Reading The Leaves
Learning the Names + Ways of Plants
As a child, forests, savannas and other even vaguely wild places seemed enchanted to me, filled with myriad and nameless vines and grasses, flowers and mosses that captured my attention and enticed me to look ever closer. What words I learned for the plants around me I clung to and recited to myself: Honeysuckle, Mangrove, Peppergrass, Live Oak, Palm and Lady’s Slipper all seemed charmed just by the nature of their names. Those seemingly rare people I heard of or read about who knew all the names, habits and habitats of the plants of a specific place seemed to possess a very special sort of magic to me. A magic usually relegated to the denizens of Faery, the interior landscapes of Tolkien or the tribal peoples of faraway jungles.
Field guides fascinated me early on, but often seemed written in an impenetrable language for some special class of the taxonomically adept. Most often, I asked anyone vaguely plant-oriented about the name of my favorite flowers and weeds, and then looked the names up in my guides and encyclopedias to see pictures and descriptions. Unfortunately, more often than not, I ended up in a tangle of overlapping common names or with the wrong plant altogether. Which put me right back at the point of thinking that plant identification was some sort of special acuity that required either a university degree or a Faery lineage to effectively utilize.
Teaching myself botany from books, I continued to stumble over impossible to pronounce words, and to work myself into frustrated frenzies over the lack of common sense instructions in plain english about how to properly use a dichotomous key. Equally frustrating to me was that the glossy, well illustrated field guides were often vague, limited or worst of all, simply incorrect. Even now, I still find myself fumbling over terminology and frustrated with the distinct lack of a reliable flora for my area, but I know enough to walk through a forest anywhere in my bioregion and name most of the plants at a genus level, always granting me a deep sense of satisfaction and the sense of being a part of the landscape rather than a curious outsider.
I have yet to meet a self-proclaimed plant person who isn’t excited – or even downright obsessed – with learning more about every sort of plant they come in contact with. And yet these same people, when I say the word “botany”, suddenly wrinkle up their noses in distaste or shudder before going blank-eyed with intimidation at the mention of anything so scientific and complicated. I’ve also witnessed a tendency in some students and herbalists to stick with farm bought garden-grown herbs in order to avoid the difficulty of positively identifying wild plants. And while farms and gardens can certainly be a sustainable and wonderful way of obtaining herbs, it doesn’t remove the importance of learning the basics of differentiating one plant from another and getting to know the individual characteristics and traits of each genus and species on a sensory level.
When I speak here of botany, I primarily mean field botany (the study of plants in their habitat) and especially plant identification. The idea that botany belongs to some special class of overeducated professor types, is actually a very recent stereotype. In the larger timeline of history and prehistory, botany was the territory of everyone wanting to eat, or to treat their ills. The recognizing and naming of plants is inherently a knowledge and activity of all people who are in direct contact with the land they live on. It implies not sterile data obtained in labs and libraries, but rather, intimacy gained through time spent in the dirt and scrub, meadows and trees. Botany is the language of gardeners, naturalists, wildcrafters, herbalists and all other people engaged in a living relationship with the natural world. Certainly many of the people belonging to the above categories may not use or even recognize the term, but if they have ever spent time noticing similarities and dissimilarities between two different plants in order to know which one they want for food, medicine, shelter or tinder for fire, then they are engaging in some form of plant identification.
The human tradition of refining our shared knowledge of plants into a system of information that allows us to share, teach and personally understand which plant is which and why is not only incredibly useful, but also a portal into the green world. It is through this direct observation and experience that we can come to know the secret habits of Skunk Cabbage flowers as they unfurl from under their casings of late Spring snow. This is how we can walk along a riverbank crowded with Willows and see that there is not just a group of identical generic Willow trees as it may first appear, but actually five different species with unique leaf shapes, flowers, growth habits and even bark colors. So much of what appears as a wall of solid, shapeless green to the casual glance suddenly become discernible as individual and amazingly intricate variations to the watchful, practiced eye.
