Wildflowers and the Discernment of Weeds

Venus Looking Glass. Photo from Wildflowers.org.

Venus Looking Glass. Photo from Wildflowers.org.

Just this past year I’ve noticed my four- year old sons are starting to learn how to distinguish the differences in plants. They’re excited about the coming of spring and ready to work in the garden. After spending a great deal of time with the leaves this past fall, they’ve begun to notice the subtleties and different shapes, a far cry from when I first started taking them to the garden as toddlers. I figured they wanted to pull up plants so I’d find a way channel their energy. I plopped them down in front of some weeds and told them to have fun. I turned my back to work on other tasks, and several crushed flower seedlings and tomato seedlings later, I realized there’s more to weeding than just pulling up something by its roots. It takes a bit of discernment, not to mention restraint.

When I first started gardening I thought of growing mainly in terms of cultivated plants—the kind I found in packages and in seed catalogs. But over time I’ve become more and more interested in wildflowers and native tree species and the instrumental role they play in keeping our ecosystem healthy.  Far too often we consider these plants weeds, mowing them down or pulling them up to make room for the plants we buy in nurseries. But native plants and wildflowers are specifically tailored to our local environment and are perfect food sources for the butterflies and beneficial insects we desperately need to ensure our own survival.

So I’ve made it a goal to learn more about native Arkansas plants and to pass on this knowledge to my young children who get a special kick out of the vibrancy and storybook quality of the names: Papaws, venus looking glass, prairie blazing star, and butterfly weed. With spring around the corner, it’s the perfect time to start thinking about wildflowers and striving to make space for them in our own yards and gardens. Thankfully there are numerous resources out there to help us identify the varieties of wildflowers and native trees, including an extensive list of publications that can be found online via the Arkansas Native Plant Society. Examples include “Weeds of Arkansas, A Guide to Identification,” by Ford Baldwin and Edwin Smith; Carl Hunter’s Trees, Autumn Leaves & Winter Berries in Arkansas and Wildflowers of Arkansas, both published by the Ozark Society. Arkansas Wildflowers by Don Kurz is also an excellent resource. 

206793This past Christmas I was gifted with a small pamphlet entitled Arkansas Trees and Wildflowers: An Introduction to Familiar Species.  Created by Waterford Press, this handy guide easily fits into a back pocket or bag and is light enough to carry anywhere. With it’s colorful illustrations it’s also appealing to young children who can use the color-coated guide to look up any flowers they might find in the woods or in home yards, including varieties like queen anne’s lace, wood sorrel, culver’s root, closed gentian, and jack-in-the-pulpit. We can’t wait until spring when we can take the guide along with us when we go walking.

How do you introduce your kids to native plants? How did you learn about native plants and how do you make space for them on your own property? Did a relative teach you their names? Or is it something you’ve learned through personal research? I’d love to hear all about it. Thanks so much for reading!

Resources and related columns

The Seed and the Story is a partnership with the Courier newspaper in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region. All Seed and the Story columns are written by Boiled Down Juice editor, Meredith Martin-Moats.