True story.

On an expanse of newly mown grass in the Unity park awhile back, I glanced down and caught a glint of yellow in the green. I bent down to see. It was a low, creeping plant with roundish, shallowly lobed leaves that had escaped being leveled by the lawn machinery. It had small blossoms with green petals and a dusty gold central disk.

No idea what this is, I thought, and broke off a piece to check with the wildflower books. Long chapter short, I looked and looked but couldn’t find it.

It starts in spring. The green ones come again from the other world in supernatural abundance like this and start mercurial transformations. The anchoring color of the whole process from then through summer to fall is yellow, that glint in the unknown midsummer flower. A lot of eruptions crack open the earth in March and April, but the first full-blown signs of life hereabouts are forsythia, then coltsfoot, and after that all heaven breaks loose. Dandelions strike full force the first of May with a tipsy cheerfulness hardly to be believed. By June the hawkweeds are part of the glee, and in meadows all kinds of buttercups. Even bluets are golden at the core.

Patches of roadside turn bright yellow with fleets of yellow rocket and bird’s foot trefoil. Tiny heads of least hop clover pop out, and then the petal-less, greenish pineapple weed masquerading in scent as chamomile. Clumps of St. Johnswort, ragged-looking from a distance but neat up close, back the ditches, and everywhere are black-eyed susans in an intense state of dark yellow that’s already started the journey along the spectrum to orange, and to what will be the red and gold of autumn.

By midsummer, while purple vetch and fireweed, Queen Anne’s lace and ox-eye daisies are lighting up the day, the color yellow is channeling sunlight everywhere: Goldfinches and sulfur butterflies haunt the brush; yellow wood sorrel with little cloverlike leaves shows its face through veils of grass; toadflax, or butter-and-eggs, in places you’d think plants can’t grow; and on field edges, cinquefoils with petals so perfectly carved they look like some divinity handcrafted them. Venus, maybe, after she used the silvery dusk to unfurl evening primrose blossoms. Pale yellow, pale the primrose, the sunlight changes and moves away.


When low-angled light comes through green leaves, the translucence reveals they’re yellow at heart. Ballfield grass itself is tinged with that pervasive sulfur hue, while the next generation of summer emerges restlessly out of the copper earth: Goldenrod to me is the emblem of the transformation to maturity. Where there isn’t goldenrod there are groves of wild parsnip. Sow thistle like raggedy dandelions. Yellow goatsbeard in tall grass. Fringed loosestrife and swamp candles half-hidden in wet grassy spots. Mullein by the railroad tracks, and the tiny blossoms of gangly black mustard. Tansy for all of us, buttonlike disks.

Nature’s xanthic biochemistry culminates in sunflowers, as though the whole green world was preparing all along to break open in upturned circular yellow rays. Their heads bend sunward from morning to night, as if every day was an ecstatic worship session. On their watch, the red giant arrives and turns maple leaves martian orange, birch leaves yellow, and ripens golden apples in the sun.

Midsummer perfection: rough-fruited cinquefoil is shown recently. Photo by Dana Wilde

All this was visible back in July, if you knew how to look at it. The fleabane and daisies have gold in their disks like sunflower harbingers, not to mention that unknown glint in the Unity grass. A few days after I spotted it, I was walking across my rough-hewn lawn in a sort of silvery, moony state of consciousness when the word “saxifrage” came into my head. Where it came from, I don’t know. It was as if a rock cracked open and the word appeared like a glimmer from another world.

What does “saxifrage” mean? Is it even a real word, or is it something Tolkien made up, like “elanor” or “Borgil”? No, it seemed like a real word, and I wondered if it might be a flower. It sounds like a flower name.

I got out the wildflower book. In the index was the word “saxifrage,” yes. The picture showed a creeping plant with roundish, shallowly lobed leaves, small green blossoms and a dusty, reddish-gold center. It was golden saxifrage. If your eye can find it, the ore is everywhere.

In my case, I need more grace than I thought.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at His book “Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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