Plant identification is an ancient instinct in our kind, frequently witnessed in small children as they curiously peer into flowers, enthusiastically dissect seedpods and run from plant to plant, asking “what’s this?” and “why is it purple?” with great excitement and an insatiable need to know. We are a species very much invested in the naming and classifying of the world around us. Exactly how we utilize this tendency varies a great deal in both benefit and efficacy, but there’s no doubt that the power of the spoken word begins here, at the primal point of recognizing and naming the world around us.
Essentially, all indigenous and tribal societies have or had some working system of field botany including taxonomy (classification based on similarities or relationship), nomenclature (a system of words used in naming organisms) and ecology (the relationships between organisms and their environment). While certainly not identical to the Linnaean system or the even more recent DNA-based taxonomy they still provided coherent and dependable ways of learning how to recognize local plants, usually based on observation of notable, similar traits.
The Aztecs had particular symbols for types of plants as well as for specific plants and extensive terminology for describing plant parts. While the Aztecs are probably the most well researched and popular example of an indigenous peoples’ relationship with their local flora, they are certainly far from the only one. The Maya, Tohono O’odham, Akimel O’odham and Navajo are just a few examples of peoples whose language and concepts grew in part from the plants themselves. Even the later agrarian peoples have all held detailed knowledge of both wild and domestic plants as necessary knowledge for survival.
Only with the advent of industrial civilization, do so many of us find ourselves cut off from ancestral and instinctual knowledge, creating a rift between us and our food, our medicine, our very surroundings. Still, biological diversity insistently flourishes even between cracked slabs of pavement and in the neat geometry of suburban backyards. We need familiarity and understanding of our surroundings, nourishment and medicine just as much now as at any point in our history as a species.
Science has given us the great gift of not only preserving but perpetuating precious plant information. Even in its most systemized and inaccessible formats, botany offers the herbalist an enormous wealth of knowledge that can be used both as a jumping off point for our own experiential explorations and as a place to come back for clarification in understanding these enormously complex organisms we love so well.
As herbalists, many of us would like to automatically know what plant is what and dive right into its “uses”, but in making such a leap we deprive ourselves of a specific sort of relationship with the plant, in which we understand how a fine dusting of gold can be carried from one flower to another and in that way proliferate life, in which we know how this particular species lures insects to itself and how to recognize when the plant has been pollinated. It’s one kind of magic to see the beauty of a purple daisy-like flower and smell its scent and touch the sticky silk texture of it. It’s yet another, to know that it is recognized the world over by the name Dieteria bigelovii and is from the family Asteraceae, and that you are gazing at not only one flower but many bundled together in a single colorful inflorescence. And to look around and be able to know which other plants near you are related to it by the form of their flowers. This is more than just labels and categories, it is a tool for seeing further, deeper, more fully.
We may resist the foreign twist of tongue required by the Latin and Greek of botanical nomenclature, but these words aren’t simply arbitrary, they provide us with often fascinating and beautiful insights into the nature of the plant itself, whether it has many flowers (multiflora) or is sticky to the touch or what color it might be or simply that it is lovely (amabilis) to look at. Many of these words are intriguing and pleasing in their own right, and from nectary to filament, there is a certain poetry to these words often perceived peculiar to botany, the art and science of flowers and roots, pedicels and rhizomes.
When I walk through a frost-touched meadow and am able to name each brown and gold stalked wildflower, recognizable to me even long past flowering, I experience a thrill at that potent magic I so longed for as a child, magic now just beneath my seeking fingertips, waiting for my eyes to notice the form of seeds and stems, for my lips to recite a beloved litany of familiar names: Hymenoxys, Rudbeckia, Actaea, Aralia, Mertensia… Each time I learn the unique way in which a specific species branches up from the soil or notice the certain twist of a flower’s sepals, it feels like memorizing the lines on a lover’s face or knowing the distinct touch of my daughter’s hand even in the dark. Through the names and ways of the plants I’ve learned to read the leaves, and find myself ever deeper in the forest’s enchantment.