. My book on wildflowers written in 1997 has good information about the wildflowers found here. In order to get help indentifying plants we see on MDI, it is often very helpful to have many reference books to know how the plant fits into nature’s scheme and our lives. If you’re interested in my book, I do have some copies left for sale. The other books I mentioned are found in local bookstores or online. Our local libraries also have copies to borrow.

On a recent visit to Islesford on our local ferry, I was happy to see several guillemot up close as we moved along. These birds baffled me when I first moved to Maine back in 1972. They look so different in their winter and summer plumages. Now these sea birds are mostly black except for a white wing patch and with red feet and a bright red lining inside their mouths. It’s fun to see them yawn or open their mouths wide, for the color is brilliant. In the winter, these birds look entirely different. The first year we lived here, I thought I was seeing a new species. In the winter, guillemots appear mostly white with patches of black on their wings and backs.

Guillemots, or “sea pigeon” as they are often called, are in our local water throughout the year. They nest on our outer islands or in some hidden spots on the rocks along the shore. You can always see one if you go anywhere along our shores or out in a boat. From a boat, you often get quite close to them. Look for these birds in our local harbors as well. A friend of mine was moving along at a moderate speed in his small motorboat in Bass Harbor one day, and just as he came near a guillemot sitting on the water, the bird took flight and just missed colliding with his head. Instead of flying away from the boat, it flew across in front of him! It surprised them both.

If you have a flower garden, keep watch for the hummingbird sphinx moth. This moth mimics a hummingbird and can fool you the first time you see it. They hover in front of blossoms and appear like tiny hummingbirds. They are strong fliers with very rapid wing beats, and they definitely look like miniature hummingbirds when you first see them. They are fascinating to watch up close. This moth feeds like a hummingbird and hovers in front of flowers showing its heavy body as it sips nectar from the flowers.

A common name for these creatures is “hornworms,” and unfortunately, the larva stage of this hornworm can be destructive to certain crops. Look up butterflies and moths for some nice photos. They are fun to see and watch as they feed.

Wild strawberries are ripe now and delicious. I walked with friends on the Fourth of July, and we enjoyed eating some wild strawberries. They are small but very sweet. We also took time to play some music outside at the edge of the lake, and all the while we played violin, harp and banjo, a white-tailed dragonfly joined us and sat nearby. When we stopped, it flew off. Wild creatures often do respond to music. I know of a brass band that played music at the edge of a cow field, and all the cows came directly over and stood there listening. Elephants will sway to music played for them. Even fish and whales have responded favorably to music. I saw photos of a small symphony orchestra on a barge in an area where whales were feeding, and the whales were very interested. My own dog does not like dissonance and leaves the room when Bartok, Shostakovich and heavy double stopping on bluegrass is being played. She likes waltzes and mellow music of all sorts. Birds themselves are capable of some amazing music; the hermit thrush actually sings a major triad and trills on the upper note at the same time. Cornell University did a study of this and slowed down the recording so you could actually hear it. My goal this summer is to play my violin for some farm animals to see how they respond.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Columnist
Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

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