Native Son: May 2014
by Steven Chamblee
What’s That Flower Called?
A photographer friend of mine, Lauren Lindsay, posted a lovely photo on Facebook the other day. She took a walk in a park and encountered a beautiful blue flower … six silken petals, white center, three yellow stamens, mounded raindrops … a little miracle from the soil. I was so enamored with the photo that I figured I would add a comment to the two already there. The first comment read, “Any idea if this was a flower or a weed?” Well, that just stopped my heart.
This goes deep for me. Forty years of playing around with plants, exploring ecosystems, watching the Earth breathe in spring and exhale winter … and I’m still not used to it. It seems that we humans cannot appreciate something simply for what it is; we seek some sort of guidance, some kind of approval from society that the thing is okay for us to like, or not like. And most of the time, this endorsement comes in the form of a name.
Shakespeare taught us, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Were we listening? “Honey, I’m home!” “Oh, aren’t you a doll! A dozen red snarkalumps!”
Not long ago, a new Master Gardener intern followed me around the garden. She was relentless … “What’s this? What’s that?” After ten minutes, I asked her to tell me even one of the plant names I had said. Deer-in-the-headlights.
It starts with flowers, but encompasses everything. Would we still love “Texas Bluebonnets” if someone named them “The Rabbit” or “Buffalo Clover” or “Texas Wolf”? Well, people did. Would we let our children wallow in them if we knew they are poisonous? Well, they are. (Don’t panic; they’re organic … just don’t eat ‘em!) Personally, I scratch my head in wonder every spring at families who stoically teach their children not to pick a single bluebonnet because that is “against the law” (which it’s not), but don’t think twice about smashing hundreds of plants to get a few photos “because we love them so much.”
Anyone else out there can’t bear hearing all these dignified Master Gardener ladies going around saying “Bastard Cabbage”? Makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It’s just not right — not grandmother worthy. This crass name can’t even be said quietly, so it blasts across a crowded room louder than “…had an affair with….” For the sake of simple decency, ladies, please consider one of the other common names … Giant Mustard, Ball Mustard, Wild Turnip, or Turnip Weed.
Other native Texas plants are cursed before we can even get to know them. Devil’s Claw, Devil’s Shoestring, and Devil’s Bouquet all sound hellish, but the plants are also known as Unicorn Plant, Ribbon Grass, and Scarlet Muskflower, respectively. Dodder also gets the royal multi-name treatment with Angel’s Hair, Tanglegut, Witches’ Shoelaces, Devil’s Gut, Stranglevine, and Scald. Sometimes we can’t decide whether we like a plant or not: Spring Herald and Devil’s Elbow are the same plant!
Of course, it goes the other way as well. Angel’s Trumpet, Belladonna, and Larkspur sound all sugar and spice, but they’ll kill you in a heartbeat … or lack thereof. One species of Houstonia is especially blessed, having lots of endearing names … Tiny Bluet, Star Violet, Angel Eyes, Innocence, and Quaker Ladies. Really? Quaker Ladies? I’ve known a few, and they were not blue, angelic, or particularly innocent.
And the name thing extends on to places as well. Why’s everything gotta be so negative … Devil’s Gulch … Hell’s Canyon … Death Valley … Goiter Pass? Arthritis Peak … Hernia Hill … Rheumatism Ravine … Cliffs of Eternal Chafing. Kidneystone Junction. We need more Utopia, Glen Rose, Bluff Dale, Malibu, Rocky Top, and Bedford Falls. Mountain View, Pleasant Grove, Del Rio, Turkey, Toto, Orange, and Blanco. Beeville. Thank heavens someone considered eighth grade boys when naming a few places … what would junior high be without Lake Titicaca, Nantucket, and Hooker, Oklahoma?
Now … about that photo of the beautiful blue flower … I choose to think of it as a wildflower. I know of no commercial, agricultural, medicinal, or recreational use for this plant, so many folks would quickly toss it in the “weed” category. I find Nemastylis gemniflora something that simply satisfies my soul. I look at her and take great delight that she and I are created of the same elements, the same stardust. We both need air and water to survive, but she can actually create her own food from some minerals and sunlight. We both share a little time on this precious planet, and we will both return to the earth one day to complete our life’s journey. She is magnificent, free, untamed, and simply here to bring color and joy to others. Her extraordinary petals are both ethereal and ephemeral, reminding me that each day is truly a gift. She is a goddess, and though some less poetic folks call her Prairie Pleat Leaf, I know her as Celestial.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” — Mark Twain
Steven adds these notes:
Come out and breathe in the beauty of a Texas spring at Chandor Gardens! Go to www.chandorgardens.com for details. Just take I-20 west to exit 409, hang a right, go 2.1 miles and hang a left on Lee Avenue. Head straight 12 blocks and you’re driving in the gates. Call 817-361-1700 for more information.
I can always use another road trip! Let me know if you’d like me to come out and speak to your group sometime. I’m low-maintenance, flexible, and you know I like to go just about anywhere. No city too big; no town too small. Just send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll work something out.