Making Friends with Flowers

Sometimes the number of plants to learn seems overwhelming, so just take them one at a time. August at Blair Lake.

Getting to know plants is a passion for me. I know I’m not alone in wanting to learn everything I can about them. But since I’m not a trained scientist, my method may be a bit different than the typical botanist. I go about it much the way I would get to know people. The first time you take a class, join a new group, or go to a party with unfamiliar guests, it may seem overwhelming—so many names to learn. Usually, you come home remembering one or two of the people that stood out the most. Perhaps they were the most gregarious or were wearing an unusual outfit. The next time you hang out with this group, you focus on a few more, and you become a little more comfortable in the crowd. Some people you’ll hit it off with right away. Others are harder to get to know, perhaps they are shy, but eventually, you’ll find they can be just as interesting as the more flamboyant. And yes, there are always one or two that you never do feel comfortable with or perhaps even actively dislike.

When I’m in a new area or an unusual habitat, I approach learning the flora as though I am the new kid in school. Some of the flowers are so showy or interesting, it is as though they come to greet me. How could you not want to get to know a gentian or a lily? Next time I see them all, I try to learn a few more. I look at them carefully, see where they are growing, which insects befriend them, which other plants they like to hang out with. Unlike with people, if I can get a name, I can check a book or the internet and found out what someone else knows about the plant. But I don’t take it all for granted. If someone told you something disparaging about a person you’d just met, you’d want to find out for yourself before you believed something unpleasant about them. But there are a few I’d just as soon avoid (poison oak—I’m looking at you!).

Don’t forget the little guys: Gayophytum humile, Mimulus breweri, and M. pulsiferae.

The longer I hang out with these plants, the more comfortable I am with them. Eventually, I want to get to know the shy ones. They take a lot more effort but often prove to be some of my favorites. It seems the more you put into a relationship, the greater the reward. I used to avoid willows, they just seemed so perplexing. Now I can’t wait to see the first willow flowers of early spring. Some of my best days have been spent hanging out with willows. When I first started leading hikes, I was frustrated when someone would stop me to ask about some tiny, white-flowered belly plant. Why, with all the paintbrushes and penstemon, would anyone care about something that insignificant? Now I find myself seeking out these littlest of plants. I get down on my hands and knees to check out annual knotweeds (Polygonum spp.), look under shady thickets for Stellaria obtusa, and take out the handlens to get a better look at the itsy-bitsy flowers of groundsmokes (Gayophytum spp.). Then there are those cliques that are very select, and it takes a lot of work before they let you in. I’m still not sure what the secret handshake is that will let me into the willowherb (Epilobium spp.) club, but the exclusivity only increases my determination to befriend them.

Now that I’ve spent so much time in the Western Cascades, I feel like I’m among friends when I’m up there. With spring around the corner, I can hardly wait to get back up into the mountains to see the first snowmelt species. Claytonia lanceolata is one of my favorites—how I miss it! And in just a few months I’ll be able to visit with all my old buddies up at Groundhog Mountain, Mount June, and Tire Mountain. The crowd up in the Calapooyas is really fantastic, too, and I definitely want to get to know them better. Getting to know the plants takes time, but it is so rewarding. So next time you’re out on a hike, be brave, and introduce yourself to a wildflower you haven’t met before. You may find it’s willing to share some of its secrets with you. And before you know it, you’ll have a new BFFF (best flower friend forever!).

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