“Secrets are generally terrible. Beauty is not hidden, only ugliness and deformity.”
As I hiked this past Sunday, I was looking very closely at a wall of rocks. I have hiked here before and was on the hunt for spring wildflowers. I remember this wall as one of the first places I have seen Heuchera americana (Coral Bells) growing in the wild.
I do that. I remember the wild places I first saw plants I know well from nurseries and garden centers and gardens. I remember the Pine Barren creek where I first saw Itea virginica (Sweetspire) and the Pine Barrens lake where I saw Sarracenia purpurea (Pitcher Plants) and Drosera sp. (Sundews) growing wild. My first wild PawPaw (Asimina triloba) patch along the Potomac River. I remember my first wild Gentiana andrewsii (Bottle Gentian) viewed from the cockpit of my whitewater boat and my sister’s patience as I delighted in seeing a wild Hydrangea quercifolia(Oakleaf Hydrangea) for the first time in a Mississippi forest. The pine needle strewn forest floor in New England where I saw my first Lady Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium acaule). The place where I first witnessed the majesty of a Sequoia sempervirens (Coast Redwood) is indelibly etched in my mind.
On occasion I get back to these places and revisit those plants. And on this hike I was on the search for my rock-face-hanging Coral Bells. While searching, three types of ferns I saw clinging to this wall, Early Saxifrage ( in bloom, and Columbine leaves with tight buds just above the moss hinting of the red and yellow spectacle to come all came into view. I did find Coral Bells too.
On this day I also noticed some one had tucked little non-natural treasures into the tapestry of moss, roots and leaves. I found a tiny duck, a little bunny, a unicorn and a turquoise snake.
So here I was, nose inches from the wall, investigating these tiny treasures when I hear a woman with a dog behind me. “Excuse me,” she says, “I am nosy. What are you looking at?”
“Plants,” I tell her, “I am a horticulturist.”
“Oh” she says. She goes on to tell me how she grew up in the area and nearly 70 years ago she remembers seeing Jack-in-the-Pulpits (she describes them and asks me if that’s the correct name and I tell her yes) and how she fell in love with them. She was amazed by them and remembers seeing them everywhere, but as she got older, she didn’t see them as much and then they disappeared. Almost 70 years later, she told me, she was hiking back in this same spot and there was a Jack-in-the-Pulpit. She said she was so excited. It brought back so many happy memories of her childhood and she was surprised. It looked like the only one around.
“So I dug it up and took it home.” she shares with me, in a hushed tone that speaks to understanding this was wrong.
As a single person I have been thinking a lot about selection.
When considering another person to share time and space and energy with I have criteria I would like that person to meet. These criteria are different depending on the circumstances – are you going to be a friend… or are you going to be um.. more than a friend? I have a list of “need to haves” and “neat to haves” applying to either scenario.
As a horticulturist I think about selection too.
On a recent vacation I just happened to be on the trails at the exact right time to find mountain laurels in full bloom. Though I hike a lot, I often find myself in mountain laurel areas thinking to myself “I have to remember to come back here when these will be in full bloom.” And then not getting back to them until the same time the next year, if at all. So I was thrilled to find myself in multiple places with these beauties in full show.
What really caught my attention as I wandered these trails was the variation in color of the mountain laurel flowers.
Notice, in the photos above, all the color variation of the mountain laurels I found in my recent travels. These are naturally occurring wild species of this plant – Kalmia latifolia. The flowers on different plants ranged from pure white with no sign of pink at all to solid dark pink and every variation in between. A dark pink one could be right next to a pure white one.
A cultivar, or cultivated variety of a plant, is a selection. The characteristics it features were selected by someone who thought they added value to the plant – could be disease resistance, cold hardiness, double flowers, purple foliage, etc. You can tell a cultivar when you are purchasing plants by the name in ‘single quotes’ on the plant name tag. If it has a name in single quotes you have a cultivar on your hands.
A cultivar is different from the straight species of a plant. The straight species is the one that grows in the wild and is only modified by mother nature. Natural variations abound within straight species of plants and this is where a lot of cultivars come from.
This type of genetic variation is where plant selections come from. Plant breeders would take seeds or cuttings of the plants with the interesting and desirable traits and try to create plants that reliably demonstrate these characteristics. Then they give the plant a marketable name and put it out for sale. The dark pink mountain laurels so popular at garden centers are cultivars of these I found in the wild. In fact there are more than 75 cultivars of mountain laurel.
Unlike when we get to choose people, based on our lists of wants and needs and likes and dislikes, for the most part, we are only able to choose plants that have been designed for us. These plants have been chosen for us out of myriad genetic combinations and mutations happening out there in nature based on what marketers think will sell well, what horticulturists find interesting and what problems hybridizers want to solve or niche they want to fill.
I have a goal to hike 250 miles this year. I figured this averages out to about 5 miles per week and that felt like a realistic, yet challenging, goal for me.
