My love for wildflowers started as an adult when I was teaching my young children. One of my friends had studied botany and knew all the Latin names! I was inspired by her to go on a wildflower hike with a local club and realized that each flower had a name and a story. I learned just a few that year, but in successive years I welcomed my old friends and made a few new ones. Like much in nature, wildflowers have lessons to teach us. They come up at their predetermined time, the same time each year. The wildflower calendar is predictable. At certain times of the year, you know you can find certain flowers in the woods and meadows. As we spot these familiar friends, we are reminded of
God’s unchanging faithfulness to His children.
The variety and detail of the wildflowers never ceases to amaze me. More than 10,000 kinds of wildflowers exist in North America. When you look at the flowers through a jeweler’s loupe (and I do suggest you do so with your students) you will see unbelievably tiny parts, all serving a purpose in the flower’s short life. For example, the humble violet has a lower petal, which acts as a landing pad for the friendly insect to do his needed work of pollination!
How marvelous of our Creator God to make wild things so lovely. For the most part, no one plants the wildflowers, no one tends to them; they just grow in the same place and spread year after year. There is something very satisfying in seeing the same flowers at about the same time each year and calling them by name. Even the so-called wastelands have wildflowers that proliferate, lending their delicate beauty to the otherwise barren spots. Wildflowers can be found growing through the cracks of the city sidewalks and parking lots, as well as in the fields and meadows of the country woodlands.
What is in a wildflower name? Each one has a common name and then there is that sometimes difficult to pronounce scientific name. The common name is easiest to remember and usually describes the plant’s appearance (example: Jack-in-the-pulpit), its color (example: blue-eyed mary), scent (example: wild carrot), what familiar object it resembles (example: shepherd’s purse) or what it’s used for (example: bedstraw). A potential problem occurs when the same plant has different common names in different areas. Because wildflowers were often gathered for medicinal purposes, there had to be an accurate name, which could not be confused. So Carolus Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist came up with a system of classifying and naming plants. He grouped them according to structures they had in common. Each plant was assigned two names. These names are nearly always Latin. The first name begins with a capital letter and tells us the group or genus to which the plant belongs, and the second name describes something about the plant and names the species. I must confess that while I know many common names, I have only begun to learn the Latin ones.
The best way to get started with the study of wildflowers is to find an enthusiast. You may want to contact your local wildflower club, arboretum, nature center or state parks to find someone who knows and loves wildflowers. A gentleman, who was entirely self-taught, led my most memorable walk. He knew the common names, the Latin ones, the origin of both, the medicinal uses and the legend and lore of each plant. What was especially charming was how he greeted each plant on the path as we came across it. “Oh look, there is blue star!” he said with such warmth in his voice as if he truly were greeting an old friend who mischievously had been hiding!
If you take a wildflower walk, be sure to bring a notebook and pen so you can make note of identifying characteristics. Consider equipping your children with a magnifying glass or even better, a jeweler’s loupe. I have put our loupes on leather or other thick shoe strings so they hang around one’s neck and do not get lost. Exercise caution with your youngest students for whom long strings about the neck may pose a danger. You may also want a field guide to see what the plant looks like in a book so you can look it up later and jog your memory. When I come home from a walk, I always compare my notes with a field guide to help me remember my new friends.
A rudimentary understanding of botanical terms of flower parts and leaves is helpful in using a field guide to identify wildflower finds. How are the leaves arranged? What is the shape of its stem? How many lobes do the leaves have? Are the leaves deeply lobed? What color are the sepals? How are the blossoms (carolla) arranged? Are the leaves pinnately or palmately compound? How many parts does the stigma have? It is always a good idea to use correct terminology even with very young children. Charlotte Mason was a big believer in this principle.
Observing wildflowers can inspire you to start a nature notebook for yourself and for your students. This is really a topic for another blog entry entirely, but, suffice it to say, that wildflower walks can end naturally in a time of nature sketching or painting. Ideally, it should be done on site but we sometimes bring our finds into the house or classroom. Be sure to observe laws in parks as to picking flowers! Dry brushwork is especially suited to capture the amazing detail of wildflowers. When a child (or a teacher) is sketching or painting a wildflower, the time is taken to really see the flower, its color gradations, leaf shapes and blossom arrangements. A true relationship is built when one reproduces in one’s notebook a particular wildflower find. That flower will likely never be forgotten.
Here are some helpful resources to get you started:
Books: Hedgemaids and Fairy Candles: The Lives and Lore of North American Wildflowers by Jack Sanders
Wildflowers and the Stories Behind Their Names by Phyllis S. Busch
Flower Finder: A Guide to Identification of Spring Wildflowers and Flower Families by May Thielgaard Watts
Lastly, let us be inspired by Charlotte Mason’s own words as to the importance of flower study:
In Science, or rather, nature study, we attach great importance to recognition, believing that the power to recognize and name a plant or stone or constellation involves classification and includes a good deal of knowledge. To know a plant by it gesture and habitat, its time and its way of flowering and fruiting. . . means a good deal of interested observation and, of any rate, the material for science.
School Education, p. 236
Children learn of pollen, antennae, and what not, incidentally, when the thing is present and they require a name for it. The children who are curious about it, and they only, should have the opportunity of seeing with the microscope any minute wonder of structure that has come up in their reading or their walks: but a good lens is a capital and almost an indispensable companion in field work.
School Education, p. 238
Milkwort, eyebright, rest-harrow, lady’s bedstraw, willow-herb, every wild flower that grows in their neighbourhood, they should know quite well; should be able to describe the leaf–its shape, size, growing from the root or from the stem: the manner of flowering–a head of flowers, a single flower, a spike, etc. And having made the acquaintance of a wild flower, so that they can never forget it or mistake it, they should examine the spot where they find it, so that they will know for the future in what sort of ground to look for such and such a flower. . . To make collections of wild flowers for the several months, press them, and mount them neatly on squares of cartridge paper, with the English name, habitat, and date of finding of each, affords much happy occupation and, at the same time, much useful training: better still is to accustom children to make careful brush drawings of the flowers that interest them, of the hold plant where possible.
Home Education, p. 51, 52
Well said, Miss Mason! Anyone have any other favorite resources or ideas for making wildflower walks appealing especially to boys? My fourteen-year-old son sees no use in them despite my enthusiasm each year. On the other hand my five-year-old son has discovered a few favorite flowers especially falling star which looks like a missile!