Much ado about nature

By Sharon Brown (Sharon) on May 27, 2012

It's Memorial Day weekend and our thoughts turn to those who are no longer with us. I hope our thoughts also turn to the treasures they left behind.

I have a passion for old plants, those blooms that spring up right in the middle of our best laid landscaping and destroy our hopes of ever appearing on the pages of fine gardening magazines. I'm crazy about dandelions, those little bouncing balls of sunshine that are nature's way of announcing that the soil is warming up after a long cold winter.

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And clover. I see a field of clover and know that little plot of land is full of nitrogen and ready for planting. Same thing with trees. I look at the huge old eastern cottonwood beside my house and dread the thought of all its leather tough leaves that will surely fall during summer's driest months and its little cottony seeds that fly through on the breeze and land in my nose and mouth.  But I know that old cottonwood will clean the air around me and provide oxygen I need to survive; I also know its roots are holding on to the soil that could easily wash downhill following the flow of the underground spring beneath it. My home is safe from the harshest heat and glare of the setting sun because the cottonwood blocks it. I think I can tolerate a few leather tough leaves when they fall into my daylily beds and a cottony sneeze or two.

And speaking of daylilies; I think they hold the greatest of all gifts left to me by those little old women who devoted so much of their time to my childhood.

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My mom said:  "Get rid of those ditchlilies! They're an ugly sight, they take all the space I need for my flowers!  Don't plant anymore ditchlilies, they're weeds; get them out of my garden."

I was just a little girl and after the bloom of the blue flags, the ditchlilies were the most colorful flowers I had seen. It was during the late 40s and there were certainly no nurseries nor garden centers anywhere near the mountains where I grew up. Any flowers that were planted by choice were from trades among the ladies or from seeds ordered from Grit magazine. Ditchlilies were already there, common orange blooms, readily available from any nearby roadside; there was nothing special about them according to my mother.  To her they were disgusting weeds.

But I loved them, orange! Wow! Orange against the hillside of green. How pretty they were to me. I'd planted them in a corner of Mom's garden that was full of nasturtiums and garden phlox, four o'clocks and gladiolias, red roses and what she called sultanas. I thought her garden really needed a corner of orange to balance the nasturtiums.  After hearing her words, I slowly unplanted them, put them back into the feedsack that had blue flowers on it, and walked down the dusty road to Aunt Bett's house.

"Aunt Bett," I said, "Mom doesn't want these weeds anywhere near her garden. Could I plant them in yours?"

I can hear her answer all these sixty years later:  "Honey, they's two things you need in life, food and medicine. Them ditchlilies you're carryin', well, they've got both. We'll plant 'em right here and we'll just let 'em grow. See, free gifts from nature, you just got to remember that."

I remember, and so it is with a lot of edible and medicinal plants that nature provided freely. Most of them go unnoticed these days, bypassed by cultivated and registered and hybridized newcomers that must be babied and petted and chemicaled and coaxed to live. I agree they provide beauty, but I think there should be room in our gardens for those heirloom plants that were the very source of today's newcomers.

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I have a little collection of valuable weeds in my gardens; dandelions spring up in even the driest conditions and ditchlilies bloom no matter how neglected they are. They are both full of vitamins and minerals, more nutrition there than can be found in a lot of vegetables including asparagus and string beans. And historically they were used medicinally for centuries, long before modern medicine existed.

Somebody recently asked me if I were ever embarrassed to serve a few tender dandelion leaves in a salad, or a daylily bud here and there.

I laughed and said, "I grew up eating dandelion leaves at a time when vitamins weren't readily available. We couldn't grow oranges in the mountains so where else could I get vitamins?  And daylilies, in stir fry they are considered a delicacy in modern cultures, and my stir fry is absolutely gourmet. No, never embarrassed. I would be more embarrassed to serve chemically prepared foods from the grocery."

And so it is. I have never met a flower that I didn't instantly love. But I am quite partial to those old blooms that have been around for a long long time; those plants that provide food and medicine as well as beauty. They are much older than the ladies who shared with me their love of nature and the wisdom that came with that love.

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I weeded today. I got rid of dandelions and ground ivy and a lot of other garden debris. I can do that with dandelions because early spring is the best time for gathering them; it's well past early spring here at my house but I know they'll be right back next year. The ditchlilies are happily blooming along with their well named, hybridized, delicate, and registered progeny that grow beside them.  Their bright orange blooms are a nice contrast to blacks and whites, reds and corals, lovely daylilies that were more recent gifts from family and friends.

I figure with the rising costs of vegetables today, more people might soon consider ditchlilies a delicacy, too. Same with dandelion greens. Both plants are entirely edible and filled with nutrients.  Of course most daylilies are edible, not only the old ditchlilies. All the nutrients might have been hybridized right out of the new ones, though.  Just be sure the greens you gather haven't been chemically treated.

Happy Memorial Day! Remember important people and remember the priceless treasures of knowledge and blooms they left with you.

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About Sharon Brown
I am a retired art and humanities teacher. I am an artist and I am also a writer who has written a series of articles about the history and medicinal value of Kentucky wildflowers. The articles tell of growing up in the mountains of southeast Kentucky with my great Aunt Bett and Granny Ninna. I currently live in western KY.

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
Second blessing DaylilyOma2 Nov 8, 2012 7:31 PM 4
Untitled indygardengal Sep 4, 2012 5:12 AM 10
Always a pleasure kaglic Jun 12, 2012 10:57 AM 8
Dandelions are one of the most nutritious things out there. Skiekitty May 31, 2012 5:13 PM 5
Ditchlilies gerri May 28, 2012 12:29 PM 1

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