Protecting Pollinators in Your Own Backyard and Beyond

by Mark Miles

By now most people are aware of the fact that honeybees are facing the very real threat of extinction due to the devastating effects of Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which entire hives of honeybees are progressively annihilated by a combination of chemical, biological and environmental contaminants that result from industrial agriculture. This is awful for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that honeybees are primarily responsible for pollinating food crops in the US and many other countries. Their role is so crucial in fact that many foods — including but not limited to almonds, tomatoes, onions, peaches, coffee, raspberries, and cocoa — could disappear altogether with the extinction of honeybees. Imagine going into your local grocery store and not finding your favorite coffee, fresh fruit, trail mix, or chocolate and then realizing that it’s not merely a momentary hiccup; it’s gone forever. Regardless of whether genetic engineering will ever be able to bring a species back from extinction — and it hasn’t done so yet despite the extinction of millions of species in the past century — it will never be viable to bring back every last species of food crop that we will lose if every honeybee dies.

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In the face of this I’ve given active consideration to what I can do to help honeybees, and pollinators in general, to survive in the face of looming extinction. There are many things that we can and should be doing as a society, but I’m only one person and have to deal with the limitations of my constrained economic circumstances. In light of that, I’ve adopted a few tactics to help tip the odds in favor of our essential and underappreciated pollinators: 1) I cultivate native flowering plants in my garden and allow wild flowering plants to bloom whenever possible; 2) I use compost made from my food waste to enrich the soil and make the plants in my yard healthy; and 3) I avoid the use of any kind of pesticide, insecticide, or synthetic chemical on my yard. Almost without a doubt the most important of these three tactics is the very last, since the most likely cause of Colony Collapse Disorder is the use of pesticides on commercial crops, which progressively poisons honeybees over time and annihilates entire colonies with impunity.

Also important however is the cultivation of flowering plants, especially native and heirloom plants, that are specifically suited to particular regions and growing conditions. Even if you can’t get your hands on native or heirloom plants though, any kind of flowering plant (that’s not invasive) would probably be helpful to your local honeybees and would provide an additional food source that could make the difference between life and death for pollinators in your area. To that end I’ve taken a few photos of flowering plants which I’m cultivating in my yard with the intent of assisting our essential pollinators.

One of the most recent additions to my arsenal of pollinator plants is bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), a plant that’s native to North America and produces some of the most brilliant magenta blossoms I’ve ever seen. The plant has been used historically by Native Americans to treat medical conditions ranging from gingivitis to skin infections to fever. Though I haven’t tried it for myself, the leaves of the plant are said to taste like a mixture of spearmint and oregano. I’m not sure how I feel about that combination of flavors, but some Native American tribes thought it was an excellent seasoning for wild game. And there’s no doubt that pollinators love this plant, as I’ve been able to attest in my short time cultivating it.

One of the longest lasting of any of the perennial flowering plants in my yard is white peony (Paeonia spp.). There are two specimens of it, both of which were planted by previous owners of my house at some point in the indeterminate past. They bloom like clockwork every year in early summer, though this year they bloomed a full six weeks earlier than usual. Regardless of their timing, these peonies are beautiful to look at and to smell; they’re also hugely attractive to sugar ants, another kind of pollinator that assists in the opening of peony petals, receiving much-needed nectar in return for much-needed effort.

I must be perfectly honest here; I don’t always allow white clover (Trifolium repens) to grow as much as I’d like. It grows wild here in central North Carolina, and it’s consequently taken up residence in my yard, providing a deep emerald green to the carpet of grass which no other species has been able to compete with. White clover is also a nitrogen-fixer and enriches the soil wherever it’s grown, giving added reason for my affection toward it. Most important however is the fact that it’s hugely popular with honeybees and bumblebees, both of whom frequent the tiny white blossoms with the enthusiasm of children at a candy store.

