Botanicals | Nuttall’s Violet

For years, this little flower has been one of my favorites. Nuttall’s violets are diminutive, as far as violets go, and are the only species with lance-shaped leaves – thus, they are impossible to misidentify. IMG_6150eViolets have always intrigued me, and I can probably credit the violet family for first getting me interested in wildflowers. Their little faces are so shy and cheerful, and each species is so unique. I remember the first time I found a Nuttall’s violet, up behind my grandparents’ house, and I came back to their house and looked it up in a decades-old fieldguide of South Dakota wildflowers. I’ve since rejected this book in favor of a much more complete Black Hills and Bear Lodge Mountains fieldguide, which is a fantastic book I highly recommend for anyone looking to grow their knowledge of regional plants! Anyway, this first find was probably 15 years ago, and I have only managed to find any a few times since. Just a few each summer. But this year I have seen more Nuttall’s violets than ever before – they are having a wonderful year!



Fast Spring, Slow Spring

The last few months have been anything but monotonous. From finishing up my job at the clinic in Rapid (a bitter-sweet change), to getting hired on at Dakota Greens greenhouse and nursery in Custer (officially starting work there this afternoon!), to a whirlwind trip to see my sister in Illinois two weeks ago (more on that later – lots of good photos from that trip!), to taking a bunch of online classes and doing hands on training to join the local volunteer fire department (more on that later as well), to prepping my students for their spring piano recital, this has been anything but a slow spring. And then factor in the sweet normalcy of daily life: time spent with family, time spent with church family, hiking with friends, movie nights with sisters and friends, planning our garden, starting to plant…It has been a lovely spring. But I’m still grappling with the fact that it is already May. May 2018. Where does the time go?

Botanically, however, this spring has taken its sweet time. The wildflowers have not seem to come to grips with the calendar, at least not where I live. Part of that must be the fact that we’re at about 3500 feet above sea level. We also had a number of late snowstorms and lingering winter weather. So the wildflowers have been slow in coming around the family property. The foliage is present – one of my favorite ravines will be absolutely bursting with columbine before too long – but anything but pasque flowers have been reluctant to blossom. To my delight, though, a short hike with Trixie yesterday morning revealed a handful of treasures.
IMG_5738eIMG_5711eIMG_5732eIMG_5694ePussytoes, lanceleaf bluebells, shooting star, and wild strawberry bloomed here and there, and I saw one or two stunted star lilies, and plenty of dandelions. They are the heralds. The rest will arrive shortly, turning our Hills into a thriving bouquet!

Canada/Alaska Adventure | Entry #4

“Hey, Aunt Sandy – what do I do if I see a moose?” I was getting ready to take the mail down the road past the sawmill to the mailbox in a light drizzle. “Give it its space,” she said. “And get behind a tree?” I asked. These are important questions when you come from a region without moose.
IMG_9051I headed out, raincoat-clad, camera in hand, into the cool moist of a rainy Alaskan day. Muddy road, dripping trees, everything drenched – perfection. I got down to the sawmill, and on the far side was the road and the mailboxes. Beyond the mailboxes I saw a large shape go running by. A moose. I stopped, waiting to see what the critter would do, and sure enough he crossed the road into the sawmill yard. He saw me, and looked at me as he browsed from the trees. I stayed over in the sawmill for a few minutes, watching him to see where he’d go, and finally I took a roundabout way to the road to get to the mailboxes. He was still there when I came back. For probably anyone who lives in this area, the encounter would have been nothing – but it was a pleasant adrenaline rush for me! IMG_9061eOn my way back to the house, I was thrilled to find a ladyslipper orchid, which I’ve never seen other than in books. The rain makes everything look so alive and rich. Bluebells were spangled with raindrops, some of them open and wide awake, others still taking their time to bloom. IMG_9097eIMG_9086eIt has rained all day today, and it rained more or less all day yesterday as well. Heavy clouds sit over the mountains around us, enveloping us, but every once in awhile, the fog and clouds will lift, enough that we can see the fresh snow on Victory Peak above us, or the etched slopes of Amulet Peak across the valley, though we can’t quite see the top of Amulet because of the cloud cover.

It is nice to have a few quiet days after the craziness of last week. But tomorrow the rain is supposed to let up, and the gardening will begin! Looking forward to a little sunshine!


