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Marsh Marigolds in April Photo by: Richie Bittner

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Contemporary Botanical Illustrations.


The Marsh Marigold

By Lynne Bittner

....Peter laughed happily. “They are my gold!” cried he. “See how they shine! And they are full of golden meaning, for now I know that Mistress Spring is here to stay. I hoped I would find the very first one, and I guess I have.” Once more Peter kicked up his heels for pure joy. 

Thornton W. Burgess (from The Burgess Flower Book for Children 1923)

Just recently, my husband Richie and I went to New York City. At this time of year I love to take the trip down through the Hudson River Valley and watch the approaching season as it makes it’s way north. The landscape along the thruway looks like a painting: the chartreuse of the weeping willows and birch trees glow against the steel gray sky. We whizzed past a large colony of may apples growing in a woodland across the river from Rhinebeck. Shad trees were in full flower, lighting up the woodlands with their luminous white blossoms. At home 100 miles north, they are just beginning to bud. 

As we pass a dark swampy hollow, bright golden flowers atop green mounds of the marsh marigold catch my eye, bringing to mind an evocative phrase from The May Queen by Tennyson written in 1860....and the wild marsh marigold shines like fire in the swamps and hollows gray....  For a moment I’m transported into Tennyson’s world, imagining the simple pace... A draft horse pulls my wagon along a quiet country lane. In the distance, a woman drives a flock of geese to market, in one hand she carries a basket... A farmer plows a field with a team of oxen... In my wagon, it’s the the steady clip-clop of hooves, the creak of the springs, a brisk April wind chills my cheek. Glancing at a swampy ditch along the roadside, amongst the black water and muck, I am cheered by bright shining golden flowers above a clump of lush green leaves, I must gather some of those to weave into a garland for May Day and a few more to guard against witches..... a horn honks....my reverie interrupted. Sadly I’m back in the world of the New York State Thruway, with the rumbling trucks and traffic racing south at 70 miles an hour... 

In my mind, there is no other wildflower that has quite the impact than the marsh marigold in the spring as it brightens up murky hollows and swamps like nothing else. Apparently it has captured the imaginations of many before me as it possesses a host of interesting common names including: king cups, cowslips, leopard’s foot, water gowan (gowen from the Norse, meaning gold), water dragon, capers (the buds were once picked and pickled and used as a substitute for capers), gools, bootes, drunkards, crowfoot, butterwort, pool flower, mollyblobs and shining herb to name just a few. 

John Gerard eloquently stated in his Herbal in 1633: Marsh Marigold hath great broad leaves somewhat round, smooth, of a gallant greene color, slightly indented or purled about the edges: among which rise up thicke stalks, likewise greene, whereupon do grow goodly yellow flowers, glittering gold....

It’s scientific name Caltha is from the Greek, kalathos meaning “cup” or “goblet” and palustris is from the Latin for: marsh loving, found in bogs. A Greek myth that tells the story of Caltha - a maiden who fell in love with the sun god. So engrossed was she with adoration, that she could not tear herself away from her place in the meadow where she could see him always. Eventually, she just wasted away to where her spirit was transformed into the first marigold - it’s form and color reflecting the sun. 

  Like Thornton Wilder’s Peter Rabbit, I have been keeping a close eye on the marsh marigolds this Spring -  watching their progress in a little road side bog amongst the flotsam and jetsam of litter discarded along the roadway. I hope to get the very first glimpse of them as they come into blossom and when they do, I will kick up my heels with pure joy for I will know that Mistress Spring will be here to stay!

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