DELTA, Alaska - Flowers are everywhere! My table has been lush with bouquets of these wild beauties this summer. In the winter I occasionally buy flowers from the florist to brighten the dark days, so it is lovely to just go to the outdoor store for the pickin’s. Eternally curious, this year I spotted a couple I had to look up: Jacob ’s ladder and Twin Flower.
Though I had seen Twin Flower before, I didn’t know its name would be so obvious. This tiny little flower is a member of the honeysuckle family, which may explain its very wonderful smell. It is a dwarf shrub, with delicate twin pink flowers blooming off a single stalk, maybe 2 inches high. You will find it in open woods, as I did behind my house. In the book “The Boreal Herbal,” by Beverly Gray, she notes that “The Dena’ina call it k’ela tl’lia, meaning ‘mouse’s rope.’” Appropriate, due to the fact that this little shrub supports a root system which connects it to neighboring blooms of twin flower. That’s why I got down on my belly to look across the tiny field of twin flowers I had discovered, not only to inhale their essence, but to imagine (a bit more than necessary) a “Mouse and the Motorcycle” type scenario of a mouse gathering some of this tiny vine to save itself from my lion of a cat, Roy, swinging out of his way Indiana Jones-style to a nearby stump.
Besides that short trip from reality, it was pretty darn interesting to get down that low and peer eye-to-eye with things on the ground. I got a good picture too.
When I saw Jacob’s Ladder for the first time, it stopped me in my tracks. What a beauty! The contrast of the purple petals and yellow middle is stunning. I picked one to take back with me to look up, then set it down on a shelf after I had found out what it was. Just the other day I rediscovered it. Turns out it keeps that brilliant purple color very well when it has dried, so now I will try to press some for some winter craft projects.
Which brings me to mention a good way to preserve these fleeting reminders of summer — press and dry them. Just use one of those pesky phone books we get too many of and place your favorite flowers between the pages. Load it down with a few more heavy books on top and forget about it for a few weeks. Take some kids with you to gather your flowers, and encourage them to pick what interests them. You can also put a piece of duct tape around their wrist, sticky side out, and let them stick things to their “bracelet” as they go. Flowers, tiny pine cones, feathers, and anything that catches their eye can be stuck on. Girls especially love this.
Along the way you can all figure out which flowers are which by taking a book with you to help identify them. I recommend “Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers,” by Verna E. Pratt. The flowers in this book are categorized by color, which makes it easy for any novice to find what they’re looking for. Plus, it’s not so big that you can’t take it in the field.
It’s not a bad idea to look up each flower before you pick it to be sure you’re not picking something toxic. There aren’t too many flowers that will do you harm, but it is good to know at least a couple that should be avoided: monkshood and wild delphinium. Both of these plants are beautiful, making them enticing to pick. Both produce purple flowers on tall stems. Both are toxic, with monkshood being deadly if ingested. If you accidentally pick one of these, you should wash your hands. Make yourself familiar with these plants to avoid picking them.
If you’d like to try eating some flowers, try crystallizing some rose petals. Here’s how: Pick some clean wild rose petals and beat an egg white until just little frothy. Then use a small, clean paint brush to coat both sides of the petal, then sprinkle with sugar and let dry. (I use a pair of tweezers to hang onto the petal.) Make sure the petal is entirely coated with egg white. This preserves it. Let it dry completely on some waxed paper and then store in an air tight container. These will keep for months and make for an impressive edible decoration on frosted cupcakes or are good just for nibbling. This is a little bit labor intensive, but worth it for the taste of summer you’ll experience, especially in the depths of winter! The taste is sweet with a subtle hint of rose. Delicious.
No matter what, just get out for a walk and enjoy the flowers while you can. We’re already losing a minute of daylight a day!
Brookelyn Bellinger is an independent filmmaker and author of the book “The Frozen Toe Guide to Real Alaskan Livin’.” Visit www.brookelynbellinger.com for information about her book, films, or music.