I used to have a problem staying interested in plants. My first interest in the natural world was birds. Birds are not only beautiful but endlessly active. They soar so high you can barely see them. They make short, quick flights from perches on tree limbs to capture flying insects. They run after retreating waves on sandy beaches. They punch holes in tree trunks to uncover the eggs and larvae of wood-boring beetles. It is uncommon to see one just sitting, and when you do you don't expect it to sit for long.
But when you look at a plant it appears to be doing nothing at all. The wind, like a puppet master, makes it move. When the wind dies, the plant is motionless. Its leaves may rustle, but the wind is the source of the sound.
I would not deny the beauty or the importance of plants. I can respond aesthetically to the delicate blooms of a white-fringed orchid or the stately magnificence of an ancient white oak. And I learned way back in high school that green plants are the producers in the earth's ecosystems, the organisms that capture the sun's energy and make it available to animals, fungi, and bacteria. When I began studying ecology I learned about all sorts of beautiful relationships between plants and animals. I learned of orchids that reproduce by arousing the prurient interests of bees. I learned of butterflies whose caterpillars could live on the leaves of one particular species of plant and no other.
When I began to look into the reasons for these specialized eating habits, I also began to lose the belief that plants were passive. The specialized food preferences of caterpillars are mainly a response to the chemical weaponry developed by plants. Plants are chemical-warfare production facilities. Consider strychnine and cyanide and cocaine and heroin and nicotine and the thousands of other compounds that plants generate.
The relationship between insects and their plant hosts can be seen as a lovely example of evolution in action, or it can be viewed as an arms race, with the plants endlessly producing new toxins and the insect populations endlessly developing immunities. Monarch butterflies and milkweed beetles thrive on toxic, foul-tasting milkweeds and thus have a whole genus of common plants largely to themselves. Tobacco hornworms--which are moth larvae--are apparently immune to nicotine. If physicians had paid attention during their ecology and evolution classes, they might have used antibiotics a little more sparingly. If farmers had studied ecology, they might have applied a little less DDT or malathion.
Plants also act on their environments in profound ways. Henry Chandler Cowles--one of the founders of ecology--studied plant succession on the Indiana dunes. He showed how plants can turn a bare dune into a forest by creating shade, enriching the soil, sheltering the ground from wind, and increasing the humidity.
So they are beautiful and important, but as I learned more about them, I also found that they could be very frustrating. As a birder I was used to frustration. Wild birds can be very hard to identify. You see them in poor light, you see only parts of them, they give you three seconds of a partial look and then fly away. With my background in birding I figured identifying plants would be a snap. After all, they hold still. With the assistance of a hand lens, you can check for hairs on the undersides of leaves or study the leaflike bracts at the bases of the flowers. If you can't arrive at an identification after very close inspection, you can go home and consult various reference books and come back the next day and study the same plant again.
As a beginning field botanist, I had some of the same experiences I had as a beginning birder. I kept running into things that weren't in the guidebooks. When that happens to birders they can be pretty sure that the problem lies in their lack of skill, because bird guides offer pictures and descriptions of every bird you are likely to see in the area covered by the guide. But guides to wildflowers have to make selections; there are just too many species for one book to cover. So, for example, Peterson's A Field Guide to the Wildflowers does not include false white indigo, an important plant of the tallgrass prairies of Illinois.
I did my first serious botanizing in northern Wisconsin. That region is not as diverse as the Chicago area, but it has tens of thousands of acres of largely natural land that has never been looked at by a botanist. I could find grass-pink orchids blooming on the floating mat of a bog and be reasonably sure nobody had ever seen those particular plants before.
As I learned the identities of the common plants, the landscape of the North Woods began to sort itself out for me. Looking at plants, I discovered, added a historical dimension to natural areas. Birds come and go. Because of their mobility, they are excellent environmental indicators. They tell us what things are like right now, but they tell us nothing about the past. Plants, especially the more conservative species, stay put. I could walk into a young hardwood stand in Vilas County, Wisconsin, find a wildflower like the graceful pink pipsissewa, and have strong reason to believe that this hardwood stand used to be a pine woods. The loggers of the Paul Bunyan era took out the big pines--though the remains of very large stumps are still visible in many places. Repeated intense fires killed off the young pines. The hardwoods, with their ability to resprout from their roots even after a fire has killed the aboveground parts of the tree, took over. You can find stands with hardwood canopies and ground-layer plants typical of pine forests all over the North Woods.
Exploring the North Woods gave me my first taste of the delights a passionate interest in plants can provide. For a long time I didn't feel that sort of passion about the plant life of this region. Partly this is because I was doing a lot of journalism about nature in this region. Sometimes journalists are so busy gathering information they don't have time to learn anything. Journalists also have access to the best authorities on any subject they cover; when people like Dr. Robert Betz, the leading authority on the tallgrass prairie in our region, or Floyd Swink, senior author of Plants of the Chicago Region, are conducting you through natural areas, you can get by on very little knowledge of your own.
I also had the feeling that the Chicago area had been so thoroughly picked over by generations of botanists that there was nothing left to discover. Going to a natural area to see a particular plant seemed like going to the Art Institute to see a Cezanne. Beautiful, yes, but there isn't much suspense involved.
Over the years, as I learned more, my attitude began to change, but I didn't completely lose my indifference until we started to grow wild plants in our backyard. We have a typical city backyard. It is both small and partly shaded by buildings. But there is a small part that gets full sun for much of the day. About half that area is devoted to tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, sweet green peppers, jalapenos, and poblanos. The other half is the world's smallest prairie. In a space of about 80 square feet, we have two species of blazing star, northern dropseed grass, big and little bluestem grass, obedient plant, grass-leaved goldenrod, nodding wild onion, compass plant, culver's root, prairie dock, butterfly weed, pasture rose, brown-eyed susan, Jerusalem artichoke, and a couple of asters whose identities I won't be certain of until they come into flower. This fall we will take out the last of the hostas and daylilies left by the previous owner, and next year we will enrich the prairie with even more species.
On a little patch of formerly bare ground in the shade of a cherry tree is a woodland-savanna garden with Solomon's seal, wild geranium, large-flowered trillium, columbine, jack-in-the-pulpit, bottlebrush grass, and tall white lettuce.
Living with these plants has totally changed my attitude. Seeing them develop and change day by day, watching the cycle of their lives through the year is an experience quite unlike making an occasional visit to a natural area. The spring ephemerals--the trillium and jack-in-the-pulpits--bloom in May and die back to the ground by the end of June. The grass-leaved goldenrod is just now beginning to grow buds.
The culver's root seems to be producing new shoots from rhizomes or other underground structures. Bumblebees go absolutely crazy over this plant. They don't just feed on the flowers, they drape themselves over the blossoms and hang there as if besotted.
The Jerusalem artichokes are spreading too. This fall we will probably harvest some of their tubers, which are good to eat. The name is a famous example of folk etymology. They are sunflowers, and they arrived in England with the Italian name girasole--which means "sunflower"--attached to them. Girasole evolved into Jerusalem, though the plants are from the middle west and have nothing to do with the Middle East. For that matter they don't have much to do with artichokes, which are the flowers of a kind of thistle. By next year I hope to have enough nodding wild onion to be able to harvest a few bulbs. Maybe I can use them to flavor a soup.
An intimate association with the rest of nature was the typical human experience through most of our history as a species. The loss of that intimacy has had terribly destructive consequences. How wonderful that even a city yard can give us a taste of that ancient relationship.