As of today I am 127 miles in and have been hiking at least weekly since January.
Hikes serve many purposes in my life: meditation, relaxation, connection, reflection, exploration, and education.
Here I share some of my trail education. I am always looking at the plants along my hikes, naming them if I can, and trying to figure out who they are if I can’t. Some of us call this process botanizing.
These are new-to-me plants I encountered on some of my hikes this year. Nearly every time I go out on a trail I run into a plant I have never noticed, never learned, or have long forgotten. I don’t typically take a field guide with me on the trail. I take so long taking photos on these hikes already I am afraid adding the potential for dive into a field guide around every bend would keep me from getting very far at all. So my process is to take photos of the new-to-me plant and then figure out who it is when I get home.
The photos I take are of the habitat (where it is growing); the habit (its overall form or shape); the flowers if it is blooming (close ups from top, side, bottom and front , making sure to capture the pistils and/or stamens if present); the leaves (the entire leaf, a close up of the leaf margin, the underside and a close up of the leaf veins); and the stems (focusing on color and hairs, both leaf stems and flower stems); if it is a woody plant I will also take photos of the bark and the twigs (including leaf scars).
I then come home and consult a field guide depending on the type of plant. I know there are apps for this. But I like this process of documenting the details and then when I get home from a hike diving into these details and solving my personal mystery using a book, with pages and an index. I find when I do this, these plants stick with me and I remember them forever.
Of course, this is not a fool-proof system and sometimes I need to revisit the plant (aw shucks… another hike) to gather intel on some teeny tiny detail that separates one species from another.
Here are a few of the new-to-me plants I did figure out and will now know forever:
On a recent hike on the anniversary of a day significant to me for the trauma I experienced on that day I was thinking a lot about scars.
5 years ago, to the day on this day of my hike, I learned that you can feel your heart break. This may sound insane to some people and lucky you for not knowing or not having had the experience. Those of us who have experienced this we know it certainly is a thing. And while I do not know if my heart looks any different from when it did before that moment (I suspect not, but still I wonder), I feel like there is a scar there along the place where it broke. My heart physically feels like it changed forever, but I know it continues functioning and supporting me, still able to love, forgive and care and still moving blood and oxygen around this body.
I noticed, like us, they have scars for two types of wounds – the intentional and the accidental. Like us, regardless of how the wound got there, the tissue created to protect and heal the wound is the same.
Callous can describe a person. It certainly can describe the person who caused this heartbreak. This usually means they are insensitive or unfazed by emotions, empathy or sentiment. I think of it as meaning that they are hardened from these emotions, perhaps because of something that happened to them, perhaps because they never witnessed those emotions in action or felt those emotions personally, who knows.
Callousness can be a protection from getting too close, from feeling emotions.
A callous can also be a protection. You may know the raised, hardened bumps of skin on palms and fingers that speak to the work you do and the hobbies you have. I have callouses from splitting firewood, from raking leaves, from shoveling snow, from gardening and from kayaking. These callouses form over time after repeated damage or irritation to protect the skin in the future.
Though spelled differently, callus wood forms on trees as protection.
Trees naturally compartmentalize damage to prevent it from spreading to the rest of the tree. Part of this process is the creation of callus tissue, the process of which begins the moment the tree is damaged. These undifferentiated cells, called parenchyma cells, grow quickly and spread to cover the wound before insects or diseases can enter. These are also the cells that create burls on trees. Eventually as these cells grow, woundwood forms and covers the wound like a scab covers and protects the wound.
We can think of callus wood on a tree like scar tissue, a different, smoother type of tissue than the surrounding tissue. Like scar tissue which is stronger because the arrangement of cells is more dense and arranged in a way that makes it strong but less flexible.
When a surgeon operates on us, the cuts are intentional and created to heal as well and as fast as possible with little scarring and complete healing. When our wounds result from unintentional accidents or are the result of the callousness of another human the scarring may be worse, the wound longer to heal and in some cases may not heal at all.
The same is true of trees, when storms damage trees the callus and woundwoond may not be able to form, leaving the tree susceptible to further damage. If a well trained and knowledgeable arborist is pruning a tree, they know to cut properly so the wound can heal completely.
I suppose when our hearts break there is no way to know if we heal completely. I like to think that my heart has healed completely. While I do not know if there is physical evidence of the damage, I know I will never forget the feeling, and I am certain it is vulnerable to being broken again, but it is stronger and different and functioning just fine, despite the damage.
Wounds are an inevitable part of a tree’s life, just as they are an inevitable part of ours. How we, and they, heal from them depends as much on the circumstances that created them as the tools within to heal.
To describe a feeling of just not caring any more, or as sometimes it’s stated, running clean out of fucks to give, someone may describe themselves as dead inside.
Someone who is dead inside is completing the basic life functions – eating, breathing – but cannot muster caring, empathy, compassion, drive, pleasure, excitement, creativity, appreciation, lust, love.
