When something is totally ubiquitous, after a while, you tend not to really see it.
I thought that all my socks had vanished, but was actually seeing them every day. My mind saw them as part of the carpet pattern, and they were re-discovered, when I tried to vacuum.
Around here, soybeans are everywhere, a sea of dull green, and I instinctively turn my eyes away, before the monotony swamps my brain. Likewise, by September, I start to turn a blind eye to the ceaseless tide of hogweed, floral boardshorts, and political corruption. All these things were once thought to cause irritability and watery eyes, but it turns out, it’s the ragweed.
But…goldenrod, that’s different, we notice it. A commonplace weed, it’s actually beautiful, and we’re glad to see brightening up every nook and cranny.
It likes old farms in particular, and fallow fields are a sea of yellow this month.
I’d definitely consider it for our state flower, instead of the rose. Several states have already adopted it, but it seems a perfect emblem for New Yorkers – goldenrod ain’t subtle, but it’s strong, reliable, cheerful, and suffers from gall.
Several types of parasitic pests lay eggs in it’s stem, causing a round swelling, but the goldenrod is tough, keeps growing, and just shrugs off the irritants.
Sure, it’s kinda galling, nobody likes a freeloader, but inna couple a weeks, a parasitic wasp’s gonna bore in, and lay eggs on the larvae, so the parasite’s got its own parasites, and the laugh’s on them. Like the poet said:
Big fleas have little fleas
Upon their backs to bite ’em;
And little fleas have lesser fleas
And so, ad infinitum.
(Jonathan Swift, by way of Ogden Nash, thanks Steve for the attribution)
I think I’m posting pictures of Rough-stemmed (why are plant people so judgmental, it’s stem is fine!), but it might be Tall, and there’s also Dwarf, Canada, Dixie, Wand-like, Zigzag, Downy Ragged, and many many more, at least 130 in the U.S.. So there’s a great number of varieties, of course, and I’m no expert.
Even with things you enjoy, it can be hard to spend time with experts, when you lack their expertise, or don’t share their enthusiasms.
Botany, quantum physics, Seinfeld trivia, Pez dispensers, motorheads souping up vintage V-8’s or Straight 8’s, whatever, I don’t know about any of this stuff. Movie buffs want to discuss Harry Dean Stanton’s uncredited appearance in a ’59 Disney TV show. Jazz fiends whisper (smoking Gauloises in cellar clubs will do that to you) about a legendary late-night set, pressed in Bucharest on shellac, only 11 copies, with Gene Krupa getting wasted and banging on a steam radiator. It’s all Greek to me, or as a Greek would say, Αυτά μου φαίνονται κινέζικα.
And likewise, hiking with people who majored in Vegetation & Herbage- you tend to feel a bit left out, if you’ve never studied Horticulture, or Advanced Shrubby Stuff. I invested in “The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers” but haven’t made much progress yet (although, delighted to find a plant called “Herb Robert”! Great! ) but got distracted by Sweet Cecily, scared by Spreading Dogbane, and had to take a break after Goat’s Rue. A sad goat is just upsetting.
But listen, when it’s Upstate Plants, I can help other non-experts who want to join in the conversation.
Have you ever seen the old SNL skit from the ’70’s, with Dan Akroyd, Gilda Radnor, and Chevy Chase, doing a commercial for “New Shimmer” – – a non-dairy dessert topping and floor wax, all in one? Well, almost every plant in Upstate NY is a combo-product like that! If you want to join in these vegetative conversations, you just throw out “Didn’t the native Americans make that into a tea?” and “Didn’t early settlers use that as a laxative/dye for clothing?”
You’ll be right 99% of the time. Pretty much anything growing around here, you can stew it up, have a cup of bracing tea, rinse your hair, dye your socks, cure a kidney ailment, uplift & improve a testy or laggard disposition, and then celebrate it all with a really bang-up purgative.
Each and every wiry, raspy, deep-rooted weed I’ve ever yanked out of a pea patch can be rendered into a poultice, tea, tisane, tincture, or infusion that’s Certifiably Beneficent for Child, Beast, and Registered Holstein. Or else quite toxic. That’s why you go and consult an expert.
But generally, when we’re looking at wildflowers, the subject of car tires doesn’t come up.
And so, I learned something recently – – Thomas Edison was cultivating goldenrod plants, to produce rubber. He tested 17,000 exotic plants, and then found the most promising was in his backyard – goldenrod. He grew a variety about ten feet tall, that produced 12% latex. When his pal, Henry Ford, presented him with a Model T, it was running on goldenrod tires.
“Natural” rubber can be made from a number of plants, including dandelions, and my personal favorite, gutta-percha, a tree grown in Malaysia. I’ve constantly run into gutta-percha in histories and old stories – – electrical insulation, golf balls, buttons, and of course, “mourning jewelry,” for when Victorians wanted something dressy, but suitably depressing and creepy-looking. The walking stick used in the nearly-fatal attack on Senator Charles Sumner, in 1856, was made of gutta-percha, and snapped, saving Sumner’s life.
The goldenrod rubber process didn’t really take off, but the research was revived during WWII, when our supply of natural rubber from SE Asia was cut off.
Wikipedia indicates goldenrod rubber is “excessively tacky,” but extreme tackiness is very much in vogue, so perhaps its time has finally come.
Ok, back to my plant studies. Tonight’s episode: Saga of the Silverleaf Scurfpea. Hope everyone has a great week.
P.S. I forgot to mention, this was also one of my favorite crayon colors, when I was a kid. I looked it up on the Crayola site, and found Goldenrod Yellow has been in the lineup since 1957… and then ran into car tires again. Crayolas were created by the Peekskill Chemical Co., which originally made paint, lampblack, printing ink, shoe polish. In the early days of automobiles, tires were white, but Peekskill discovered that adding their carbon black to rubber, made tires last ten times longer. I remember thinking I should mention this, but I’m not sure why.