Why Hikers Should Know Their Plants

Find home anywhere, one leaf at a time.
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Forest

Get to work identifying plants in Pawtuckaway State Park, New Hampshire, when fall does its thing.

The wind whips through the sumac grove’s twisted branches. The leaves are tomato-sauce red, and the shrubs hunch over the trail from either side, as if skeptically regarding the dirt path between them. The sky is a chilling gray, and I’m shivering. The car—and its heater—are close, but I’m busy.

I kneel in the dirt on the side of the trail, just beyond the sumac’s reach, and thumb a blade of grass to compare the ligule—a pale, sheath-like structure at the base of the leaf—to my fingernail. To anyone else, the bundle of stems wouldn’t be worth a second glance. But it is to me. I need to know what it is. I need to know its name.

I lived in North Carolina for four years while I earned a degree in environmental science. There, I spent two years working in a garden where I learned which weeds to pull and which plants to leave. During my last semester, at a remote field site in the southern Appalachians, I took a botany course and learned the names of pretty much everything else.

By the time I moved to Colorado in December of 2015, North Carolina had just started to feel like home. The move—to be closer to the mountains and climbing I hoped would fuel my nascent outdoor writing career—was a tough one. I drove 21 hours through Tennessee, Missouri, and then Kansas, where my tires spun out on ice-plated asphalt and a black sky stretched overhead.

When I neared my final destination, the mountains over Boulder gave a cold greeting—gray slabs etched from stone and snow, a cluster of unfamiliar faces. I unpacked and set out to hike, sure a few laps on the local trails would put me at ease. But I was used to walking in temperate rainforest, under green awnings that made the world feel small and close and friendly. Out west, the sky seemed too big, the trees too sparse. I felt small and vulnerable, and the land, as grand as it was, felt even more unfamiliar than the new town.

I took a job with the city of Boulder to help map and manage an invasive species called tall oatgrass and quickly learned that field days are long days. I started to notice my surroundings more. When the snow cleared, solitary purple blooms came up first. I asked what they were called: pasqueflower—a humble, low-growing plant with cup-shaped blossoms. An olive branch from winter, a first curtsy from spring. I felt like I’d befriended my first local.

As the air warmed, other flowers appeared. Milkvetch and wild plum, I learned. Then locoweed and golden banner and cinquefoil. On the East Coast, it had been easiest to start with the names of the hardwoods, but not here. I looked up every flower I found online and in books. I went on a guided hike with a ranger. If I found a new plant, I’d ask the nearest bystander if he or she knew what it was. Over the summer and into the fall, my list grew: mouse-ear chickweed, mariposa lily, Howard’s evening primrose.

One day in early October, almost a year after I’d landed in Boulder, I headed to a trailhead south of town. The wind slammed the car door for me, and the clouds were as flinty and stale as the day I arrived. But as I hiked, I was suddenly too preoccupied to feel small. I noticed the chicory buds had dropped off, leaving their delicately angled stems behind, and that new shoots of oat grass were pushing skyward for the fall green-up. I brushed past the M-stamped leaves of smooth brome, and curled, dried pea-pods of lupine. An hour passed before I realized the openness of the mesa didn’t leave me unnerved like it once did. Where I used to see barren grassland, now I saw a prairie rich with texture, previously indistinguishable to my untrained eye.

Now, as I crouch beneath the sumac, it dawns on me that North Carolina hadn’t felt like home until I learned to name the galax and serviceberry and silver birch, until I could differentiate Catawba rhododendron from rosebay. And now, by getting to know all the plants underfoot, I’d become familiar with the land in a more intimate way than I ever could have by learning the shapes of trails and ridges alone.

I let the grass’s blade spring back up over the ligule and brush the tufted seedhead. It’s orchardgrass, I conclude, and find myself grinning. Telling one grass from another is like sitting on your porch, watching the neighbors go by, and being able to pick out one twin from his brother at a distance. I sit back on my heels and look around.

I’m surrounded by familiar faces. I’m home.

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