Car-Window Botany

ONE thinks of the botanist as in silence and solitude wandering by some forest brook, or penetrating into almost impenetrable swamps, or climbing rocky mountain paths, lured on by the hope of finding some rare and curious flower. But I in my own experience have had some of my best finds from the windows of a railway train.

It was with people sitting all around me, and the engine puffing noisily away on an up grade, that my delighted eyes first fell on the one-flowered pyrola. The railway cutting had been made in the heart of the deep forest, and as the bank settled down, some of the rarer and shyer forest growths, such as groundpine, arbutus, and pyrola, in the course of years had slipped over the brink of the cutting and were now part way down the bank. Inside the car were tired and grimy faces; just a few feet outside were forest freshness and greenness, and the white blossoms of the pyrola with their delicate flush.

Sometimes there is no bank on either side of the railway, and from the car window one catches glimpses into the edges of forests, or looks down upon swamps and small clear ponds, or gazes across broad level meadows; but more often one’s view from the car window is confined to the narrow ditch of water just beyond the road-bed and to the sides of the cutting just beyond the ditch. Even in that confined outlook there are always possibilities; and it was in just such a ditch of water, as our train slowed up on the outskirts of Buffalo, that I saw growing great numbers of what looked like miniature calla lilies. There were the same golden, erect spadix, and the same ivory-white spathe rolled back in the very curve of the spathe of the calla lily; but the flower was not one quarter the size of the calla. As usual my botany was in my handbag; and the temptation to make a quick dash from the train, to try to secure one specimen for analysis, was almost irresistible. But I did resist the temptation; for the bank was steep, and I never could have climbed back in time if the train had started while I was trying to secure my flower; and a lonely woman would have been left in the dusk, watching the train bearing her friends vanish in the deepening twilight. But the small white beauties were never forgotten, and years afterwards I found the flower, arum palustris, growing in a swamp not many miles from my old home.

One July day I came down from Quebec to Portland on the slowest of trains. The road ran for much of the way, first on one side, then on the other, of the Chaudiére River, but never far out of sight of its clear brown waters. Fortunately for me, our locomotive used wood for fuel, and consequently every few hours we would stop at some great woodpile in a forest clearing while the trainmen threw a fresh supply of wood into the tender; and some of the passengers took advantage of the stop to make short explorations into the forest. About mid-day, as we were riding slowly along, I began to notice a pink-purple flower that was new to me, growing here and there in rather marshy places. Shortly after I had first seen the flower the added slowness of the train showed that we were coming to another wood-pile. The instant the train stopped I was out of the cars, over the low rail fence, and picking my way carefully from grassy hummock to grassy hummock; and soon I had found a specimen. Upon analysis it proved to be calopogon, familiar to all New Englanders from childhood, but new to my Ohio eyes.

I have never made any formal herbarium, and the only botanical record I have ever kept consists of the date and place of my first seeing the flower written opposite its scientific name in the margin of the pages of my old school-girl’s copy of Gray’s Botany. But that is the only record one needs to whom all the flowers one knows are either old friends or new acquaintances, — in either case distinct individuals. Often, as I have been turning the pages of the old botany in a bit of analyzing, I have stopped at the page on which is written, opposite the scientific name of the calopogon, “Saint Henry’s, Canada, July 11, 1884;” and across the more than twenty years that lie between, I smell once more the balsam of the Canadian forest, and see the amber-brown waters of the Chaudière River, and hear the shouts of the trainmen as they throw the great sticks of wood up to the tender; and giving color to all this mental picture is the pink-purple blossom of the calopogon.

But all trains do not have the accommodating habit of stopping for wood just after you have seen a strange flower; in that case, all that you can do is, take the best mental landmarks you can, and then at the first opportunity go back for your specimen. One summer I was going down on the express from Philadelphia to Cape May. As you near the coast the road runs through very level country, and between the railway and the pine wood lies a strip of marshy ground about forty feet wide. Each year, as I go back to the sea-coast, I watch eagerly for my first sight of the two characteristic flowers of the Jersey coast, the swamp mallow and the sabbatia. On this particular morning I had already seen many of the great mallows with their rose-pink flowers, so like those of the hollyhock that not even the most careless eye can fail to notice the family resemblance; and I had welcomed them as a sure sign of the fastnearing seashore.

