Since the early 1600s, humans have introduced about 1,000 plant species into New England, shocking but true. When Old World settlers started arriving along the East Coast four centuries ago, they brought seed packets for domestic gardens and seed-laden hay (brought in ships) for livestock. Myriad seeds and plants obviously escaped domesticity and through the centuries spread across this continent.
In fact, plants in New England and beyond have reproduced so long here that a goodly percentage of our current human population considers them indigenous – dandelion, daisy, hawkweed, yarrow, mullein and coltsfoot – just to name six.
Heck, mullein came from the Mediterranean countries and 2,000 years ago, Romans dipped mullein plants into tallow and used them as torches.
If curious folks wonder whether a plant is indigenous to Maine, they may be able to find the answer in a dictionary because the description may include words like Eurasian to indicate the origin.
About five years ago I bought Jolie, my intrepid companion, an HD television for Christmas and the gift turned into a botany learning experience. While watching European and British bicycling on the new television, I could clearly see roadside plants, and so many of them grew in Maine – many introduced in the past 400 years.
This past July in the Tour de France, Queen Anne’s lace in roadside fields in England and France caught my eye, starting me thinking about this member of the parsley family, including a minor debate about the name.
When I was a kid, probably 8, a senior-citizen woman swore that “Queen Anne’s lace” got its name from Queen Anne of England. Furthermore, she said the little reddish-purple floret near the center of many white blossom clusters was symbolic of a drop of the queen’s blood where she pricked her finger with a needle.
However, many folks believe “Anne” refers to the Virgin Mary’s mother, the patron saint of lacemakers, not to the Queen of England. If that’s true, though, why is Queen in the name? Yes, a flower has caused a controversy – go figure.
Here is an intriguing tidbit. Americans generally call this flower “Queen Anne’s lace,” but the British refer to the plant as wild carrot or cow parsley.
Yes, indeed, a Queen Anne’s lace root smells just like a carrot but it is white instead of orange. If a gardener cultivates this wild plant, though, the crop’s root eventually turns orange a la carrot. I have eaten Queen-Anne’s-lace roots many times back in my days of living off the land.
A word of warning about dining on wild carrots, though. Most of us may know what Queen Anne’s lace looks like, but one or two very toxic members of the parsley family vaguely resemble this plant.
During the Tour de France this year, another flower caught my eye – common buttercup. Yup, this ultra-common Maine flower originally came from the Old World, and in my youth – back when Windsor was a farming town – dairy farmers often stood around the local stores and complained about buttercup growing in their hay fields – a bad bovine feed, I guess.
I’ve studied this topic of non-indigenous species and in my opinion it takes about two full generations for New Englanders to accept most introduced plants and even wildlife species into a new habitat.
Along the animal line, lots of Mainers are really warming up to black crappie – pronounced “croppie” – a delicious panfish with white, flaky meat. This species has been here a little over 30 years.
Mainers are less apt to embrace northern pike, but this species has a small but dedicated following because pike grow large and produce flaky, white fillets. The main complaint about pike begins with its reputation of destroying salmonid populations, but the two cohabit fine in Canada after trout and salmon learned evasive tactics to survive. Maybe that will occur here.
The one consistent rule in nature is change. Dynamics shift but life continues, even though population numbers come and go and come back, reminding me of a passage in a Bernd Heinrich book.
To paraphrase, Heinrich talked about how a bad weather pattern in a local area at the wrong time can put a serious dent in a population of songbirds or insects that year. If nature cooperates in subsequent years and habitat is adequate, species make a comeback, often a quick recovery.
Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at