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Another pollinator plant in my yard — that has blossoms with the color of hot pink and leaves with the taste of lip-puckering lemon — is pink woodsorrel (Oxalis debilis). This plant loves the shady spots around my compost pile and in past years has produced leaves almost of the size of dinner plates — which is coincidentally one among many reason to compost. Even in areas of my yard which don’t have the abundant nutrients of my compost pile however, pink woodsorrel shows her tiny yet vivid blossoms and provides another opportunity for pollinators to get a bite to eat without risking their lives on a toxic chemical soup of pesticides and synthetic chemicals.

For all of my efforts at creating a sanctuary for pollinators in my own backyard, I’m not kidding myself about the future of honeybees, who will face extinction much sooner than any of us would like to think if we don’t act decisively as a society to put a stop to the destructive practices which are threatening their survival. To that end we need to do a few things. 1) We need to hold biopharmaceutical corporations — which are primarily responsible for manufacturing pesticides — accountable for their devastatingly criminal activities. 2) We need to stop the production and use of pesticides and synthetic chemicals for any purpose but especially for dispersal on food crops. 3) We need to support local organic farmers who are doing their best to preserve the health of pollinators and people. 4) We need to get our hands in the dirt and grow as many native flowering plants as we can. 5) We need to show enough love and appreciation for those essential pollinators in our own backyards to help them in whatever way we can. For without them, life on this planet will be a waking nightmare for all of us.

References:

Batsakis, Anthea, “What Is Colony Collapse Disorder — and Is There Hope for Bees?Cosmos Magazine, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Ellis, J., “Why Are Honey Bees Disappearing?” University of Florida, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Sarich, Christina, “List of Foods We Will Lose if We Don’t Save the Bees,” Natural Society, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Shell, Robbie, “What We Know — and Don’t Know — about Colony Collapse Disorder,” excerpted from Bees on the Roof, accessed May 19th, 2017.

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Late Frost with Early Flowers

by Mark Miles

With daytime temperatures in central North Carolina fluctuating between 80° F and 40° F depending on the day of the week, it’s difficult to decide what season we’re in. This is further complicated by the fact that we had frost in March (and may have it again in April), but we had 70° temperatures in January and February. On the whole, one may be inclined to assume that somebody with lots of money and no conscience is presently reverse-engineering the climate.

Still the plants are generally in agreement that spring, however fickle and indecisive this year, has arrived. Truthfully there were distinct signs of it by January, so this should come as no surprise to anyone with half a brain. And while many plants and trees have been damaged or stunted due to the late frost, plenty of others are in full bloom, which recently led me to take photos of the resulting botanical beauty.

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Woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca) has always been a favorite of mine. From my earliest childhood, I’ve made a habit of picking the small crimson fruits in late May to taste the color of the season. (At the rate they’re growing this year, I may be able to pick them by late April.) They tend not to be terribly flavorful in this region, but I wonder if depleted soils are partially to blame for this. Additionally the leaves of the plant have been used to treat cough and diarrhea in historical times.

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Common chickweed (Stellaria media) is considered by many to be a pest, and there may be some validity to that assessment in some circumstances. However the plant is also a great source of nutrition for many foraging animals, including chickens, pigs, and rabbits. Historically chickweed has also been used by humans to treat coughs, hemorrhoids, and sore eyes. Personally I find its most redeeming quality to be the delicate white flowers which are so small they can almost be mistaken for specks of stardust.

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I must admit I’d never seen this particular plant before my March hike at Eno River State Park. Once I’d spotted it, however, I saw it everywhere. In fact it was hard to take a step in some parts of the park without risking the life of one or more of these dainty flowers. Only after a bit of research at a later date did I find the plant’s identity. Eastern spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is a native to this region and also goes by the name fairy spud. The name alone would be enough for me to love the plant, but there’s more. All of the aerial parts of the plant are safe for human consumption and have been eaten by the Algonquin people, among others, for centuries.

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Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

In my yard, I have two examples of peony (Paeonia spp). Due to the late frost and early spring, the leaves and blossoms are frail and skinny, but the plants are doing their best to compensate for their diminished size with an extra dose of magenta along the stems, leaves, and buds. I have a feeling the blossoms will also be diminished in size this year, but that won’t change the fact that peony petals can be steeped in hot water to produce an herbal infusion that’s reputed to be a delicacy in China. To top it all off, certain species of peony have even been used historically to treat convulsions, which makes it the most beautiful anticonvulsant I’ve ever seen.

