Trout lily, Ashuelot River Park, Keene, NH

I had to walk a long way down the Ashuelot River to find a solitary stand of trout lilies, also known as fawn lilies or dogtooth violets (Erythronium americanum). This time of year in Ohio, the woods would be blanketed with trout lilies, spring beauties, anemones, toothwort, bloodroot… Instead, here in New Hampshire, the ground is bare and still semi-dormant, forcing amateur botanists like me to solace ourselves with cultivated flowers and year-round greenery such as ground pine.

Once again Fred from Fragments from Floyd has endeared himself to me with his plant-obsessed pictures, this time of horsetails. Earlier this week I’d mentioned finding some mysterious pink stems that I thought were horsetails, but I was stumped because the stems were pink, not green. In time I remembered that horsetails (genus Equisetum) have separate reproductive and vegetative stems. Here’s a paragraph from my yellowed, oft-thumbed copy of the Nature Interpretation Handbook, the bible of my high school volunteer naturalist days, published by what was then called the Metropolitan Park District of Columbus & Franklin County:

    The brown or pink fertile stems are one of the first signs of spring, growing rapidly on the bare ground to a height of 6 to 12 inches. Each of the joints on a given stem is sheathed in a whorl of black or brown, pointed, scalelike leaves that lie flat against it. At the tip of the fruiting stem is a conelike strobilus packed with sporangiosphores–small, umbrella-like structures which open when ripe to release the spores. The spores are unique in that they have appendages like spider legs which coil and uncoil rapidly with changes in humidity, thereby probably helping to release them from their cases.

Interesting, no? Are you getting hot yet? Turns out those pink, erect, 6 – 12 inch stems are sex organs. No wonder that none other than phallo-obsessed Walt Whitman liked to celebrate spring by going to “the bank by the wood” (the place where horsetails grow) and becoming “undisguised and naked,” exclaiming with his typical poetic exuberance, “I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”

If plant-porn turns your crank, you might be a BoZo. Now, before you go thinking that them’s fighting words, let me explain. “BoZo” is short for “Botany & Zoology.” When I was a high school student thinking of attending the Ohio State University, “BoZo” was the nickname for people like me who wanted to major in science. I ended up not going to OSU; I ended up majoring in English, not either botany or zoology. But come spring, I’m BoZo to the bone.

Although most folks yawn and go glassy-eyed when the likes of me start talking plants, botany is actually a racy science. After all, when you study flowers, you essentially are studying reproductive organs, which might make you think twice before you stick your nose in a lily and inhale deeply. Mycologists (scientists who study fungi) have it even worse since the only parts that a mushroom or other fungus sticks above ground are its sex organs: yep, when you slurp down a double-mushroom pizza, you’re really eating…. In one of his journals, Henry Thoreau sketched a healthy-sized stinkhorn mushroom then noted with wry bemusement how much it resembled a certain manly appendage. Well, Henry darling, you’re right about that: it looks like one because in practical terms it is one. Although the precise mechanics of fungal and mammalian reproduction differ, the end result is the same: it’s all about getting it on. Scientists don’t call stinkhorns Phallus impudicus for nothing.

Dandelions, Keene, NH

Ironically, botany was traditionally the one science that Victorian-era women were encouraged to pursue, albeit as amateurs. The practice of walking in the woods to sketch and collect flowers was seen as a lady-like and ennobling exercise; learning plant names was something that genteel mothers could then pass along to their children, both male and female. At the same time, the Victorians acknowledged the potentially sexy nature of wildflower study in that “going botanizing” was a polite term for dating: a young man could without impunity ask any blushing maid to go a-botanizing, and all would recognize that as a chaste opportunity for the young couple to get outside, enjoy nature, and spent quiet time talking amongst the posies.

So Fred, next time you’re in my neck of the woods, I’ll gladly go botanizing with you. Tell Ann not to worry, though: we’ll be thoroughly Victorian in our plant-pursuits, as chaste as, well, amoebae. If I’d gone into science, I would have had to have taught classes with names like Plant Sex 101 or Sex and the Unicellular Creature. Guess I’ve earned that name BoZo after all.