Jumping to Conclusions

Winged stems: NOT wingstem
Winged stems: NOT wingstem

This plant remained an unknown only because I jumped to the wrong conclusion.

Growing side by side with a plant called “wingstem”, this six foot tall plant too has decurrent leaf tissue on the stems. I mistakenly concluded that feature was a trait of the genus of wingstem and tried to force this plant to conform. It didn’t. So winged stems is a trait of a remote ancestor of the two genera, Verbesina and Helenium.

This is Helenium autumnale, also known as  “swamp sunflower” which is exactly where I photographed it–in a wetlands area along the beaver-dammed meadow near Rakes Mill Pond. (Passers-by would have seen two grown men mucking about on a drizzly day in the muddy margins of the pond where normal people would never go. But then if they hadn’t put on their rubber boots, you’d not be learning a new plant with me this morning!)

Also called Sneezeweed, its leaves were once dried and ground into “snuff” back in an age when a good sneeze was about as good a high as one might expect. Speaking of which, I might have to include this fact in my recent conclusions about the dwindling sensory expectations of the “golden years”:

“Consider it a feature of this more advanced time in life that the most coveted sensory experience one can look forward to with great anticipation are a cold beer, a hot shower, the deep relaxation of an afternoon nap alone on the couch and the taste of a fresh-picked ear of corn; and that’s about as good as it’s gonna get.” Since the list is short, maybe I should maybe add “and a good sneeze”. But I digress.

Interesting that there is one species of  this plant genus, Virginia Sneezeweed, that grows in limestone areas. It has been found outside Virginia recently–on a sinkhole area in Missouri–and nowhere else until propagated by Missouri botanists.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Greetings Fred, how are things? I liked the Helenium photo and seem to recall a Lanark dairy farmer telling me years ago that even a few mouthfuls of it munched by a dairy cow resulted in its milk being spoiled. He also said that most cows know enough to leave sneezeweed alone – apparently it is rather bitter going.