My sister Agnes followed me around the side of my house. Stopping and pointing dramatically at a towering bush beside the living room window, I exclaimed, “Look how big my Pinky-Winky hydrangea bush has grown. I’m glad I didn’t plant it right below the picture window. We wouldn’t be able to see out!”
Each time my sister and I visit each other, we walk through our respective yards showing how the flowers and bushes are doing. Moments before my big hydrangea reveal, we had examined double pink hollyhocks growing beneath the kitchen windows. As we inspect, we discuss what we see and like.
While walking through Agnes’ yard once, I remembered following my mother and her sister Theresa, who was home for her yearly visit, from flowerbed to flowerbed in our backyard on the farm during my childhood. Each year Mom and Daddy made a one weekend visit to visit Theresa, where they did the same thing at her home.
I’m not sure if all families talk and look at plants as much as my family has and still does. Our botanical interest goes beyond common backyard flowering plants. Even the weeds growing in the fields and along the road fascinate us. Most of my family members know many of them by their common names if not by their Latin genus and designation.
I remember walking through the yard with Agnes when I spotted a broadleaf-plantain growing alongside my driveway. My sister Agnes glanced down at it and commented, “When Casper, Rosie and I were little, we called that a sore leaf plant.”
Hoping there was an interesting story behind the name, I inquired, “Why did you call it that?”
Bending over to pick a leaf, my sister reminisced, “Grandpa Altmann told us the plant was good for healing sores. So, whenever we had a cut on our toes or a painful sliver or a blister, we’d mash some of the leaves, put it on the sore and cover it with an intact leaf. Sometimes we tied the leaf on using one or two of the plant’s tough veins.”
I loved my sister’s story. When I was quite small, sitting on Daddy’s lap, one of the kids would ask him about things he did when he was little. He shrugged dismissively, saying, “I played a lot in the woods. There were many more trees back then.”
Hungry for the dinner Mom was preparing us, I asked, “What sort of food did you eat?”
Daddy answered, “If I was hungry while in the woods, I’d eat things like cattail roots. They taste pretty good!”
I stared at him in disbelief, trying to picture Daddy as a little boy standing in a swamp, pulling up a cattail to eat its big, juicy, white root.
The harvest my own family took from nature during my childhood wasn’t as interesting as cattail roots. We picked black raspberries, wild strawberries, blue berries, and mushrooms, which grew by the bushel baskets full, in a neighbor’s tree-stump filled pasture. Black walnuts and hazel nuts grew along the river, leek we found in the woods and elderberries which grew in marshy areas.
My family no longer farms. I worry that my children and grandchildren will be disconnected from all the beautiful growing things in this world. Children watch and listen even when we don’t realize it. Once, I gave a small bouquet of nasturtium flowers and leaves to my daughter. She placed them in a vase on the center of her kitchen table. Before leaving, I said, “Nasturtiums and their leaves are edible. Did you know that? I’ve never tried them myself. People who have, say they have a peppery taste.”
We turned to look at the flowers and discovered three of her little ones sitting on the table next to the empty vase. I laughed, “Your kids are like little goats!”
The grandchildren are grown-up now. One of them had the opportunity to visit Rome, Italy recently. Her Instagram messages home were filled, not only with all the wonderful, historic buildings and art she was seeing, but also comments about the strange, unfamiliar trees, flowers and vines along the way.
My family’s plant-loving tendency must run in our blood.