Now, with my face, as usual, close to the window, I was watching the sparse marsh grass most narrowly to see if I could detect amidst it the pink starshaped flower of the sabbatia. Suddenly the marsh grass was set thick with spikes of yellow flowers, just rising above the level of the grass. There was only that one hurried look as the train went by; but from that look I felt almost certain of two things: the first was that I had never seen that flower before, and the second, that it must be close of kin to an old flower friend of mine, the white fringedorchis.

Then and there I determined to get that flower, and the first thing was to make sure of its location. At first this seemed almost hopeless, since for miles back we had had that narrow strip of marsh grass flanked by the unchanging pine woods; but in a few minutes our road passed under another railway; here was one landmark, and in a couple of minutes more we went past a way station slowly enough for me to read the name on the board; now I knew that I could find my plant. The nest day we took one of the local trains from Cape May, got off at the station whose name I had read, and started down the track. After a walk of a mile we passed under that other railroad; and about two miles farther down the track I saw again the yellow spikes of the flowers barely o’ertopping the grass.

It had been a hot July morning with a sultry land breeze blowing, and as we walked the three miles down the unshaded track, we had weariedly and unavailingly slapped at mosquitoes at every step. All of these discomforts together had not daunted my courage; but the swarms of mosquitoes that arose buzzing at my first step into the marsh grass made me draw back to the comparative security of the railway track, with the feeling that no flower could repay one for facing those swarms. A second look at the yellow flowers growing not thirty feet away gave me fresh courage and I started again. I was as quick as possible; but when I was back once more on the track, this time with my hands full of the flowers, face and hands and arms were one mass of blotches from the mosquito bites.

Upon analysis the flower proved to be the yellow fringed-orchis, the handsomest species of its genus, and the one most closely allied to the white fringed-orchis. Our train had been running about forty miles an hour; I had never even known that there was a yellow orchid, but in that one quick glance from the express train the unmistakable family look of the orchis had shown.

Success and pleasure in car-window botany depend not so much on a scientific knowledge of structural details as on the ability of the eye to recognize at a glance the characteristic effect produced by a mass of details. It is this ability which enables you to be sure that you recognize the faces of old flower friends in the hurried glance cast from the window; which enables you to tell with certainty gray-blue clump of houstonias from gray-blue clump of hepaticas, windswept bank of purplish phlox from windswept bank of wild geranium; and it is that same ability to recognize the characteristic effect produced by a group of structural details which enables one to place without analysis the new flower in the right family.

I have always been secretly very proud of the certainty with which at the first sight of the yellow flower I felt that it was an orchis, but all my feeling in connection with it is not that of pleasure. Certain flowers always recall to me certain sounds; in most cases the sound associated with a flower is the one heard at the time at which I first saw the flower; and to this day, with the thought of the yellow fringed-orchis is inseparably joined that most persistent and irritating of sounds, the buzzing of the mosquito.

But the true history of a car-window botanist is not always a record of successful achievement, of the triumphant finding of his flower; he also has his haunting disappointments, his glimpses of strange flowers which he is never afterwards able to place. One July day, riding through northern New Hampshire, I saw just over the fence at the edge of the woods a tall plant, evidently some kind of a lily. It bore a single dark orange-red flower, which did not droop as do the flowers of the meadow lily, but stood stiffly erect. I have never seen that lily since; though never does a July come, especially if it is to be spent in a new place, that I do not think, “Maybe this year I shall find my lily.” Perhaps, after all, such experiences are not to be classed with the disappointments either of life or of car-window botany,— is it not rather true that to both they give zest and expectancy ?