Spending 2 full days watching the E! Sex and the City Marathon has me reading the title above in Carrie Bradshaw’s voice and imagining it being typed across a pixelated computer screen. Not that Sex and the City ever focused on nature or that Carrie Bradshaw would be caught dead in hiking boots. But thinking about the duplicity of something in a particular circumstance certainly was Carrie Bradshaw’s forte. This binging happened to coincide with the 10th anniversary of me moving into my home sweet home.
This anniversary of setting down roots, my surprise at being in one place this long and recent reflections on impermanence had me thinking differently about the roots I encountered on a recent hike in Maryland and along a trail I was walking for my annual participation in the first day hike. Really I cannot think of one trail I have hiked that didn’t have exposed roots along the way.
For many the pandemic inspired people to get out on the trails, into parks and exploring nature, maybe for the first time, maybe to places they have never been. For me, the pandemic had the opposite effect. All of the places I usually find solace in a quiet exploration I found teeming with people, uncomfortable, crowded and unpleasant. The trails that brought me peace and an opportunity to contemplate and observe were now obstacle courses of bikers, joggers and walkers. And so I avoided my favorite places.
6 months into the pandemic, my friend and I began venturing on early morning bike rides. The area was opening up. Group activities and businesses were finding their new way to engage people and less people were hitting the trails, especially early. Eventually, after quite a few bike rides, I felt I could walk, and contemplate and recharge and observe out in my favorite natural places again.
Ahhhhh… Breathe in…. Breathe Out…
Listen to the crunch of the gravel under your feet…
Listen to the rippling of the creek down below…
Stop every five seconds to take another photo of the beauty that surrounds you.
The Perkiomen Trail, my favorite stretch being the Crusher Road Access to Spring Mount, felt peaceful and accessible and enjoyable again.
It is not that I stopped exploring nature during my Pandemic Pause from the Perkiomen Trail. Interestingly early on in the pandemic car traffic became so light I felt comfortable walking the narrow, unlined, hilly, curving roads around my home and began taking suburban safaris finding two 3.5 mile routes that took me past all kinds of nature I hadn’t noticed before. Over the months I discovered native plants I thought I had to drive someplace else to see and watched the changing of the seasons right close to home.
On this day I managed to time my morning walk just right to capture the essence of autumn in the sunrise and the wildflowers. Back to my happy place, a little bit of feeling normal, in this crazy new world.
There was some evidence of the crazy I missed while avoiding the trail over the summer. Notice the trashcan stuck high up on the trees in the photo below. A remnant of the intense flooding storms we experienced over the summer.
Back in 2014, I wrote about visiting Grey Towers. I cannot believe I have been writing this blog for more than 6 years! And how times have changed. In that post I mentioned Gifford Pinchot, former governor of Pennsylvania, first chief of the US Forest Service, sometimes called father of the Conservation Movement.
Grey Towers, a National Historic Site, was Gifford Pinchot’s family home. While it was beautiful and full of history, there was a story lacking in the interpretation both in the house museum and in the gardens.
I am sharing some of that additional story here, because I think it is time that we all, whether on a national platform or through a blog that reaches a handful of people on its best day, need to start telling the complete stories of our history. If we do not know the complete story we can at least start telling MORE of the story.
My wanderlust is flaring up something serious right now. 45 work days working from home. Today is day 50 of the social-distancing, quarantine, stay-at-home order for the area I live. 50 days! I have watched the end of winter and the beginning of spring as buds swelled and flowers emerged.
I realized quite some time ago that inserting myself into nature is how I cope. When I am sad, depressed, anxious or angry I turn to trails through the woods and the delights of nature to restore my spirits, give me hope and grant me perspective.
My 50 days have not been without connection to nature. I am lucky enough to have a wooded back yard and gardens and live in a rural enough area to be able to see frogs and flowers along my daily walks. But there is no substitute for a good hike along a new trail.
Glimpses of wildflowers or waterfalls, and in the very best cases, both, are frequent goals of mine on these walks. Arriving to an elevated vista is also something I look to find.
While we are still closed down, though there are murmuring of a slow reopen, I continue to think back to the trails I have explored and making lists of places I want to go.
The Cascades Trail was a funny trail. I followed signs for it along the sidewalk and through a suburban neighborhood. I felt kind of funny traipsing through a quiet neighborhood with my hiking poles and backpack walking past people raking leaves and moving mulch around.
Hunkered down in quarantine during prime spring ephemeral season has me thinking back to places I have been lucky enough to visit. It is also giving me reason to stay close to home and time to look back and write about some of the places I have explored.
In the summer a little more than a year ago I ventured solo north to Vermont for a week. Meandering the unfamiliar roads on the way home from a state park I saw a sign for this Wildflower Trail. I never miss an opportunity to get up close to wildflowers and decided to check it out.