When my sons were around four years old they started to learn how to distinguish the differences in plants. They would get excited about the coming of spring and ready to work in the garden. After spending a great deal of time with the leaves in the fall, they began 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. Several crushed flower 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 in full swing and summer just around the corner, it’s past time to start thinking about wildflowers and striving to make space for them in our own yards and gardens. But you can always plan for next year. 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.
This 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-coded 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.
With wildflowers in bloom across the River Valley, now is the time to take a hike with field guide in hand and identify what you’d like to see popping up in your native wildflower garden next year.