Pied Beauty April 24, 2008Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Gerard Manley Hopkins, trout lilies
When is a plant a fish, a butterfly, and a poem? When it’s a trout lily, of course! It’s trout (lily) season here at Hawk’s Haven, and our friend Ben would like to sing the praises of these adorable little plants.
Trout lilies are spring ephemerals, which means they pop up briefly in spring, then go dormant until the next spring wakes them briefly once more. The species that’s native to our friend Ben’s Pennsylvania garden is Erythronium americanum, and it’s the one that gives the genus its name. That’s because its leaves, which form a flat, ground-covering mat, are not only shaped like trout, but bear the muted red stippling of a brook trout over their silver-green surface. Though fleeting, these troutlike leaves are delightful. They always remind our friend Ben of a favorite poem, “Pied Beauty,” which I’ll give you in a minute.
But first, let’s talk about butterflies. Trout lilies are true lilies, in the lily family, as they remind us when they bloom. The primrose-yellow flowers hang like bells at night, then open to downward-facing but upturned (or reflexed) lilies during the day, rather like tiny versions of their larger cousins the Canada and Turk’s cap lilies. But because of their small size and the strongly reflexed petals (which are technically tepals, but we’re not going there right now), and the way they’re borne singly on slender stems that vanish against the green background—not to mention the way they quiver in the slightest breeze—they look like a cloud of yellow butterflies hovering over the garden floor.
Hawk’s Haven is blessed with large colonies of these enchanting little plants in both the enormous island bed that defines the front yard and in the wildflower garden that grows alongside our little creek, Hawk Run, in the back. We also have an expanding clump of the hybrid Erythronium ‘Pagoda’ in the front garden. It has taller clumps of handsome rounded green leaves and larger, more striking flowers. Grown alongside the native trout lilies, it simply adds to the clouds-of-butterflies effect. (‘Pagoda’ is widely available; Brent and Becky’s Bulbs and White Flower Farm are two sources.)
The emergence of trout lilies coincides with the running of brook trout and the appearance of the first butterflies of spring, a happy coincidence. They are fascinating plants—they literally trick ants into planting them, for example, and there are many other interesting things that set them apart.
A quick visit with my good friend, Google, turned up a marvelous post on trout lilies on Jennifer Schlick’s blog, A Passion for Nature (http://www.winterwoman.wordpress.com/) and a feature on them among other spring ephemerals on the website of the Pennsylvania Native Plant Society (www.pawildflower.org). Our friend Ben encourages you to check them out. And if you, too, are lucky enough to have these little gems on your property, get out there now and enjoy every moment you can spend in their company! Before you know it, they’ll have disappeared for another year.
Okay, I promised you a poem, and this one’s a doozy. Our friend Ben loves the poems of the English priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and “Pied Beauty” is one of my favorites. Like our friend Ben, Hopkins was intoxicated by words—the sound, the brightness, the force of them. If you read “Pied Beauty” aloud, it will intoxicate you, too. Too bad Hopkins couldn’t have known the trout lily when he wrote this marvelous piece! But I can’t read the poem, or see a trout lily, without the one bringing the other to mind. (Please forgive our friend Ben my Luddite failings here; I simply cannot figure out how to get WordPress to close up these lines. Sorry!)
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: