Tall meadow rue. Photo by Dana Wilde

There are some strange summer mornings here in the country when the world looks trancelike. Like it’s anything but what it is.

The white flowers that grow by my driveway, alongside the sweet white clover, on these mornings stand in indescribable still, anonymous repose. Summer after summer I don’t know what to call them. They’re a perplexing synonymy of wild carrot, hemlock parsley, scotch lovage, water hemlock, valerian and others nearly identical to the backyard eye of anyone who’s not a botanist.

A half-mile down the road on the edge of the bog, a different snowbank of white flowers grew this summer, less close to unnameable than the hemlock lookalike. From a distance it resembles anything or everything by the driveway that I can or can’t identify, from red osier dogwood to yarrow. But it’s not what it appears to be.

Tall meadow rue, it’s called, Thalictrum pubescens to the botanists, sometimes king of the meadow, and in some dialects it’s muskrat weed, which can also be a nickname for water hemlock. You can’t mix them up though, because water hemlock really does resemble Queen Anne’s lace, with rounded white umbels of tiny flowers. The delicate-looking, umbel-like white starbursts of tall meadow rue are made not of petals, but stamens.

Stamens are the thready-looking male organs in a blossom that generate pollen. The female organ, producing the ovule, is the pistil. Many flowering plants are bisexual, or hermaphroditic, with several stamens surrounding a pistil. They self-pollinate. Other plants have separate male and female individuals — they’re “dioecious” — and depend on the wind or insects, such as bees, to pick up pollen from a male plant and carry it to a female plant.

The sexual organs and processes in most flowering plants are nestled within a structure of sepals and attractive petals. Tall meadow rue somewhat strangely has no petals. Instead it has prominently showy white arrays of stamens that resemble full corollas from a distance. More unusually still, tall meadow rue is not simply dioecious, it’s androdioecious: It has both male plants and hermaphrodite plants. The females are the hermaphrodites; they have stamens, but their pollen is believed to be sterile.

Further ambiguating the gender of tall meadow rue is that it appears to have evolutionarily amended its reproductive processes. Early on in evolution, seed-bearing plants used the wind to carry pollen from male to female individuals. Then about 100 million years ago, flowers appeared, attracting insects (such as bees) to brush up against the male plant’s stamens, gather pollen and fly it on to the female plants. Thalictrum pubescens, it appears, is one among a few dozen flowering plants which along the evolutionary way returned to using the wind for pollination, in addition to animals. The botanists can’t explain exactly why this would happen.

Not being a botanist, I had to do a lot of reading with the image of petalless hermaphroditic plants in mind before I felt like I had these complications sorted out. For as if the appearance, gender and sexuality of tall meadow rue were not ambiguous enough, there was the word “rue” itself. It colored everything I read.

The Old English, Germanic word rue means to regret or feel sorrow. It usually appears in a grammatical construction strange to my ear, where it takes a direct object: You can “rue the day,” which sounds Shakespearean but isn’t, though certain of his characters “rue the hour,” “rue the time” and “rue this treason.”

Ophelia, on the other hand, may rue her circumstances, but she’s talking about a plant: “There’s rue for you,/and here’s some for me. We may call it herb of grace o’ Sundays./O, you must wear your rue with a difference!” Rue grows in Europe, has yellow petals, and was ingested to induce abortions. In fact it’s a whole family (Rutaceae) of plants called by a Latin, and possibly ancient Greek based name. The same word as the Germanic synonym for regret, except different.

Now believe it or not, tall meadow rue is not rue at all, but a buttercup (family Ranunculaceae) that grows mainly in the eastern half of North America, has no petals, and was called by Innu (formerly misnamed Montagnais) people “cpapwani’bi’c, ‘leaves to put in with wood’, cut up into pieces and … tied to salmon when it is being cooked,” according to the grandfather of Northeastern anthropology Frank Speck.

These feel like strange and mighty ambiguities. The closer you get to the meanings of rue, the further you get from its meaning.

On the edge of the bog, things are not exactly as they appear, in name or gender or any kind of imprisoning classification you can devise. Nature has an array of exceptions to every named category, whether plants or processes or people. My perennial uncertainty about what to call that entrancing, hemlock-looking flower by the driveway, only makes it more like everything else around it. Which is to say, beautiful.

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

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