I love the ditch life at Camp Salmen. No, this is not about some personal moral failure of mine, it’s about the true diversity and beauty of things growing in the drainage ditches along the park’s Parish Parkway; check it out when you drive in, you’ll be gobsmacked.
Moisture, slope, soil and semi-annual mowing by the St. Tammany Department of Public Works make this mini-ecology one of the most diverse, rapidly changing habitats in the park. Its many wildflowers and plants are either politely waiting their turn in the growing season, vying for a place in the sun in intense, merciless competition or starting over again to resume their rise to supremacy. Such drama!
Recently, the most prominent plant in the ditch and on the parkway has been the wispy, spire-like Dog fennel (Eupatorium compositifolium). If the name seems familiar it’s because it’s cousin to a plant whose seed is a popular seasoning for pork, fish and lamb chops. After crushing some of the dog fennel I smelled something green and fresh like from the kitchen cutting board and also smelled something pungent like Vic’s VapoRub.
This week the rising star in the ditch is Coffee Weed (Sesbania herbacea). It’s popping up along the Parkway and will become huge four and five foot high banks of emerald green clumps before the mowers arrive. It has foot-long, star-shaped fronds of small, paired leaves that splay out from tall, spindly stalks and have an appearance that reminds one of a fern or mimosa; some confuse it with Rattlebox. They eventually develop pretty little orange-yellow flowers that beget long, skinny seedpods containing the namesake “bean.” Unfortunately, these won’t make a good pot of coffee because, in spite of the name, they are poisonous.
For a plant, they sure do move a lot. Their vertical growth is so fast you can probably hear them crackle at night. In addition to that, they’re “heliotropic” (Greek: “helio” = sun, “tropic” = turn). At the beginning of the day their leaves and stems face east toward the morning sun. During the day they slowly twist to follow the sun and end up facing west. This obviously helps them drink up as much of the sun’s photons as they can. The plant also performs the nocturnal act of “nyctinasty,” (Greek: “nukt” = night + “nasty”). At dark the leaves fold up and stay that way for the night, which seems like an appropriate thing to do after such a hard day’s work.