Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Reflections on Wildflowers 2

While writing my wildflower blogs, I am reminded of Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) and his journal entries about Walden Pond. In Thoreau’s words, I, too, “wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” By seeking the wildflowers in my backyard and by identifying them, I was learning to live more consciously, if not deliberately.

Sweet Violet, Painting by L. A. Simonsen, in Wild Flowers
Adapted by Asa Don Dickinson from Nature’s Garden
By Neltje Blanchan (Doubleday, 1917, 1926)

Beneath a walnut tree near my raspberry vines, a Golden Ragwort opened its yellow petals. It was May, and the natural environment around my home was full of life. After the doldrums of winter, everything seemed eager to participate in the activity of spring. The ragwort appeared to be rushing into bloom.

I found that Yellow Wood Sorrel was practically ubiquitous. With leaves almost like those of clover, the sorrel would be my constant companion, continuing to bloom well into the late summer.

Beneath various trees were the vines of the wild strawberry, probably the Barren Strawberry, although I cannot be sure. I am certainly not a botanist, and exact identification of plants often proves elusive for me.

Spectacular beyond my poor ability to describe were the vast patches of Common Blue Violet decorating my six acres. On tender stems were blossoms of such blueness that my hills were largely blue. A kind of inversion occurred with the sky at my feet.

Almost as ubiquitous as the wild strawberry was Daisy Fleabane. The small white flowers were so numerous as to sparkle when breezes danced in the shade of my walnut trees.

Here and there in the lawn, White Clover began to bloom. Like the Yellow Wood Sorrel, its blooming would persist throughout the summer. I wish I could say that I fully appreciate White Clover, but I fear I am unable to do so; it quickly thrusts new blossoms above my freshly mowed grass and makes my lawn seem weedy. Even so, I do not spray it; rather, I leave it alone to flourish in broad zones within my otherwise grassy lawn.

When I look back on spring, I think mostly about the Red Deadnettle. In my area, the blooming upright stems have a pink tone that verges toward purple when viewed from a distance. Entire fields along the country roads wear such Easter colors until they are planted with corn or soybeans.

Perhaps I do share Thoreau’s capacity to deliberate after all.   

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Reflections on Wildflowers 1

When I looked forward to retirement, I thought about identifying the wildflowers around my home. I pictured myself, guidebook in hand, stooping low over tiny petals and learning the names of the plants surrounding me. Now that I am retired and have honored my vow, I am ready to report that naming wildflowers has been even more fun than I imagined it would be!

Common Spring Beauty, Photograph by Wild Flower Preservation Society
In Norman Taylor’s Wild Flower Gardening (D. Van Nostrand, 1955)

In May, I found Spring Beauty around the trunks of two of my oldest and largest trees. I had noted the white blossoms with touches of pink when I first moved to the property over a dozen years ago, and I had always avoided mowing the areas where the flowers bloomed. Spring Beauty is aptly named. I am embarrassed to admit that, during the years when I was working, I felt too rushed to take the time to identify the small blossoms that I so admired.

In the midst of the grass in the broad yards fronting the barn, the tiniest spikes of white flowers opened above a plant creeping outward through the grass. I found that Common Speedwell has faintly bluish stripes embroidering the petals. It purportedly has astringent and diuretic properties. Hmmm. I doubt that I will sample the plant to see.

I almost overlooked Shepherd’s Purse, which grew in my beds of iris. Its many heart-shaped mittens waved at me. Oddly enough, when I knew its name, I no longer considered it a weed. I left it where it was with as much right to be a flower as the iris that I had planted.

The stylish Garlic Mustard put forth white blossoms on my hill of walnut trees and along my creek. Since 1868, the plant has spread westward from New York.

Reminiscent of the Queen Anne’s Lace that would appear much later in the season, Sweet Cicely ornamented the shady bowers at creek’s edge.

Ground Ivy (also known as Creeping Charlie) bloomed everywhere. Its violet-blue flowers painted large sections of my yard.

By identifying the wildflowers around my house, I began to live more consciously than before. I felt a kinship to the plants. While I recognized that their task is to survive, their blooms appealed to my artistic sense. They completed pictures delighting the eye with their harmony. The changing display of blossoms satisfied me as correct for spring and for summer as separate seasons, each with its own aesthetic expression in the part of the world where I am fortunate to reside. I realized that I, too, am living through seasons—that I, too, express myself differently in summer than in spring, in autumn than in summer. Every season settles into its own responsibilities and pleasures.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Good Morning, Springboro! Crows in a Field of Wheat (Last Installment in This Series)

My original watercolor painting of crows in a field of wheat stubble is an unintended homage to Vincent van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows (1890). As I was standing alongside the road and admiring the rich orange of the mowed stalks of wheat, crows flew in to feast on fallen grain. Two landed and eyed me suspiciously while the others rose and fell like umbrellas in the sky. I was not consciously thinking about Vincent’s work, but, synchronistically, I completed my small composition on the 14th of July, only a few days after Vincent finished his. Naturally, he and I were drawn to paint crows and wheat because most wheat in Europe and the United States since the nineteenth century has been harvested beginning in early July.

Crows in a Field of Wheat
Original Watercolor Painting by Robert T. Rhode

I have written extensively about threshing wheat. In my book entitled The Harvest Story: Recollections of Old-Time Threshermen (Purdue University Press, 2001), I describe “shocks of bronze-colored wheat stretching across the golden fields of summer.” I explain that, by the late 1800s, wheat threshing had assumed a position of towering importance in many areas of the United States. Eventually, wheat was crowned king of cash crops throughout much of North America. Wheat made Kansas and neighboring states the world’s breadbasket. In the time of my grandfather and father in Indiana, farmers formed threshing rings to go from farm to farm helping one another with machines to separate the grains of wheat from the stalks on which the grains had grown. In those days, children thought of “thrashin’” as “Christmas in July”! Families collaborated in the labor of the harvest and sat down to noonday dinners of epic proportions. Most rural folks who experienced wheat threshing considered the event so positive as to be among their favorite memories.

When I exhibited my Case steam engine at the Will County show in Illinois for several years, I had the opportunity to help load bundles, or sheaves, of wheat in the late afternoons. Even though the work was hot and chaff stuck to my neck, I look back on the work as about the most fun I have ever had! The slanting rays of the evening sun made the entire field golden. It felt good to use my pitchfork to lift the bundles high up to where the bundle loader, standing atop the sheaves that we were piling on the wagon, could reach the bundles of those of us who were handing them up; he snagged them with his pitchfork and positioned them where he wanted them. The task of bringing in the sheaves had real meaning, and I thoroughly enjoyed working with my friends amid the wheat stubble.

Probably the crows were having just as much fun this July. They appeared to be happy as they dined on wheat that the present-day combine had missed.        

If you would like to purchase one of the paintings in this series, send me a message through my website at or via Facebook. Each work of art measures 5 by 7″ and consists of Cotman Water Colours by Winsor & Newton on acid-free Montval watercolor paper.