Old Trails

Sometimes it is the old trails that really are the best trails. There’s always something to keep them from seeming redundant. In the case of the Hole-in-the-Wall trail, part of my love of it is pure convenience – I can tumble out the door and be walking along the trail in 5 minutes, remote, away from anybody, in the quiet of the trees. Part of it is nostalgia, memories, and the sheer beauty of this region. The Hole-in-the-Wall road winds along through ravines and low places, often overlooking or crossing an old nameless, boulder-strewn creekbed that eventually joins up with Battle Creek. This has been a favorite trail since I was a kid – because Hole-in-the-Wall has always been a favorite destination. I’ve written about Hole-in-the-Wall a handful of times before, that it is the site of an old mining camp, that the miners diverted Battle Creek straight through a ridge, creating what we now know as Hole-in-the-Wall. Something about this place is comforting to me, and not long goes by before I get the hunger to hike to it, the same familiar trail, the same trees and rocks and sandy, rocky streambeds. Since I am leaving the country at the end of this week for a month, I wanted to hike to Hole-in-the-Wall again. Mom and Dad were the only ones home, and they agreed to tag along. Off we went, with both of the dogs tearing around, having the time of their lives.
IMG_7859eWe were chatting, watching for fossils and flowers and critters, talking to the dogs casually. I had been down in the creekbed looking for fossils and had just come back onto the trail. Opal, in her play and curiosity, headed down the bank, underneath a still-flowering golden currant bush. We called to her and continued walking, and Mom mused, “I wonder if we’ll lose any dogs to snakebite this summer.” It is just something you think about when you live in rattlesnake country, and this is the time of year they start showing up. Talk about a well-timed comment. No sooner had those words left Mom’s lips, than that unmistakable sound burst from underneath the currant bush – a rattlesnake. The sound is one of those you never forget, unless, of course, you’re my Dad and you can’t hear the snake’s rattle, which is a little unnerving. Well, Opal came tearing up the bank around the other side of the currant bush, apparently unhurt (“Good,” I’m thinking. “How in the world would I have broken the news to Sarah?”). Both dogs were immediately captivated by the strange sound, and then immediately got yelled at.  Trixie, the silly thing, actually responded to verbal commands and getting swatted in the face with a ballcap, which surprised me, since I always assumed Trixie’s first rattlesnake would also be her last. In the next few chaotic seconds we got the dogs by the collars and suddenly felt a little calmer.
IMG_7763eIt’s no fun hearing the snake but not being able to see it. Once the dogs were under control, we got a good look at the rattler, and he was a big one, hunkered down beneath the currant bush in a shaded spot. I honestly have no idea how Opal didn’t get bitten, except to say that God didn’t let her get bitten. Where the snake was coiled was right where Opal had jumped. He was thick and angry-looking, and we watched him for a couple of minutes before continuing our hike, with the dogs leashed this time. Once you see one rattlesnake at such close quarters, suddenly you’re convinced there are snakes in every clump of tall grass, under every fallen log, and in every pile of rocks. A little irrational, but that’s just what happens. Just like when you find one tick, suddenly you’re crawling with imaginary ticks.
IMG_7783eIMG_7842eWe made it to Hole-in-the-Wall without meeting anymore snakes, and enjoyed the flora in the meadow  there. Particularly the Missouri pincushion cactus. We found a whole colony, with little families of cacti all growing in groups, and some beautiful solitary ones with picture-perfect blossoms. Shades of yellow to shades of peach, glimmering and gleaming in the sun. I had never seen so many.
IMG_7797eThere was plenty of dame’s rocket, violet woodsorrel, larkspur and larkspur violets, and even a groundplum milkvetch with its cute little fruits. On the way back, we checked under that same golden currant bush for Mr. Rattlesnake. We tossed a few rocks down the bank into the bush to see if we could stir him up a little bit. He had moved on. Smart snake.

Sometimes it really is the old trails that are the best. Because they’re the ones with all the many, many memories. And I’m really glad we still have our dogs.

Botanical | Harebells

Back in the early 1900s, there was a watercolor artist named Cicely Mary Barker, a contemporary of Beatrix Potter and published by the same publishers who worked with Miss Potter, who wrote poetry and painted pictures of “flower fairies.” I remember poring over a volume of her poetry and exquisite paintings in my piano teacher’s house, during my sister Jessica’s piano lessons. Each of Cicely’s fairies personified a specific flower, and the Harebell Fairy comes to mind with clarity: standing on tip-toe, dressed in a gown that resembles the cup of the harebell, holding a slender stem in her hand with the blossom swaying over her head.Perhaps that book of Flower Fairies is where some of my love of wildflowers comes from. About six years ago, I found a bargain priced set of Cicely’s books (the complete poetry and paintings, I believe), hard-bound and beautifully printed. It took about two minutes to decide to add them to my library.HarebellThe harebell has to be one of my favorite summer flowers. I found this little cluster up in a meadow on the eastern side of the property.

Laura Elizabeth


Botanical | Coneflower Color Morphs

Prairie coneflowers are a common sight this time of year in meadows and along roadsides. Cheery yellow blossoms with a green and brown cone center grace the Hills abundantly. They’re humble little flowers, and an indication that summer is indeed here!
Prairie ConeflowerAbout a week and a half ago, however, I noticed a strange one blooming up near our mailbox along Highway 40 – Instead of sunny yellow, the petals were daubed with a beautiful crimson. Since first noticing the single mutant flower, the rest of the plant has flowered, producing more color morph flowers! What a fun find. When it re-seeds or the plant comes back next summer, I wonder if the color variation will still be present!
Coneflower Color MorphEven “accidents” in God’s Creation can be so beautiful!

Laura Elizabeth