References:

Dwyer, James and David Rattray, eds.; Magic and Medicine of Plants (Pleasantville, NY, USA: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1986); pp. 138, 339.

Spring Arrives Early, Stupidity Stays Late

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by Mark Miles

It amazes me that there’s any debate whatsoever over the existence of climate change. So much evidence points to the inevitable conclusion that our world is changing for the worst and doing so at an alarmingly unanticipated rate. Let me give a short list of examples. The polar ice caps are melting. Forest fires are becoming increasingly common and increasingly dangerous. Birds are migrating earlier in winter and later in spring. Cold-dependent species are being forced to higher altitudes and are becoming smaller in size. Plants are blooming earlier and losing their leaves later. Parasitic organisms that thrive in warm climates are slowly but steadily expanding their range into previously uninhabitable territory. In short, the world is being radically and detrimentally altered in front of our very eyes, and yet corporate media and the political establishment continue to engage in the highly refined art of calculated stupidity. Even the newly elected American president refuses to acknowledge the reality of climate change and the devastating effect it’s already having on millions of people globally.

I’ve witnessed this change firsthand. In previous stories I’ve mentioned how I’ve been noticing the earlier arrival of warm temperatures, the earlier emergence of hibernating animals, the earlier growth of plants and trees. This year is no exception. On the contrary, it’s been a bigger verification than any year previously. Despite the shortlived snowstorm we had in mid-January and occasional bursts of cold in general, daytime temperatures in North Carolina have lately been hovering in the 50°-70° F range. This is unreal. In the months of January and February historical highs for the state of North Carolina have been in the range of 30°-40° F. Any temperature exceeding 50° F at this time of year is a veritable heatwave. Yet temperatures have exceeded that threshold by 20° F on at least three separate occasions thus far in 2017.

I’m seeing plants blooming now which aren’t supposed to be blooming until March at the earliest. I’ve taken a few photos over the past few weeks to give examples of the unseasonable conditions. Though I’ve tried to make the photos as appealing as possible, the fact remains that warm temperatures at this time of year promote the growth of parasites that can harm or kill plants in the coming year. Additionally the stress which plants endure by virtue of violently fluctuating temperatures can be damaging or fatal with repeated incidents.

More than a week before the first day of February I was taking an evening walk across the railroad tracks to the north of where I live, following the local highway. Passing a law firm, I noticed a shot of yellow to my left between the sidewalk and the road. At first I thought I was seeing things; dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) don’t start blooming in this region until March at the earliest. Yet there at my feet was the first blooming dandelion of the season, a full six weeks early.

On another walk during the same week, I’d made my way past the highway and the local elementary school to the corner of a street leading into one of the first residential districts north of the railroad tracks. I was rounding the corner when I noticed a burst of red to my right. Stopping to inspect, I once again found it hard to believe my eyes. There in front of me at waist-level was new growth on a swamp magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). New growth is rare on these trees before early April. Yet there could be no doubt that new growth was present and that it was a full ten weeks early.

On the same walk I continued toward the local fire station and passed an abandoned house with an uncultivated yard that’s been allowed to grow haphazardly. There are plants of every size and shape, some wild and some domesticated, who’ve taken up residence at this spot. It’s a kind of urban wilderness sanctuary without the usual tending of a garden. By this time I was beginning to expect the unexpected and was less surprised when I saw a cluster of purple blossoms staring up at me. Leaning down to the ground, I found a purple dead nettle (Lamium purpurea)–which is much more eloquently called “purple archangel”–with fresh flowers and verdant stems. Once again the appearance was a solid six weeks early.

During the same week I decided to check my garden for any unusual growth from my herbs. The rosemary hasn’t gone into dormancy for the entirety of winter, which it normally does for at least two months. The sage and fennel didn’t become dormant until December, and with the growth of other plants in the area I expected they would be putting forth their first stems. True to form, my expectation was greeted with confirmation when I looked at my sage (Salvia officinalis) and saw the first new leaves of the season. Sage doesn’t generally start growing until the end of March in this region, so this was a full eight weeks early.

