You can learn a lot about someone just by looking in their refrigerator. These days, the refrigerator at High Plains Environmental Center is crammed full of zip lock bags containing wildflower seeds in damp sand.
If you are seeding wildflowers outdoors it’s best to do it in November before the first snow, just as nature does. However, if you are growing them in trays indoors, many types of seeds will need to have this cold period replicated in order to get them started.
From the bags in our refrigerator we are planning to grow 10,000 seedlings of native plants for restoration projects. Where some might just see bags of dirt with labels like “Verbena hastata”, “Asclepias incarnata” and “Helianthus nutallii”, my “plantish” friends and I get very excited looking through my refrigerator. We see the promise of purple, yellow and pinkish-orange flowers, soaring high above wetland meadows in summers yet to come.
At the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, MA, where I studied horticulture, I once saw a note pinned up on the wall that said “a seed is a baby plant, asleep in a box, with its lunch”. I don’t know who wrote this but it’s a good description of what a seed really is. The “lunch” refers to the endosperm, stored starch that sustains the seed until its roots develop and can absorb nutrients. Some seeds can remain asleep in the box for years, even centuries, waiting for the right conditions to come along.
In the fall we go out and gather wildflower seeds. By gathering seeds locally we are preserving a distinct local genotype that has adapted to our specific conditions. The seeds gathered at another elevation, or in another state will not be quite the same. It’s a pleasant enough task to go seed gathering. Last fall on a golden afternoon of Indian summer, I was walking along scanning the ground for familiar friends, when a flock of sandhill cranes flew overhead, trumpeting their wild and ancient call tllrrr, tllrr, tllrr, a bit like running your finger down a comb, only much better.
Identifying plants in their dried form requires an intimate familiarity with the plants and it helps to know the landscape well in order to know where to look for certain things. Once you notice the pattern you can see a particular plant and know what else you can expect to find growing there. Cottonwood trees grow on creeks throughout the West; underneath them you’re likely to find chokecherries and golden currants grown from seeds dropped by birds that rested in the trees. Those who know the language of plant communities will unconsciously inventory the landscape as they drive down the highway.
One of my instructors at the Arboretum, Paul Martin Brown, taught a course called Flora of New England. I think he knew the name and address of every plant in the 6 state region. If you were talking about wild orchids, he would say “go to the Shaw’s parking lot in Nashua, New Hampshire and look north at the wetlands there, then come back and tell me what you saw.”
It is not necessary to know the name of every plant in order to enjoy them but I will offer a very brief taxonomy lesson here. Plants are categorized by the form of their flowers. They are not categorized by the shapes of their leaves, the form of their growth, or where they grow. Many plants within the same genus may look very different from each other. Plants, like other living things, are scientifically categorized by genus and species. The genus, which is the first name refers to the larger group, like your family’s last name. The second name is the species and often refers to some characteristic that distinguishes it from the others of its genus like “hirsutissima” meaning “hairy.” So, Clematis hirsutissima, is a hairy species of the genus, clematis.
There are other ways to know plants and many people who know plants intimately do not know the Latin names. Native people of the region know that chewing the seeds of the prairie coneflower, Echinacea anugustifolia, will make your mouth numb, so it makes a good toothache medicine. Sweet flag, Acorus calamus, is good medicine for colds and stomach flu, if you can stomach the bitter taste that is.
When looking for a particular plant, traditionally native people will sit down and make an offering to the first one they find. When you do this you slowly tune into the landscape and then you begin to see more and more. I like to touch the plants and smell their leaves. I find that the physical memory of them remains with me the longest but don’t do this with poison ivy, although if you do I’m certain you won’t forget it.
In the midst of a culture that marks changes of the year by the decorations and candy that appear in stores, these sleeping seeds help me remember where we really are. Over the course of my life I have repeatedly had a disturbing dream in which it is summer and I haven’t planted anything. I don’t think there’s anything psychological about it. The dream underscores for me the importance of connecting oneself to the rhythm of the seasons. I like knowing when the moon is full or new, when things will bloom or go to seed and my heart literally leaps when I hear the first peeping frogs emerge from the cold Spring mud.
You can learn a tremendous amount from a seed. Every seed contains within itself an ancestral memory of seasons past which it has never known. It knows how to grow, how to bloom and exactly when to do so.
In the dark depths of winter the tiny seeds remain steadfast and resolute. They seem to know that sunlight, soil and water are the things that truly matter and that the glory of summer will inevitably return. In challenging times such as these we would do well to take a lesson from the seeds, to return to what truly sustains us and reflect on where we are in the cycle of seasons.
Jim Tolstrup is the Executive Director of the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, Colorado. HPEC works with developers, businesses and homeowners, to promote the restoration and conservation of Colorado’s unique native biodiversity in the suburban environments where we live, work and play. www.suburbitat.org