There is a fundamental difference between bird watchers and botanists: where they cast their eyes. Since mine are usually looking down, you can list me in the latter group.
It was a dead giveaway.
My companions all gazed upward, scanning the trees and the sky for signs of life. But my eyes were looking down. It wasn’t so I could watch my step on the uneven trail; it was so I could peer at the plants.
This is why I can’t pass for a stalwart birder.
It isn’t that I don’t enjoy a wandering warbler or a rousing robin, I just find myself even more fascinated by flora. And I am a fan of not stepping into a hole, tripping over a log or squashing some scats.
Last weekend, a walk at Waskosim’s Rock Preserve yielded more than just a few feathers. The ground was gorgeous. Among the newly growing greens was a pale purple flower showing off its blooms.
Wild geraniums are making a special splash in our woodlands. These spring ephemerals are short-lived lovelies, with flowers that last less than three days. And while they are absolutely of the plant persuasion, they have a stronger bird connection than I had imagined, and they might even be able to catch the attention of those upward-looking birders!
Here is the avian angle: “Cranesbill” is another name for a wild geranium, and it is so called because of the structure of the plant’s fruit capsule, which emerges after the flowers fade. The capsule is a five-part structure that holds the plant’s seeds, and it resembles the bill of a crane.
In an ingenious way, this structure clutches the seeds (as a crane’s bill would hold food) and contains the pent-up power to disburse them.
And, like a bird, the seeds have the power to fly! The pods are spring-loaded because of their curvature, and will expel the seeds up to 30 feet from the mother plants to circulate them far and wide.
Even more impressive is that after this flight of fancy, the cranesbill seeds can crawl. Each seed has an awn, or tail, that can curl when dried and straighten when wet. Again the spring-loading motif comes into play with this plant. The curling and straightening of the tail provides serpentine movement to propel the seed, enabling it to creep a short distance beyond where it landed. Who needs to soar when you can catapult and crawl to your destination?
These lovely plants even rival the plumage of birds. The green of the leaves contrasts with the pale purple flowers; but best of all, perhaps, is the pigment of the pollen. While most plant pollen is yellow or orange, cranesbill flowers are among the few plants that have beautiful, rare blue pollen.
So, while I will enjoy my ground-gazing, I may try to win over some converts from the bird corner. Root for wild geranium to boast some of the beauty of birds and make a great showing. It could be argued that there are a lot of commonalities between the two, since this plant’s colors can’t be beat. Add in its seeds’ ability to fly and its birdy name, and you have a quarry that doesn’t require binoculars, early rising, nor the worry of disappearing from your line of sight. A perfect addition to anyone’s life list.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown. Her first book, Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature, is due out in June.