On the same day I decided to check my backyard for any early vegetal risers. It took a little bit of searching, but before long I’d spotted some birdseye speedwell (Veronica persica) between the black walnut tree and my compost pile. I stooped to the ground, in a position that was far more uncomfortable than I care to admit, and took several photos. Despite my happiness at how well the photos turned out, I couldn’t escape the fact that birdseye speedwell normally doesn’t bloom until late February at the earliest, making this appearance a full four weeks early.

All of this is fine and dandy, but there are still people who choose to engage in calculated stupidity by claiming that all of this climate change is merely an aspect of nature, a cycle of temperature fluctuation that has nothing to do with human activity. Either it’s el niño or la niña or a little ice age or a warm spell. Of course this is insanity, but it doesn’t stop people from believing it and from using this calculated stupidity as an excuse to do nothing.

The fact is that industry has collectively reengineered the planet by means of water, fire, and air. By clear-cutting forests and removing the bioregulatory cooling provided by their internal repositories of water, industry has gravely disrupted the natural means of cooling this planet. By burning fossil fuels in refineries, automobiles, and power plants, industry has added an appreciable input of heat to the atmosphere of this planet. And by adding greenhouse-gases to the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, industry has increased the insulatory potential of the climate considerably. It’s the equivalent of turning off your air conditioner in the middle of summer, starting a bonfire in your living room, adding a few layers of fiberglass to the insulation in your house, and then pretending everything is fine. It’s complete insanity.

Of course there’s still a significant chance that temperatures will drop before winter officially ends. If that happens, corporate media and the political establishment will hail it as further confirmation that everything is normal and nothing should be done and we can all go home and zone out in front of our phones. Of course that’s what most people in our increasingly dissociated culture do anyway. And that’s precisely what we need to stop doing, because the fact remains that nothing of a sufficient magnitude is being done to stop the ongoing slow-motion cataclysm of climate change. No one in a position of power is willing to risk that power for the prospect of pursuing a course of action that will be beneficial for people but detrimental to profits. And once again the planet will be the one to pay the price.

And that’s why it’s up to us. The fact of the matter is that if we want to stop this planet from being turned into an uninhabitable wasteland with oceans of acid and continents of plastic, we have to do something. We have to hold our leaders accountable. We have to demand decisive action to stop this ongoing cataclysm before it reaches its conclusion in the extinction of our own species. We have to get out on the streets, stop the pipelines, end corporate personhood, defund polluters, and establish that people matter more than profits. We have to rebuild communities, reestablish alliances, regrow local food networks, support local businesses, foster landbased ethical practices, and make sustainability a way of life. We have to do something, anything, whatever it takes to stop this cataclysm before it’s too late. Because if we don’t, then no one will.

References:

Howard, Brian Clark. “Mountain Goats Are Shrinking—A Lot—Because of Global Warming.” National Geographic. Accessed Feb. 3rd, 2017.

Mooney, Chris. “The huge crack in this Antarctic ice shelf just grew by another 6 miles.” The Washington Post. Accessed Feb. 3rd, 2017.

St. Paul Pioneer Press. “It’s a deadly parasite, and it’s spreading across lakes in the U.S.” The Denver Post. Accessed Feb. 3rd, 2017.

Taxonomic Cornucopia

by Mark Miles

In the spirit of gratitude that ideally characterizes this time of year, I’ve decided to share what I’m thankful for at any time of year, specifically wildlife. Every encounter with a wild animal or plant is a gift and one that’s increasingly scarce in many urban areas. Personally I live in a small town that’s largely rural, but even here you don’t have to look far to find new strip malls, housing subdivisions, and assorted industrial eyesores. Still, there are opportunities to encounter wildlife in almost any region, and each encounter is a reason to be thankful–provided you’re not being eaten for dinner of course.

In September, I stumbled upon this remarkable moth on the siding of my house. I was immediately dumbfounded by the vibrant coloration and markings, though at the time I had no idea what species she was. Despite not knowing the species, I did know the sex from a glance at the antennae–which are thick and furry in males, narrow and smooth in females. It’s easy to remember if you think of antlers, which are morphologically analogous to antennae and which are usually bigger in males than females. In any case, I was able to identify the species after a bit of searching, using the coloration and markings to point me to the orange-tipped oakworm moth (Anisota senatoria).

