How to Know the Wildflowers: Preface

This entry is part 1 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems


It started with a brief, almost cryptic email from naturalist and photographer Jennifer Schlick on January 3rd, with the subject heading “New Year Dreaming”:

So what if Dave wrote poems for these and then Deb made the whole thing into a handmade book?

I clicked on the link and found myself looking at macro photos of 16 native spring wildflowers, almost all of them old friends. Count me in, I said. I’m always looking for good poetry prompts to feed the blog, and these photos were stunners. Somewhere along the line, Jennifer filled in another vital piece of information: that her work was to be featured in a gallery show in Jamestown, New York in May, with frames handmade by a local woodworker. This was a dream whose real-world foundation was already half-laid.

But who wouldn’t jump at the chance to dream of wildflowers in the middle of a long winter? The resulting series, now 24 28 in length with the addition of some photos from Jennifer’s files, includes some of the strongest work I’ve written, which I think speaks to the power of her images. I know from my own dabbling with cameras that photographing woodland wildflowers at all can be a challenge; doing it in such a way as to avoid the easy and the obvious, and draw our attention to the true strangeness of nature, is a feat. These photos compelled me take another look at what had previously been mere fixtures in the landscape, albeit well-loved ones, and to start seeing them as complete beings.

This of course led to research in books and online. For some flowers, it’s the folklore that fascinates, while others’ unique habits or appearances call out for poetic treatment. In my mother’s large library of nature books, I found two old volumes with the same title: How to Know the Wildflowers. Unfortunately, neither book taught what the title promised — since when does mere identification constitute knowledge? But I liked the suggestion that one must learn a method of inquiry specific to flowers. Jennifer herself once wrote:

I can lose hours making my images; an entire day can disappear when I’m in the field shooting. Another day — gone in processing the pictures.

The results surprise me. Where do these images come from? And what do they want me to know?

Unanswerable questions, really, though it’s the job of poetry to try anyway. It would be hard to find a richer subject. Flowering plants are key to most terrestrial ecological communities, and flowers are potent symbols in nearly every human culture. There are more than 300,000 species of flowering plants on earth. Though we speak dismissively of “flowery speech,” as if flowers were mere ornaments, the fact is that without them, we would starve.

The basic fact of flowers’ existence — that they are sex organs — wasn’t understood until the 17th century, and the exact mechanics of flower sex weren’t documented until the 19th century, so for most of human history, poets, along with everyone else, had basically no idea how to know the wildflowers. But now we owe it to ourselves to learn all we can of these most sophisticated and essential of our fellow citizens. Pablo Neruda, an accomplished naturalist, has wowed millions of readers with his line: “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.” To know flowers in any real sense is to understand something of our place in the cosmos.


Note: If you are a publisher and would be interested in bringing this series out in full color, let us know. We’re planning to do something through Lulu, but will entertain other offers.

Spring Beauties

This entry is part 2 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems


Spring Beauty by Jennifer Schlick
Spring Beauty by Jennifer Schlick

Claytonia virginica

Prim pink pinstripes
beckon from the wet soil
beside the creek. But like
most beauties, they’re choosy
about their suitors,
unmoved except by just
the right bee visiting
in just the right order:
one day they hokey-
poke their stamens out;
the next, it’s the pistel’s turn.
Petals close even for a cloud.
And when flowering’s done,
they do their best
to pass for grass.
Who wouldn’t be wary
with such a large
& edible heart?


This is the first of what I hope will be a series of poems about spring wildflowers native to eastern North America, in response to macro photos by naturalist and blogger Jennifer Schlick. Even though Jennifer calls herself WinterWoman, and I’m quite fond of the season too, I figure a few of you might be ready to think spring thoughts…

Red Trillium

This entry is part 3 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems


Red Trillium by Jennifer Schlick
Red Trillium by Jennifer Schlick (click to see larger)

Trillium erectum

Wake-robin, red trillium,
stinking Benjamin: a three-faced flower.
It lives by subterfuge.
Its stem is really a scape,
its leaves are really bracts,
sessile, glabrous, cuneate
or attenuate at the base,
broadly ovate, with margins
entire & acuminate apex.
The rank-smelling, self-
compatible flowers alternate
petals with sepals, three of each,
& six stamens ring the single,
three-part pistil.
To us they are wake-robins,
flushed with good cheer,
but they tempt frustrated
Calliphorid flies with the scent
of a blood-red corpse,
& get pollinated for nothing.
Later they will lure ants
with an edible bait, the elaiosome:
a fleshy appendage to the seed,
itself inedible — designed
to be discarded in the colony’s
rich compost, & there take root.
So many masks!
Will the real Trillium erectum
please stand up?

