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Blooming Wild

by Dave Yanko

When a friend waters her plants, she likes to say she's "giving them a drink". The notion that watering plants is akin to slaking the thirst of a bunch of characters hanging out in the backyard makes more sense to me after having read Saskatchewan Wayside Wildflowers.

This new guide to the smatterings of colourful flora that stream by as we drive the highways and grid roads of Saskatchewan confirms for me that wildflowers, like their domesticated cousins in the city, are indeed distinctive characters. You just have to get to know them.

"Just as recognizing your friends Pat and Carole means more than seeing two strangers, recognizing wood lily and common yarrow means more than simply seeing 'some plants'," author and botanist Linda Kershaw writes in her introduction. "…Getting to know common flowers gives us a glimpse of the great variety of life around us, even in roadside ditches.''

- images courtesy Lone Pine Publishing
Yellow Lady's-Slipper

Take, for example, the Yellow Lady's-Slipper, an erect perennial and member of the orchid family with wide distribution across North America. The mouth of the yellow slipper provides easy access to bees and flies. Once inside, however, the insect is trapped. Its only escape is to slide down the smooth, steep walls of the flower's interior to an alluring strip that leads, via the female and male parts of the flower, to the exit.

Another character is the Early Blue Violet, which is supposed to have one of the loveliest fragrances of all flowers in the wild. But the violet is a tease: Its perfume seems to disappear just as it's being savoured. In fact, it's not the flower's scent that fades but, rather, our sense of smell. The Early Blue Violet emits a chemical called ionine that temporarily flicks the switch on our olfactory glands, resulting in an on-again, off-again aroma.

The wildflowers guide, another in a long series from Lone Pine Publishing in Edmonton, provides two main ways to identify wildflowers discovered in the field. The quickest and easiest is by comparing the subject flower to the 112 small photos near the beginning of the guide. The flowers are grouped according to colour and a quick survey of the images may be all that's required. If not, there's an illustrated wildflower key that asks a series of questions that narrows the field.

Fringed American Aster
Fringed American-Aster.

Each flower receives a one-page treatment in the 21.5 X 14 cm (5˝ X 8˝ inch) guide, which has a water-resistant cover and a ruler printed on the back. A photograph of the plant and a close-up shot of its flower complement Kershaw's brief description of its noteworthy characteristics, which may include unusual physical features, its use as a food or medicine, or even its otherworldly use in the occult. One of the most elegant wildflowers found in Saskatchewan is the Saline Shootingstar, a highly variable blossom used by women in some First Nations tribes to try to control men.

The Greater Bladderwort traps and eats tiny waterborne creatures.

At the bottom of each page is a description of the plant including its leaves, flowers and fruit, as well as information on when it blooms and its typical habitat and distribution. Long on experience with plant and flower guides, Lone Pine is practical in accommodating people who may wish to pick wildflowers for bouquets, pressings or for transplanting into their home gardens. A recommendation on whether or how many wildflowers to pick is included for each species and there are sections at the front of the guide on difficult-to-identify floral tricksters and plants dangerous to touch or eat.

Wild parsnip roots are thinner and more aromatic than their domestic counterparts, according to Kershaw, but they're quite edible as a sweet vegetable when picked after the first growing season. Just be careful not to confuse parsnip with the similar looking Spotted Water-Hemlock.

"One rootstock can kill a horse,'' she writes. "Children have been poisoned by using peashooters made from the stems."

Information on traditional uses of these wild plants by First Nations peoples provides some of the most interesting reading in the guide. Some tribes believed horses gained endurance when smoke from a smouldering American Vetch plant was blown into their nostrils, while other tribes produced a love potion by steeping the roots of the vetch.

Marsh Marigold

My only disappointment with the guide is the listing of Saskatchewan's floral emblem as the Wood Lily instead of the Western Red Lily. An editor at Lone Pine says a number of entries in the Saskatchewan guide appear in guides for other geographical areas. While local reviewers help insure the guides are in tune with their respective regions, this item was missed. It will be corrected in future editions, she said.

I don't know whether I'll ever be "giving the grass a drink" when I turn on the lawn sprinkler. I do know, however, that I can no longer hike past a cluster of wildflowers without taking a closer look at the colourful characters. Guides like this one can help give us a deeper appreciation of the natural world we inhabit.

Saskatchewan Wayside Wildflowers, by Linda Kershaw, $16.95 (soft cover), Lone Pine Publishing, Edmonton, AB

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