Hobblebush baneberry jimsonweed carrion flower
Death angel nightshade toadstool doll’s eyes
Heal-all boneset vervain Joe-Pye weed
Musk mallow jewelweed pussytoes meadowsweet
These four lines mark the spacing between the stanzas in a poem entitled “Weeds” and are the common names of some of the plants that live on our farm. I presented the poem at a workshop once and the woman sitting next to me asked me where I found all the names of plants. I was stumped by the question, I literally didn’t understand what she was asking. Where did I find them? They were all around me! Fortunately, the leader of the workshop was a friend who leapt in before I made a fool of myself and said, "Oh, Kathleen is an earth mother, she knows the names of the plants.”
This was the first time I had actually come face to face with the fact that there were people who don’t know the names of the plants that grow around them. The woman who had asked was a gardener and lived in a suburb with large lots and wooded areas, and yet she had no knowledge of the plants other than those which she and her neighbors had planted in their yards.
As a country, we have one of the most mobile and urban populations (82%) in the world. The average American moves more than 11 times over a lifetime. With the life expectancy of 78 years, that doesn’t give you much time to get to know where you are in the bioregional scope of things. With the constant relocation and the move away from the countryside, there is a ‘forgetting’ of the life of the earth. We notice the wildflowers by the roadside, but don’t give them a thought. We eradicate the native species in our yards to replace them with plants of our choosing. We live on the world but not with the earth. Both Kathleen Norris in her book Dakota and Gary Snyder in his book The Practice of the Wild quote Native American elders as saying that the longer the rest of us stay in North America, the more Indian we will become, the more the spirits of the land will recognize us and begin to speak to us. But sometimes, it seems as if we are trying to avoid becoming citizens of this patch of earth.
The first spring that both of our daughters were in school, I spent the morning of every school day walking back to the woods. I grew up knowing the plants that grew in the meadows and pastures and along the road edges, but I had never spent much time in the woods other than looking for lost heifers. I knew jack-in-pulpits and violets, but not Indian cucumber root or Canada may flower. That year, I took my camera and a notebook and my elderly Border Collie and went off regardless of the weather. I was on a mission to find as many wildflowers as I could. After the first week, I splurged and bought a copy of the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide To Wildflowers Eastern Region. I have since bought a second copy along with the Peterson Field Guide and several others including a copy of the New York Museum Memoir 15 Wildflowers of New York published in 1918. It had become an obsession to find and name as many of these plants as I could. The first spring, I had a list of about 25, many new to me. Since then the list of flowering plants has grown to well more than 100, plants that I have found, recorded, and photographed on our farm. Not all are native, and not all desirable, but it is important to know all the good, the bad and the ugly to have a full understanding of where I live.
I know some of you are saying, ‘Easy for you, you live in the country!’ But even if you live in the city, there are ways of learning what grew there, and what grows there yet. More and more, there are parks and areas attached to museums and nature societies that are paying attention to the original plants. An example that I know of, though I have never been, is the Tifft Nature Preserve, which is part of the Buffalo Museumof Science in Buffalo, NY. Having spoken with them, I know they are very pro-active in teaching about the plants, animals and birds that live in the area, making sure that students and adults have at least as much knowledge of the local flora and fauna as they do of the rain forest. I am sure there are many such places near and in urban areas if you but look.
There are also many good books, the field guides that I mentioned before, along with books like Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild and Aldous Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, which give looks into specific bioregions. Hal Borland is also a good author to look for when seeking first person accounts of the countryside in a specific area.
Online, there are several good sites for finding wildflowers. Audubon Guides requires a registration, but has good photos, descriptions and maps for the areas where the flowers are native. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has a good guide. The USDA has a huge plant database that will give you plant lists for your area, endangered species lists, invasive species lists as well as pictures, common names, scientific names and habits of individual plants. On All Things Plants, there are both a Wildflower Forum and a Plant ID forum as well as the Plant Database all of which can be very helpful in identifying and discussing the plants that we live with.
You will find as you become more knowledgeable about the plants that you will notice more plants, begin to learn the names of the shrubs and trees, begin to feel more a part of the land on which you live. You will also find that as you begin to know the plants, you will be able to better choose plants for your garden that are suited to your area and your success rate will increase.
You may begin to feel that the spirits of the land have recognized you, that they are speaking to you and that rather than just living on the earth, you have begun to live with the earth.
The plants shown are: Trillium erectum (thumbnail) a genetic anomaly in green
Medeola virginiana Indian Cucumber Root
Trillium erectum Purple Trillium or Stinking Benjamin
Anemone americana Round-lobed Hepatica
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