Painted Trillium

This entry is part 4 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems


Painted Trillium by Jennifer Schlick
Painted Trillium by Jennifer Schlick (click to see larger)

Trillium undulatum

Painted lady, late riser,
you rush out of the ground,
get pollinated on the fly
sometimes before
your petals fully open,
so that within one day
after emergence they are
already turning translucent,
your pink makeup fading
as the light-flooded
forest dims to leaf-out.
But that’s your true
element, isn’t it?
The shade.
Even unpollinated
you are wavy, vague
around the edges,
ready to let go of
all color & get
the opposite of a tan.
Only a well-timed cold snap
can hold your snow.


This entry is part 5 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems


Miterwort by Jennifer Schlick
Miterwort by Jennifer Schlick (click to see larger)

Mitella diphylla

After pollination, the flower cup
turns into a blunderbuss,
expelling its tiny seeds
when a raindrop strikes.
Was it this, or the flower’s
fringe of white feathers,
that made the Iroquois think
they could drink a decoction
& rid the body of bad luck,
expel it in their vomit?
Sometimes, too, they’d use it
to bathe a gun that didn’t
bring down game
or ease one drop
into a sore eye,
surgical as the tongue
of a halictid bee reaching
between the lashes.

Marsh Marigold

This entry is part 6 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems


Marsh Marigold by Jennifer Schlick
Marsh Marigold by Jennifer Schlick (click to see larger)

Caltha palustris

Nectar oozes from a pair of pits
beside each carpel in the crowded flower
variously known as water gowan
or meadow gowan, marsh
marigold or Marybuds,
water dragon, solsequia,
great bitterflower, king cups,
crazy bet or leopard’s foot,
May blobs or water blobs,
mollyblobs, pollyblobs,
cowlily or cowslip,
soldier buttons, palsywort,
water bubbles or water-goggles,
meadowbouts, capers,
water crowfoot, verrucaria,
gollins or the publican,
drunkards, gools.


This entry is part 7 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems


Goldthread by Jennifer Schlick
Goldthread by Jennifer Schlick (click to see larger)

Coptis trifolia

White-lipped anthers
purse & part.
The sturdy styles end in hooks —
it’s not enough to be adhesive.
Nectar pools in the petals’
yellow spoons
above a white dish of sepals,
which shatters in the first hard wind.

This blooming is so early & brief,
the leaves are better known:
like the glossiest strawberry leaves
you’ve ever seen
growing in the least fertile,
most pristine parts of the forest,
far from plow & logger,
from fire & subdivision,
just under the scruffy
surface of the world
threading a net of gold.


This entry is part 8 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems


Foamflower by Jennifer Schlick
Foamflower by Jennifer Schlick (click to see larger)

Tiarella cordifolia

An island in a mountain stream
covered with foamflower
is scoured down to the rocks
by a hundred-year flood.
But some piece of root
or stolon must persist, for
within three years the rocks
are hidden once again by a crowd
of maple-shaped leaves,
paired like open palms around
the tall flower stalks—
a gesture of acceptance
or of letting go. And these
their offerings are nothing less
than galaxies. White stars
storm in the heat of sex—
long male streamers,
a sharp-tipped female flare—
& pull wandering bees
into their orbit. Creation
& destruction follow each other
like night & day: even as
the oldest florets begin to collapse,
anticipating the inward turn
& the dry rattle, pubescent buds
at the top of the cluster
are brimming with the light
of imminent dawns.

False Solomon’s Seal

This entry is part 9 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems


False Solomon's Seal by Jennifer Schlick
False Solomon's Seal by Jennifer Schlick (click to see larger)

Maianthemum racemosum (A.K.A. Smilacina racemosa)

False lily-of-the-valley,
false spikenard,
false Solomon’s seal —
well, what the hell
is it, then?
Fleshy rhizome
used despite the lack
of Solomonic imprimatur
to treat insanity, rheumatoid
arthritis, tapeworms,
snakebite, backache,
the common cold
& even conception
if taken the morning after.
Plant whose stalk tacks
back & forth from
leaf to ribbed leaf,
whose immature flowers
take their good green time.
Branched bloom,
white spray where all
the beetles wallow.
Hypogynous flower
with six inconspicuous tepals.
Ovary: superior.
Style: short.
Stigma: obscure.

Early Meadow-Rue

This entry is part 10 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems


Early Meadow-rue by Jennifer Schlick
Early Meadow-rue by Jennifer Schlick (click to see larger)

Thalictrum dioicum

Dioicum: separate houses.
Here the male
& there the female.

Clouds rise from the male plant
& dangle yellow weather.
From the female plant,
ten-fingered hands stretch
in all directions.

Without scent or nectar,
what flying thing will be
their go-between?
There’s only the wind.

But this meadow-rue
has abandoned the meadow,
so it must flower early or
the canopy will close
& the wind
will retire to the treetops.

The leaves aren’t even
open all the way,
& already the male flowers
are vanishing

into the fertile household
of the earth.