Let’s face it. Some of us are snobs. My brother says I’m a coffee snob, because I won’t drink coffee that is over one hour old. He might have a point, but he doesn’t have much room to talk, for he is a plant snob. Let me explain.
Twenty-five years ago, my brother moved here from western Oregon. He had been a landscaper there, where lush rhododendrons grow to the size of small trees, and camellias abound. As a child, I remember plunging my face into dewy Peace roses and breathing in their fruity aroma.
If an Idahoan travels to the west side of the Cascade mountains in February, eyes that are accustomed to the white and blue-gray winterscape are startled by glowing emerald. It’s chlorophyll overload.
When my brother first arrived here, he would eye our wind-stunted rhododendrons, and sniff at our demure yards. He craved tulip trees, azaleas, massive blue hydrangeas and dogwood–that luscious fare on which his eyes were accustomed to dine. To his mind, nothing grows here.
I, who had arrived five years earlier, scarcely noticed, for here, our woodlands are graced with plants considered at-risk elsewhere. Trilliums and mountain lady slippers are almost as common as buttercups in other locales. Twinflower forms glistening mounds at the base of conifers. Turks Cap lily waves above the tall grasses, and from under Solomon Seal’s plaited leaf stalk, flower pairs dangle like pearl earrings.
I think one settles into it. No longer provided with the magnificent and expansive colors of the West Coast, one begins to focus in on the delicate varied forms of the Inland forest. Katherine S. White, a garden writer and editor in the 1950’s, and also the wife of E.B. White, the English stylist, was from Maine. Her tastes in plants were cultivated by her region. In the preface to a collection of her writings, called Onward and Upward in the Garden, her husband writes, “New England was what she knew as a child, and the roots of her ancestors went deep in the soil of Maine and of Massachusetts. The things that grew in New England, therefore, were ‘correct.’ They occupied a special place in her heart, an authenticity not enjoyed by flowers that made the mistake of blooming in other parts of the country.” A devoted gardener, Katherine never cared for gladiolas or dahlias, or even for the gentle camellia.
To each their own, I say. To me, a touch of the flamboyant is always welcome and I think the local country women who grow long garden rows of dahlias and gladiolas are owed a debt of beauty.
Nevertheless, I confess I have been a bit persnickety. Because I came to herbalism through my love of wild plants, for a long while, I remained emotionally distant from the common cultivated herbs. If someone suggested catnip or chamomile as a remedy for colic, for example, I would respond with a lukewarm “hmmm.” I’m sure this must have been annoying. When I received the materials for my beginning course in herbal studies, I was a bit disappointed that so many of the monographs dealt with our everyday plants, such as horehound, mint and plantain. In other words, I turned up my priggish little nose at the homely plants which have served our forbears so faithfully for millennia. As my studies progressed, however, I learned how exciting these plants really are; their chemical makeup and pharmacological effects on the human body became fascinating to me. Now I cultivate these understated plants with tender solicitude.
Oh, I still long to cultivate the False Unicorn, an excellent uterine tonic, or the now-rare American Ginseng. I still go into paroxysms of joy at the discovery of Aralia nudicaulis, used medicinally by over 70 Native American groups, growing wild by my home. But I do have new found respect for the so-called common plants.
In fact my loyalty now even goes so far as wishing to extend a word of praise for the overlooked pansy. Who has not heard the slanderous saying, “Don’t be a pansy,” as an admonishment to not be a weakling. Pansies are anything but– they are one of the few cultivated flowers that can withstand our chilling spring frosts and winds. Their blooms often peek out from under early snows. I ask you, is that not a face you can love?
About a year ago, my brother made a fall visit to the West Coast. On the final part of the drive home, he passed through woods hushed by dampened grasses of lavender and russet, bronze and brown, a forest floor sheltered by beaten-gold larch and defined by light blossoming over the fiery mountains.
“What was I thinking?” he said later, shaking his head over his early ill-impressions. I smiled. I knew then… he had settled in.by