Though I was thankful to see this little western honey bee (Apis mellifera) a couple weeks ago, I must admit I was pretty stunned. I can’t remember a year in living memory when bees have been active in North Carolina in November. Usually by late September they’ve gone into hibernation. However, with daytime temperatures exceeding 80° F on more than one occasion, it’s not terribly surprising. My rosemary is still more than happy to keep blooming, which gave this worker bee ample reason to make the unseasonal trek in search of pollen to feed her sisters.

Here’s another unseasonal bit of wildlife from the area. In my backyard I have a good amount of sweet violet (Viola odorata) which typically becomes dormant by early October. That’s not the case this year, and it’s only because of last week’s hard frost that most of the flowering plants have started to take the hint that it’s not still summer. Regardless of all that, I’m thankful whenever I see the brilliant white and purple of sweet violet.

For a number of years, the two willow oaks (Quercos phellos) in my front yard have been unable to produce acorns. It started around 2008 when strange markings–which appeared to be holes made by a power tool–appeared on both of them at the same time. For several years after that, my oaks stopped producing any acorns, and it’s only been recently that they’ve become fecund again. Even though these acorns are small for trees that are fully mature, I’m thankful that they’re here to provide food for the squirrels in winter.

Lately I’ve been trying to grow sawtooth blackberries (Rubus argutus) from seed. I gathered some wild blackberries a few months ago, put them in pots with soil, placed them in my sunniest window, and waited… and waited… and waited. After three months, I was pretty convinced those berries were never going to germinate. Then, of all things, I looked at my pots last week and saw–could it be?–actual sprouts. You have no idea how thankful I was at that moment, and I’m not even ashamed to admit it.

At the beginning of November I saw this eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) near the edge of a field that’s been left fallow recently. I thoroughly expected him to run as soon as he saw me, but instead he stared at me with the intensity of a laser-beam. All his senses were attuned to my presence, and I couldn’t help wondering what experiences had led him to be so hypervigilant in the presence of humans. Of course cottontail rabbits have every reason to be terrified of everything since only twenty percent of them survive to adulthood. The vast majority are killed by predators, starvation, poisoning or traffic. In short, their lives are a living nightmare due to the way in which industrial society has decimated their habitats, food-supply, and territorial contiguity. Despite that, I was thankful for the trust expressed by this rabbit who allowed me to be in the same space with him for a few quiet moments.

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Triumvirate of Violet

by Mark Miles

Temperatures have finally started cooling in central North Carolina recently, but there’s been such an inundation of rain that the plants and trees haven’t fully accepted the calendrical arrival of autumn. As such, there are many flowering plants in the area that are still flowering, despite the fact that their flowering time has ostensibly passed. I’m guessing they’re as confused by this climatic havoc as I am. Regardless, their blossoms are still attractive, and they give me an opportunity to share more of nature’s beauty, about which I can’t complain.

The fluffiest of the three flowers in this post is the first. Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) isn’t really blue; it’s actually violet. However, it does have some blue undertones, and its blossoms are immediately recognizable by virtue of their color and texture. I stumbled on this specimen by an old abandoned house not far from where I live on a recent evening walk. The house is abandoned by humans, but it certainly hasn’t been abandoned by nature, which has reclaimed much of the yard. As a result, this blue mistflower has had more than ample opportunity to thrive, for which I’m grateful.

This plant eluded me for the longest time. I actually have it in my backyard, an unsolicited visitor but one which continues to delight me with its azure blossoms and violet undertones. (I know it’s a stretch to include a blue flower under the title of this post, but if someone can label an unmistakably violet flower as blue–cf. blue mistflower–I think I’m allowed a similar indulgence.) I was finally able to identify it after much searching as the Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis), though I personally prefer the name of mouse-ears, which is an alternate title for the plant and much more descriptive of the dainty upward-reaching petals. Though it’s considered a noxious weed in many areas, it does have beneficial attributes. In Japan it’s historically been used to make a striking blue dye used to illustrate traditional manuscripts. In addition it has the ability to bioaccumulate heavy metals to such an extent that it’s considered to be a viable candidate for helping in the cleanup of heavily polluted mining sites.

