I learned a lot about plants as a child. I lived in a quiet suburb, down the road from a farm, and not far from the woods. My parents were both interested in nature, particularly in plants. They kept several gardens: typical landscape plants in the front, showy flowers and herbs along the sunny side, ferns and wildflowers along the shady side, and vegetables in the back yard. My mother would take me on trips to gather things such as bittersweet, cattails, and pussy willows to use as seasonal decorations for the house. My father took my brother and me hiking often.
They taught me to identify many plants. In the woods were skunk cabbage, trillium, bloodroot, Dutchman’s-breeches, Indian pipe, and jewelweed. We were always on the lookout for lady’s-slippers. Wild irises grew behind the soccer fields and bluets along the way to school. In the yard grew violets, white and red clovers, yellow woodsorrel, and pokeweed. Along the back fence, there were wild roses, the same kind that grow near the library here. My mother hated them, because they were invasive and prickly, but I always loved the way they smelled, even though they’d tear at me with their thorns if I wasn’t careful. We once found a litter of kittens sheltering beneath them. The kittens were sick, their eyes infected. I still remember how sad I was when my mother wouldn’t let us keep them. She said they were too sick to survive.
We had several types of maple trees in the yard. One of them was a sugar maple, and my parents decided to tap it one year. They boiled the sap (and boiled, and boiled), until the house became a syrup-scented sauna. This produced just enough syrup for each of us to have a taste on our pancakes that day. So much work for so little payoff. But they took us every year to a genuine “sugar shack,” where we always bought a little jug of syrup, so every year we got to enjoy real maple syrup until the jug ran dry.
I loved the nature magazines, such as Ranger Rick, that we had at school. When one of them included a recipe for violet syrup, I convinced my parents that we should try it. Thankfully, it required a lot less boiling than the maple syrup did. We learned that violet syrup has a strange taste, a little like strawberry, but definitely its own flavor. It’s worth making if only for the sake of watching the syrup change color from a greenish-blue to a bright, jewel-toned pink when you add the requisite acid (e.g., lemon juice).
On vacation at Keuka Lake in upstate New York, there were Queen Anne’s lace, chicory, sweet pea, butter-and-eggs, daisies, and black-eyed Susan. Our vacation usually coincided with blueberry season, so we would devote one day of vacation hiking up alongside the glen, empty coffee cans in hand, to forage for wild blueberries which my father would use to make the most delicious blueberry pancakes.
As children of the neighborhood, we absorbed the children’s lore of foraging, things our parents did not teach us and sometimes didn’t even know about. Every year we sampled the nectars of the red clover and the honeysuckle. The pears in my best friend’s back yard were tempting, but we couldn’t eat them (too much competition from wasps), but we did eat the occasional wild grape from the vines that grew behind her garage. We knew where the raspberries grew, and we felt free to raid our neighbors’ properties for them. When the large mulberry tree at the end of the street was in season, we gorged ourselves on the juicy fruit. My mother didn’t know they were edible, and once, when I came home with my hands and clothes stained purple, she freaked out a bit, worried that I might have eaten something poisonous.
We knew not to eat the catalpa pods that grew at the other end of the street, but I bet I could still recognize the smell of them, because of course we played with them, as we did with pine cones, acorns, and maple seeds. Buttercups always proved how much we liked butter. Behind the school playground there was an impassable thicket of what the other kids called “poison sumac.” I never put the “poison” part to the test, because we trusted each other implicitly, and I still steer clear of anything that looks like it.
And if all of that weren’t enough, my parents also had copies of several books by Euell Gibbons. Gibbons was famous in his day among the back-to-nature types. My parents had an interest in learning more about foraging, and they enjoyed the books, though my father always said that Gibbons had died from stomach cancer and that it was probably from eating all those weird plants (which, as it turns out, is probably not true; the Wikipedia article says he died from an aortic aneurysm). I even occasionally dipped into the books, but I have to admit, the “stomach cancer thing” stuck with me and made me a little leery of foraging for anything other than the most common types of fruit.
All of this I learned as a child. It was more than most kids knew then, and a lot more than most kids are learning now. Though I have been steadily identifying local plants for years, still I probably can’t name half of what I see on my walks. And I guess the point of this post, aside from indulging in nostalgia for my somewhat idyllic childhood, is that we live in a big, amazing, and poorly understood world. Someday soon, we might all feel really sorry for our ignorance of how nature works, when it finally gives up and stops working. I keep voting for better environmental policies, of course, but the last three years have made me less than optimistic about the future. That makes me sad, but at least I can try to better understand our big, amazing world while it lasts.