Wonders of Wildflowers

by Timothy Vargo

For six months of the year, between the vernal and autumnal equinox, Milwaukee is bathed in more than 12 hours of sunlight each day. This roughly corresponds with the presence of wildflowers in our natural spaces that enhance the lush green forest floor with a flourish of colors. But did you know that the edible flowers of the ubiquitous common blue violet are high in Vitamin C? Or that they were given to European settlers by native Americans to help them with scurvy induced by months at sea? Or that the seeds of milkweed, the sole source of food for monarch butterfly larvae, were used to stuff pillows by these same settlers? The natural areas of the Riverwest community present a dynamic progression of wildflowers that become even more colorful when one begins to explore their historical uses by both man and beast. The common dandelion, for example, has been used as a remedy for dozens of maladies, from bed-wetting to kidney disorders, and was used to forecast love or the number of children one was destined to have. Nutritionally, dandelion leaves have higher concentrations of potassium than bananas, and more vitamin A than carrots! While on a gastronomic track, one could prepare an enormous feast from the dozens of edible plants that reside in our neighborhood, native and exotic alike. Wild garlic, wild ginger, Creeping Charley, False Solomon’s Seal, garlic mustard, burdock, wood sorrel, May Apple, wild grape, highbush cranberry, and Queen Anne’s Lace are just a few examples of the myriad edible plants that can be found in this area. Please note that it is illegal to harvest wild plants from public lands. Also, it is highly recommended to check your plant identification with at least three resources before ingesting a wild plant. Some may be poisonous! The awesome attributes of our wildflowers lie well beyond their culinary characteristics. They are seeped in historical contexts, such as Queen Anne’s Lace, named after Queen Anne of England who pricked her finger while preparing fine lace (look closely for the red drop of blood in the middle of the flower), or Solomon’s Seal, named after the six points of the Star of David. They can soothe poison ivy and stinging nettle (Solomon’s Seal, jewelweed), change sex (jack-in-the-pulpit), entice worms from the ground for fisherman (buttercup), stabilize the soil (trout lily), and repel insects (May Apple). Naturalist Paul Ryan, former land steward for the Koenen Land Preserve in Riverwest, has been leading walks through Riverside Park to note the changing wildflower mosaic in our neighborhood and to discuss wildflowers in a cultural, historical, and biological context. If you are interested in joining him for the final walk in September, please call the Urban Ecology Center at 964-8505. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 8 – August 2003