Blue sky arched high. Trees shimmered in the heat. Glassy water reflected it all.
Mesmerized, I lowered the paddle and just let the kayak glide. Graceful green streamers undulated all around while I rode out a pontoon’s wake in this little patch of weeds. There were shades of life, shadows of depth, and the polished wooden hull of my boat in the center of it all.
I’ve loved paddling through patches of floating bur-reed ever since I spent my first summer in the Boundary Waters volunteering as a wilderness ranger. On meandering rivers that snaked through expanses of beaver meadow and bog, the ribbons of leaves revealed the direction of otherwise imperceptible current. On marshy lakes, it was the wind that either combed the strands out straight or tousled them into a gusty mess. After canoeing over monotonous miles of dark waves on deep lakes, entering a patch of bur-reed felt like leaving a busy city street and entering the aesthetic sanctuary of an art museum.
But for some reason, the plant’s name would not stick in my head. I had to ask my fellow rangers to repeat its name several times each trip. Luckily, my most frequent paddling partner was a patient botanist, and she answered my steady stream of plant questions without complaint.
Later, when I did wetland surveys during graduate school, I came to know the green streamers as Sparganium flucutans. My boss and I spent a glorious day on the Mercer Bog less than an hour north of our offices in Augusta, Maine. Floating in my trusty Old Town canoe, we pulled bur-reed leaves up from the inky water and — trying not to drip on the tissue-thin paper — we keyed them out in our botany manuals.
The leaves of S. flucutans flow with the water, but other bur-reeds have leaves that emerge rigidly, their creased backbones helping them to stand ramrod straight. The text in our book read, “emergent and submerged leaves with numerous cross veins between the parallel veins, forming squarish cells.” Translated into life, that meant the translucent leaves glowed like stained glass when I held them up to the sky; that “squarish” grid of veins creating one more pattern in this plant.
While bur-reed leaves present an image that’s all lines and order, the flowers look like something Dr. Seuss might have drawn to populate a fanciful new world. Round, white pom-poms zig zag up a sturdy stem that emerges only inches above the water. Those are the female flowers. At the tip of the stem are the male flowers — dense, yellow-green balls that wait their turn before also exploding into comical spheres of wiggling anthers tipped with yellow pollen.
I felt lucky to see them, gliding silently in my kayak. Most summers I’m too busy to get on the water in July, and I only race by on my bicycle. At that speed, just the yellow globes and frilly, white blossoms of water lilies are identifiable. They’re pretty. But their symmetrical beauty seems common and overdone next to the unique and less-conspicuous flowers of bur-reed.
As the soft pom-poms of bur-reed flowers mature, they transform into spiky green “burrs.” They remind me of the medieval weapon innocuously called the “morning star,” which is a spiked ball mounted on a shaft. But, if you’d prefer not to think of bloody historical warfare, those burs also look kind of like large marbles covered in tiny, green Hershey’s kisses. Unwrap those Kisses later in the summer, and you’ll find small, hard seeds that are food for ducks.
I floated for many minutes among those bur-reed leaves. The longer I sat, the more I saw. Small flies crawled over the blossoms. Shimmering dragonflies landed and took off from lily pads. Black beetles crawled on the water lily buds. An eagle flew by. Cars rumbled over the bridge.
At the speed of driving, nature is simply wallpaper. The many patterns of bur-reed blur quickly in a landscape view. Sky. Trees. Water. Those elements dominate. During that first summer in the Boundary Waters, when I fell in love with bur-reed, I packed along a small set of watercolor paints to amuse myself on the long evenings in wilderness campsites. Sky. Trees. Water. I painted those layers, thrilled at how easy it felt to capture the scene with broad bands of color accented with just a few tree trunks or the V of a soaring bird.
At the speed of a drifting kayak, it’s obvious how little of the scene I used to capture. In between those broad layers of sky, trees and water, nature is messy, buggy, imperfect, and often ridiculous-looking. It is also far more interesting. Over repeated encounters, certain plants have changed from wallpaper to acquaintances to friends. And finally, I remember floating bur-reed’s name without help.
Emily Stone is a naturalist and education director at the Cable Natural History Museum.