Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Frost Weed Walkin’

Mud Pond, Moreau Lake State Park, NY
November 4th, 12th, and 24th, 2013

Anyone who has followed my blog knows that this is the time of year
for Frost Weed walks.
At the end of October, the leaves fall,
the colors fade,
and the landscape now seems dull and plain.

Then those crisp cold blue mornings come along, and there is something else to watch for.

Regular frost is pretty enough, on what’s left of summer’s bounty --

But what we are searching for is something special.
It's a small phenomenon, nothing grandiose, but for me it's an autumn rite --
it fetches the year about, as Thoreau puts it.

We’ve already scouted out where the plant grows;
it's small and delicate, and blossoms a bright sunny yellow in the summer.

The tricky part is scheduling a hike months later,
and hoping that conditions are right to see it do its frosty thing.
Years ago, I saw it for the first time --and wondered what-in-the-world it was.
That is what spurred me to look more closely into Thoreau’s Journal.
What delight, to find therein a perfect description of what I had been puzzling over!
It felt as if we had walked together on that morning.

Examining closely the base of some frost-weed,
I find in each case a little frost
firmly attached to the naked woody stem just under the bark, having burst the last for about an inch along the stem
and elevated it.
Perhaps this weed dies down slowly,
since it blossoms a second time,
and there is more sap now in the stem near its base than usual, which escapes in a vapor from the stem,
and, being frozen, forms this kind of icicle.
     HDT's Journal, November 12, 1858

From that day on, I was hooked, not just on the Journal,
but on keeping an eye out for other things Henry wrote about, so long ago;  
and conversely, to find some mention in the Journal of things I was seeing on my own.
I'm not sure which comes first – it’s that circle of the-chicken-or-the-egg --
but it seems to work both ways !

A special thank you to Ray Angelo, wherever you are, for that labor of love,
A Botanical Index to Thoreau’s Journals (now online !)
Painstakingly created in the 60’s, it is not just an index to plants mentioned in the Journal, but it cross-references plant names between those used by Thoreau in the 1800’s,
and those at the time of Ray’s index.

Of course, those names are still a fluid thing, and many have changed in recent years. 
(Including the one for Frostweed, which Jackie mentioned to me just last week.)
Even our trusty Newcomb's guide needs updating at this point.

Meanwhile, I am off to go see what Thoreau calls ”the third flowering”
of what was (until recently) called Helianthenum canadense --
Frostweed or Rock-Rose.

Let me know if you have ever seen anything like it in your neck of the woods.


  1. I've never seen this, and I'd really like to. But I don't know if it grows here.

  2. good morning, mr. gnome,
    if you look up Frostweed on the usda map, it shows the plant growing all the way up and around the Georgian Bay... it's just about done with around here, you might still find the plants and note where they are for next year.