Green Scene

The great mystery of flowering plants by the roadside

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This column has taken three years to reach you, dear reader.

For two years I struggled with an accurate identification. By the time that was established, it was late in the growing season and I like to time plant columns with blooming time, should you wish to check these plants out for yourselves.

So several years ago, driving north along the Saw Mill River Parkway, I was minding my own business and certainly not anticipating anything special in the way of flowers. If anything, I expected to see the yellow lesser celandines dying back along the roadway.

Instead, I started spotting groups of a white-flowered plant, about 18 inches tall.  The groups became larger and larger until they started filling block-long stretches along the parkway.

I began searching anxiously for a place to park so I could examine them more closely, and take some pictures.

Fortunately, there is a small public parking lot conveniently located at Farragut Avenue in Yonkers with about 16 parking spaces. From the parking lot, you can pick up a trail — South County Trailway — suitable either for walking or biking.

My main concern was the poison ivy that also grows profusely along Farragut Avenue.

That being said, the wild flowers I was anxious to photograph were blooming en masse, north and south of the parking area, creating a glowing field of white.

I stepped out of the car fully expecting to see Queen Anne’s lace, which grows everywhere in neglected open space. Examining an individual plant, I could see a multitude of tiny white flowers forming a canopy-like structure resembling an umbrella over the stalk. This type of flower structure is named an “umbel.”

Queen Anne’s lace does have an umbellar structure, but the flower I was examining was not right. I, therefore, took several pictures, particularly of the leaves and flowers, and sent an e-mail to the plant identification desk at the New York Botanical Garden.

The garden offers many services to the public, and is available for identification questions by phone — (718) 817-8604 — or by e-mail (plantinfo@nybg.org). When I am in need of an identification, I usually send them an e-mail with attached photos of the plant in question along with whatever pertinent information I can add, including where the plant was found, moisture conditions, lighting conditions, and dates of blooming.

I usually get an answer back within a few days. The photos I sent off showed an individual plant, massed flowers and the leaves.

When a provisional answer came back — provisional because the professional manning that desk was on vacation — it said that it was definitely not Queen Anne’s lace, suggesting instead that it might be sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata). Then I received a follow-up e-mail suggesting it might be poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) or spotted water hemlock (Cicuta maculata), both of which are highly poisonous.

For those who remember their classics, the poison that killed Socrates was a decoction made from some form of hemlock. Fortunately, they also sent me a link to a site for weed/wildflower identification to help me further. I checked out several suggestions and found a wide variety of plants — all from the Apiaceae (carrot) family — that strongly resemble each other.

Back I went to Farragut Avenue to puzzle this out. It was definitely not sweet cicely because the crushed leaves did not smell like anise. It was not water hemlock because the leaves were wrong.

And so I went down the list of other Apiaceae options and came up with wild chervil, Anthriscus sylvestris, as my provisional answer.

But I like certitude, so I brought various parts of a plant to the botanical garden and they confirmed that it was wild chervil. All of this back-and-forth clearly makes the point that one should never forage without an experienced professional overseeing the entire exercise.

Wildflowers are frequently vacation goals. Fortunately, they do not exist solely in faraway locations that require arduous travel and careful timing. Any plant that is self-sown is a wildflower, although some are considerably more memorable than others.

I have no doubt that there are many other locations in the Riverdale vicinity which are worth returning to in order to view other wildflowers. If you already have other favorite locations and wish to share them, I would be delighted.

 

Have a thought or comment for Sura Jeselsohn? Email her at greenscenesura@gmail.com.

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