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COLUMN: Discovery of 'funny purple flower' a real treat

Looking at wildflowers is a simple delight and reaction to recent 'discovery' on social media was a highlight for 'new environmentalists'
20220620_MBPWA_Venus' Looking Glass (Hawke) (2)
The Venus Looking Glass was recently 'discovered' by columnist while he was looking for other things at Matchedash Bay Provincial Wildlife Area.

Over the meandering course of my working life, I’ve had great opportunity to visit and work on thousands of acres of Ontario landscape. Woodlands, wetlands, rock barrens, old farms, stream systems… pick a habitat type and I’ve likely been on it or in it.

With great opportunity comes great appreciation. To see, touch, smell, and actually feel one property against another it becomes obvious that biodiversity is the key to having a healthy and vibrant ecosystem.

And it’s this wide diversity of living things that attracts so many of us to the out of doors: trying to find and perhaps photograph every species of bird, wildflower, butterfly, moth or mammal can be both challenging and rewarding.

Over the years, from Guelph to Gravenhurst and from Kincardine to Carden, whether toting binoculars, a .22 rifle, a surveyor’s transit, or a camera with an impressive-looking long lens, I always keep eyes open to what may be a new species. My list of encounters with all sorts of wild species is quite long… but not complete.

Just as some folks have a ‘bucket list’ of things to do before the day comes when they can no longer do such things, many of us grey-haired field botanists also have our dreams of ‘discovering’ a certain species that has eluded our notice for decades. However, depending on where you live and wander, what is rare to you may be common as dandelions to someone else, somewhere else.

One of the wildflowers that has escaped me has a most wonderful name: Venus’ Looking Glass. With a name like this one might expect this flower to have enormous blossoms in a wide range of intense colours, perhaps supported by fairies with fireworks and protected by a band of unicorns. (Hey, no one said botanists can’t have vivid imaginations!)

When seeking treasures such as this it helps to read property management reports, study botanical range maps, have intimate correspondence with learned botanists, and be on someone’s hotline when such a species does get discovered.

But usually the great discovery happens simply by tripping over a site that is home for whatever species in on your list. Such was the case with me and Venus’ Looking Glass.

While working at the Matchedash Bay Provincial Wildlife Area, collecting samples of Phragmites reed to submit for DNA analysis, I started following an ATV trail as a way to get from Point A to Point B, hopefully, maybe. One can never be sure if an ATV trail is a loop or a long, long linear trail, so it’s best to keep your eyes open and use a GPS to track your route.

Up and over the rock lands the trail went, skirting some wetlands and pushing ever onwards through hardwood forests. Whenever I walk a trail I run a continuous list in my mind of wildflowers noted on the trailside: wild basil, heal-all, Ox-eye daisy, blueweed, white avens, odd-looking purple flower, wild coffee, bedstraw, rough-fruited cinquefoil, another unknown purple flower.

What’s with these purple flowers? Garden escapes? Seeds dropped here by migrating birds? Took a few quick pics to help with later identification.

Sun was now directly overhead and the humidity had become less than tolerable, so time to hit ‘halt’ on the trail walk and do an about-face. According to my recorded schedule, a one-hour walk in should equate to a one hour walk out. Unless something changes. And the fresh footprint of a young bear in the mud atop my very recent boot footprint had me change plans to accommodate a non-interaction with said cub and its Mama.

“Hey, bear, hey bear, Gotta get you outta there! Clap, clap. Clap, clap.”

Repeat loudly and repetitiously.

And so it was several hours later that I finally settled down to look at these pics of the funny purple flower. The ol’ Peterson flower guide once again gave title to an unknown specimen… Venus’ Looking Glass!

In a way, the identification was almost anti-climatic, as I had no thrill of excitement upon first discovering this “funny purple flower”. But nonetheless, yowzaa! Found a new one!

One of the Facebook groups I belong to is called Wildflowers of Ontario PLUS, which is a collection of amateur botanists who post their latest floral findings. Sometime they proudly know what they have while other times it’s a request for help in putting a name on their trailside discovery. (Um, that would be Bird’s-foot Trefoil… and you don’t know that?)

Do not let my sarcasm overshadow the benefit of this website ... because it is truly awesome that a whole new world of amateur botanists is rising up (and yes, there once was a time when I did not know that the trailside pretty yellow flower with the really interesting bloom shape was called Bird’s-foot Trefoil).

Looking at wildflowers is a simple delight. Who cares, really, if you don’t know the name? You will, eventually. But for now the enthusiasm and excitement noted in the comments of all these postings shows the spark of new environmentalists, new observers, new appreciation for the landscape.

I’ll bet that the person who just learned the ident of Bird’s-foot Trefoil was excited as I was when identifying my ‘lifer’. Eyes open, ever onwards, who knows what may be growing just around the bend in the trail?