The last of these flowers is also the most easily recognizable for most people. I found this specimen of hibiscus (Hibiscus syriacus) along the side of the road where it’d been largely overlooked and chopped down nearly to the ground. Nevertheless, this one blossom managed to spring forth in the last reaches of summer with the fading sunlight of my evening walk accenting its delicate hues of violet and magenta. I wanted to take the flower home with me, but I left it where it was in the knowledge that I could find other hibiscus blossoms in some of my favorite herbal teas, to which hibiscus imparts its distinctive color in addition to contributing Vitamin C, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. In nature, then, we find that beauty and health are two petals on the same flower.

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Late Summer Blooms

by Mark Miles

Lately I’ve been noticing the flowers. Despite the fact that the weather has been hot enough to grill a steak directly on the asphalt, I make it a daily habit to go for a walk through my neighborhood. The primary purpose of my daily walk is cardiovascular exercise–I also run twice a week–but my walking time gives me the added opportunity to observe local wildlife, primarily plants. Since I’m not keeping a rigorous pace when I walk, I can easily stop and take photos, despite the odd glance from passersby. Because I live in a residential area and not in the wilderness, most of the really attractive plants I see are domesticated. Occasionally there are wild ones that escape the attention of homeowners, and they’re especially fascinating. Below are some of my most notable plant-finds and late summer blooms from the area.

In my garden, I grow fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) which is a wonderful plant for attracting pollinating insects. The blossoms are sunburst-yellow, and the fragrance is dazzling. Whenever I pass within ten feet of my fennel at this time of year, I can tell simply by the smell. It reminds me of licorice and childhood daydreams. Perhaps it’s for that reason that I cherish it, but I’m not the only one. One of the types of paper wasps that comes to it frequently at this time of year is Polistes dorsalis. (I looked for a common name and couldn’t find one sadly.) The yellow stripes on this beautiful insect are as distinctive as the rust-brown which covers the rest of the wasp. And they’re doubly welcomed by me due to the fact that they take grubs and soft-bodied insects back to their nests to feed their young. Talk about resourceful.

At the Hillsborough Riverwalk, I recently stumbled upon this striking specimen of pokeberry (Phytolacca americana), which grows wild in this area. Despite its resemblance to grapes, it’s not edible by humans. It’s rarely lethal, but ingesting it should be avoided unless one has an extensive background in its preparation and use. It is nonetheless used as one component in the anticarcinogenic herbal supplement called Hoxsey Formula. To my understanding, it was also used by native tribes in this region as a dye due to its striking color and semi-permanence.

Red clover (Trifolium pratense) has to be one of my favorite wild blossoms. Though the leaves of the plant are fairly unremarkable, the flowers are distinctive for the spherical shape they produce. Composed of a multitude of protruding florets, the blossoms are actually many distinct flowers which share a common stem. Their color is also notable for the shade that varies from faint lavender to intense fuchsia. Finally, as if all of these traits weren’t enough to distinguish it, red clover is a nitrogen-fixer–which means that it enriches the soil wherever it grows–and produces the building blocks of coumarin–which is industrially produced as the anticoagulant coumadin.

The last of my late summer blooms is another one from my garden. I’ve been growing this rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) for approximately five years, and it’s one of the hardiest and tastiest plants I’ve ever come across. Admittedly the flavor is strong in large amounts, but the fragrance is utterly transfixing. It makes me think of pine forests in the spring when birdsong is in the air and the sun is high in the sky. It’s really something. In addition it’s incredibly hardy and can withstand intense heat and drought, being a native of the Mediterranean. It has a reputation for being a remarkable memory-enhancer and is quite good as a tea when steeped in hot water with honey. Finally rosemary produces these lovely blooms, which are tiny and delicate but have such character in the gently curving stamens and softly drooping periwinkle petals. As you may have guessed by now, I love these plants.

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