The charm of such botanizing is not alone in finding or in hoping to find some new flower; even more enduring is the pleasure that comes from the recognition of the faces of old friends in new surroundings. An April day’s journey was made one long pleasure; for the swamplike ditch just below the road-bed shone golden with the intense yellow of the marsh-marigold, an old friend from my earliest childhood; and when the railway ran half-way up a hillside, I saw amidst the dead leaves of last year the little clumps of the clustering blue hepaticas, and recognized even in those fleeting glances the singularly starry effect produced by the numerous white stamens; and as the train crossed over the creeks, that flow over rocky bottoms from out the hemlock woods, I saw in the opening up the creek bed the June-berry trees in showers of white bloom, looking doubly white against the dark green of the hemlocks, just as I had seen them the day before in the hemlock woods of Mill Creek at my own home.

One of the keenest pleasures of the railway botanist comes from his enjoyment of the massed color of great quantities of flowers of the same kind. One morning our train was running along through the level Jersey country; it was at that Wretched hour of the morning when you have just taken your place in some one else’s seat while the porter is getting your own ready, and you have that all-over miserable feeling that comes from a night’s ride in a stuffy sleeper. In an instant all discomfort was forgotten in the sight of a wide salt meadow that seemed one mass of the pink swamp-mallows. The gray morning mist was turned silvery white by the rising sun, and giving color to it all were the wide stretches of the pink swamp-mallows. It was all one shimmering mass of misty silvery-gray, sunlight radiance, and rose color as delicate as that of the lining of some seashells.

Once again, this time on one of our home roads near Pittsburg, I felt the beauty of the color of great masses of flowers. The railway runs along about half-way up the bluffs by the side of the Beaver River; as we rounded a curve, the steep bank above me turned suddenly intensely red with the vivid color of the scarlet campion. Only those who notice most closely have any idea how rare a color in our wild flowers any shade of true red is. Nearly all the flowers that are commonly spoken of as red are in reality purplish pink or reddish lilac. Indeed I know only two wild flowers whose color is a true red. One of these is the cardinal lobelia, whose petals are of the darkest, clearest, most velvety red; and the other flower is the scarlet campion. The color of this latter is true scarlet, and the river bluff that June morning fairly glowed with its bloom. It is Holmes who compares the color of the cardinal flower to that of drops of blood new fallen from a wounded eagle’s breast; but any true comparison for the color of this other flower must be founded on life, and on life when it is at its fullest of strength and of enjoyment.

Even the most ardent car-window botanist will not claim that the only place from which the beauty of the color of flowers in mass can be appreciated is the window of a railway train. To all there come memories of fitful spring days when in long country drives they have seen partly worn-out meadows and barren hillsides turned to the softest blue-gray mist by the delicate color of countless blossoms of houstonia. And as they drove slowly along the partly dried, muddy roads of mid-April the effect of every varying phase of the spring weather on the massed color sank slowly into their consciousness. They had time to notice how blue was the color-mist lying on the sheltered meadows in the sunshine, and how coldly gray it was as it crept up the hillsides across which the chill spring wind was blowing.

And if one lives in a country where there are chestnut ridges, one looks forward through all the spring to that one week of late June and earliest July when the chestnut trees will be in bloom. The long staminate flowers of the chestnut are a soft cream-yellow with a greenish tint; and on the ridges where the trees grow in abundance the great irregular masses of their blossoming tops do not stand out against their background of the dark green foliage of midsummer, but blend softly with it, giving to all such an indescribable effect of lightness and airiness that the whole wooded ridge seems not to be fastened securely to the earth, but to be floating cloud-like above it. During that one week of the chestnut blossoming one stops at door or at window in the midst of the early morning work to watch for the moment when the first rays of the rising sun, falling on the cream-yellow of the chestnut tops, turn them into their own deep gold; and at the restful close of day one lingers on the doorstep through the long June twilight till their blossoming tops can no longer be distinguished from the dark foliage of the other trees in the gathering darkness.

All one’s life long the pictures of old meadow lands gray-blue with the mist of the houstonias are recalled by the alternate glinting sunshine and bleak gloom of an April day; and the blossoming chestnut woods form the background to many recollections of the old home life. But these pictures which have become a part of one’s inmost consciousness are scarcely more dear than that one, seen for a few moments, of the low-lying Jersey meadows flushing rose-pink with the mallows in the misty morning sunshine; or that other “vision of scarce a moment,” the river bluff scarlet with the flowers of the campion, seen from the windows of a railway train.