Queen Anne Lives -- in West Virginia

October 03, 1994|By BARBARA TUFTY

GREAT CACAPON, WEST VIRGINIA — Great Cacapon, West Virginia.--It's taken me five years to wrestle a civilized, well-manicured lawn along the river into a magnificent scramble of wildflowers.

Today I walk through the sunlit meadow beside the cabin and see and hear the wild and wonderful exuberance of native wildflowers with their itinerant bugs and butterflies. Honeybees drone on red clover; dragonflies stitch; swallowtail butterflies quietly suck on purple coneflower; hummingbirds whiz and bong each other as they sip from the red bee-balm.

To a casual passer-by the meadow seems a boring mass of unkempt weeds -- but a careful observer, without moving a step, can count more than 20 different species of wildflowers.

Conspicuous flowers stand out: Queen Anne's lace is an aircraft carrier for small bees, hover bees, beetles. The orange-yellow black-eyed Susans shine like beacons. Heavy heads of purple Joe-Pye weed are crowned with skipper butterflies; an ox-eye daisy winks a wild white eye. Near the road, mullein stands like a four-foot candle, its pale yellow shedding a beacon of light. One can easily overlook tiny deptford pinks which beam their neon-pink light through the grasses; small calico daisies and sweet-peas, blossoms of lespedesia are also hard to see.

Now at summer's end, goldenrods are blooming -- tall, early, elm (there are some 27 species). Sweet white and yellow clover draw flies and honeybees to their nectar. Guara nods, dropping pink and white petals as it turns to seed. Tiny azure blue butterflies gather around a mud puddle.

Who says a wildflower meadow is a boring mess? Stop to take a look. The sunlit energy and whir of insects and birds resound with vitality.

And who says a wildflower meadow is easy to grow? When I first started some five years ago, I thought it would be a simple, straightforward matter to convert the tidy, closely mowed turf of grass beside the cabin into patchwork of summer wildflowers; just throw some wildflower seeds around and walk away. Simple enough. I only wanted to turn nature loose, bring back native plants, banish the noise of a droning lawnmower.

That first year, I wandered along roadsides and neglected meadows shaking wildflower seeds into a paper bag -- Queen Anne's lace, cornflower, columbine, winged monkey flower, Venus' looking glass, viper's bugloss, even three-seeded mercury (whoever invented these madcap names?) And blithely as the wind, I whirled through the front lawn tossing seeds across the civilized turf.

Then a winter of waiting. But the promise of spring and summer turned into disappointment; no wildflowers. Only a brave Queen Anne's lace poked its head up. The commercial grass was too strong, too tough.

Dig up a small patch of turf, a neighbor advised me, so new seeds have a chance. So I dug and pulled up turf in a spot about three feet in diameter -- as large as I could before I got tired of jumping on my shovel that would go only half an inch into the soil. Again I scattered wildflower seeds and waited through another winter and spring. This time there were more Queens, and a few surprises -- spotted knapweed, dogbane, a Joe-Pye weed and milkweed. Three species of goldenrod towered along with field mustard.

But other newcomers were not so welcome: multiflora rose, bindweed and ragweed took hold faster than my designated wildflowers. Honeysuckle crawled across the open meadow as fast as a snake.

Summer number three, I began realizing that making a wildflower meadow was serious business, not a carefree happening. This time I took a pick ax to cut through the stubborn soil and planted clumps of daisies and store-bought black-eyed Susans and autumn asters.

Summer number four, the grasses still outnumbered the flowers. And more newcomers advanced uninvited -- the oregano marched out from its herb garden and sneaked around like a thief in the night; so did clover lespedesia; and wild grape climbed over the columbine patch. Left alone, these aliens could take over and crowd out my more selected plants. So out with the hoe and shovel again, ripping them out . . . out . . . out!

I now was desperate. My amused neighbor said maybe the mice and birds were gobbling up the seeds. A history professor friend worked for four hours with a Rototiller to dig six inches deep through the turf into the rocky soil. I raked and pitchforked old leaves and compost onto the spot for weeks before carefully planting the seeds.

This was summer number five, and at last I gazed in delight over a meadow adrift and throbbing with species of wildflowers and their attendant butterflies, beetles and birds -- my wild and wonderful West Virginia wildflower patch.

But wait -- what's that honeysuckle tendril creeping across my coneflowers? Off with its head!

Barbara Tufty's co-authored book on wildflowers is scheduled for printing next spring.

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