Buttonbush blossom and bee in Unity. Photo by Dana Wilde

During the ecstatic, gasping quaking of nature that we call simply “June and July” in these parts, hundreds of globeflower bushes ripen and then fire up the bog off the west shore of Unity Pond.

They’re called globeflowers because their little four-petal tubular white blossoms grow close together in nearly perfect spheres an inch or two in diameter, with long pistils poking out like antennas all over the surface.

On an afternoon meander you come upon whole sprawling groves growing in low wet places like pondsides and slow-moving streams. The creamy-white globose clusters dotting the bushes far into the distance look like thousands of buttons.

A globeflower by any other name would smell as sweet: It’s also called buttonbush, and scientifically Cephalanthus occidentalis, or Western headflower, of the bedstraw or madder family, and since it’s a honey plant with a jasminelike scent it’s also called honey balls.

Buttonbush is insect-pollinated (as opposed to wind-pollinated), so characteristically it has nectar to attract sweet-seeking insects. Bees nuzzle into the blossoms and brush against the flower’s four stamens, which are the male parts. At the top of the stamen is the anther, which holds sacs of pollen. As the pollen ripens in the summer sunlight, the anther swells and then bursts open, sending off pollen grains. The pollen rubs off on the bees, who move to the next blossom and rub it onto the pistil, the female part.

At the top of the pistil is the stigma, which is sticky. Once captured by that mysterious surface, a pollen grain settles in and germinates a pollen tube which penetrates the stigma and grows down into the flower’s style, a slender sheath leading to the ovary. There the gametes meet. The pollen fertilizes the buttonbush’s two ovules, and twins are produced in the form of little brown seeds that in the fall drop into the water and make their way to wet growing ground.

Among angiosperms, or flowering plants, the buttonbush globes are sweet beyond belief to the eye. You can easily think of them as little planets lighting up their green universe of shiny leaves, which are sometimes hairy underneath. Out of deep space come pollen-bearing bees stimulating the anthers and stigmas of thousands of tiny blossoms and depositing the materials of life, the way comets are thought by some astrobiologists to seed planets. It’s called panspermia.

Buttonbush blossom is a natural miracle you can see performed every year, if you have the sense to look for it in the endless cycle of your afternoon strolls. Even if you can’t name them when you come upon them, the jasmine scent and the sight of those 10,000 inflorescences imitating the rotation of glowing spheres can strike like planetary madness.

It’s the feeling you’ve seen all this before in a different form, as though the shadow of your young wife is in the flowers. You remember with great clarity the sticky sweetness of summers long past. The old nickname “Honey,” which you’ve called her for years and for your part has been appropriate enough, is doffed, and now enlightened to the true part of her, which as Juliet Capulet observed is neither hand, foot, face nor arm. Start to call her “Buttonbush.”

What am I thinking. Nothing, actually. By now I’m completely out of my head. These are not thoughts at all but the fires of summer speaking even at this time of life. Summer cools to maturity. In the freshest flower is the autumn seed. We were crazy in those days of bedstraw and budding groves.

 

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His “Backyard Book of Spiders in Maine” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


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