Plantastic! A Horticultural Journey
On the Pursuit of Plant Wisdom
I grew up barely able to tell the difference between a maple leaf and an oak leaf. I perceived, somewhat dimly, that the crunchy green things I put into my mouth when I ate a salad were plant-related. And now I work with plants for a living. I still have so much to learn in my journey toward plant literacy, but I’ve certainly come a long way. I’m taking my family along for the ride, too. If I’m patient enough, and lucky enough, my kids will not only know the names, biology, and uses of plants in our area, they’ll have a deep and long-lasting reverence for the magic of the natural world. What follows are some of the best tools I’ve made use of along the way:
Learn about (and eat) wild edibles. What better way to learn about plants than to digest them? As we know, an experience that engages all five senses will stick in the mind far longer than a paragraph read on the internet. You’ll feel the texture and taste of the plant on your tongue, and feel the way it sits in your stomach. Go on a wild edible walk with a knowledgeable guide to learn what’s safe and good to eat. Taste the surprising sweetness of black locust flowers, crack open your first shagbark hickory nut, bring home a sack of fiddleheads and sauté them up (as my wife has done the past few springs) for your loved ones. There is a world of gastronomic delight right outside your door. Nature’s Garden by Samuel Thayer is the most enjoyable book on the subject I’ve encountered. Though I haven’t personally taken any, I hear Earthwork Wilderness Survival Training School offers informative classes all through the summer and fall.
Take a field trip. When I first started working as a landscaper and arborist a few years ago, I had to quickly learn about a lot of plants. A lot. Luckily, there are some fantastic public gardens and arboretums in the area, which I used to get up to speed on the job and to pass my certifications. The great thing about these places is that there are so many cultivated varieties of plants so close to each other, and what’s even better is that they’re actually labelled for you, so it’s easy to test yourself on their identification. I’ve found Smith College, UMass, Garden in the Woods, and Berkshire Botanical Garden are all excellent places to start learning. If you’re looking for a specific plant you want to go see, try searching the Smith College or UMass database, both of which can show you exactly where the plant is on a map of the campus.
Volunteer as a plant conservationist. If you already have a solid foundation and want to take your knowledge deeper, as well as provide a useful service to the community, think about volunteering for the New England Wildflower Society. You’ll go out into the field and survey populations of endangered species. The data you collect will be used to help guide land-management decisions that affect us all. Plus, it’s a great place to meet fellow plant nerds.
Stay up-to-date. We are blessed to live in proximity to a land-grant agricultural university. UMass Amherst publishes three horticultural newsletters that are a fantastic resource for us. Hort Notes and the Landscape Message are both geared toward green industry professionals (required reading at the company I work for!) But much of the information is useful for non-professionals who want a sophisticated and timely look at localized environmental data affecting plants, as well as disease and pest pressures our area faces. The Garden Clippings newsletter presents much of the same information in a way more tailored toward the casual gardener.
Walk with a field guide. There are dozens of great field guides covering all different subsections of the plant world. The one I find myself using the most is Wildflowers of New England by Ted Elliman. It’s great because it covers only local plants you’re likely to see, and Elliman arranges the plants by their flower characteristics. Flowers are often the part of the plant that’s most easily distinguished by the mind, especially if you’re a beginner. Take a walk around, see what’s in flower, and add another entry to your mental database of plants. If you’re frugal like I am, you’ll want to try it out first before you spend money on a copy. Lucky for you, there are 29 copies available in the central/western mass library consortium! Request a copy, pick it up a few days later at your local library, and you’re on your way.
Grow your own. A garden is your personal horticultural laboratory. Experiment, draw inspiration from others, break the rules and see what happens, and express yourself through the plants you cultivate and the way you cultivate them. It’s a humbling and endlessly fascinating dance with nature. For an excellent selection of locally grown native plants for sale, check out Nasami Farm in Whately, MA.
For those who enjoy a bit of artistic engagement with the world, give these a try:
Draw. Botanical drawings are a lost art. My powers of illustration are admittedly feeble, but every once in a while I’ll sit down and try to draw a plant, not because what’s produced is a work of art, but because of the intensity of focus and attention it forces me into while I try to reproduce a plant’s image. If you think you know what a plant looks like, try drawing it, and you’ll be surprised by the many subtleties that previously escaped your notice. As an alternative, take photographs of plants in the field, and then draw them once you’re back in the comfort of your home.
Read (and write) some poetry. Having studied creative writing for many years, I couldn’t resist adding this to the list. One of the functions of poetry has always been to observe and exalt the natural world. It might not help you out too much with the specifics, but it will most certainly enrich your overall appreciation. For thousands of years, folks have tried to use language in creative ways in order to represent and express their feelings about the plants they see and interact with. As Mary Oliver writes in The Leaf and The Cloud (a book I highly recommend!),
The poem is not the world.
It isn’t even the first page of the world.
But the poem wants to flower, like a flower.
It knows that much.
I also think you can’t beat the ancient Chinese poets for simplicity, economy, and directness in their approach to the natural world. Check out one of my favorites, Cold Mountain (Han Shan), for some classics.
Create an herbarium collection. A couple years ago, my wife kept a journal filled with pressed wildflowers we found on a cross-country trip where we hiked in many national parks and forests. It was a great way to remember and reconnect with the flora of the places we visited. The simplest way to create an herbarium specimen is to press a plant (flatter and lower moisture plants are a bit easier to work with) in a heavy book (you might want to add some newspaper on either side of the plant to protect the pages). Once the plant is dried out, you can choose any method you want for storing displaying it. Keep a collection in a journal, taped to cardstock in a three ring binder, or even frame it and put it on the wall as artwork. I think this would be a great activity to do with kids, and I’m excited to try it once my son is old enough.
Davis Wang, Certified Arborist and Horticultural Enthusiast
Davis Wang is a certified arborist and licensed pesticide applicator (needed for the application of organic pesticides in MA) who works locally for Hilltown Tree and Garden. He has a Master of Fine Arts in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is married, is in the process of building a house in Ashfield, and has a baby boy on the way.