“Why will we ever need to know this?”
It was Day 1 of our “50 Plants in 20 Days” identification challenge that takes place in the last weeks of school. I had started off by asking my 4th graders to look around and name any plants they already knew. “Grass?” suggested one.
That’s when I got that question. Most teachers hear it sometime (or many times) in their profession. I remember posing it to my math teacher in high school. “Because you never know when you might need to…uh… solve a differential equation,” was his unconvincing response.
So when I got that question on Day 1, I paused, then said, “I don’t know exactly how you might need to know these particular plants in the future,” I said. “But you might want to.”
I pointed toward the wooded expanse where I knew he and his friends enjoyed spending recess. “What do you call that?”
“Do you know the name of anything you see?”
“Can you name some things you enjoy doing there?”
“Collecting buckeyes. Building forts.”
“What if you knew what a buckeye tree looked like?”
A pause. “Oh… I get it. I’d make my fort underneath it, so the buckeyes would fall right into my fort!”
This naming challenge is structured around affordances – opportunities for meaningful interaction with one’s environment. Can the plant be smelled, eaten, played with, climbed on? Can an encounter with it cause discomfort? Does it have parts that can be counted, admired for their beauty, or disliked for their invasive habits? Does it attract pollinators, repel pests, or cling to your clothes? Can you think of a way for this plant to be meaningful to you?
One of the best hooks to hang an identity on is a plant’s story. Once you know that multiflora rose was imported as a “living fence” to substitute for barbed wire during a time of metal shortage, it is hard to see those thorny stalks as anything else.
Other stories appeal through pure folklore. Does your chin turn yellow when you hold a buttercup under it? Obviously, you love butter.
Stories sometimes change from one year to the next; we can create new ones as we experience the plant together. White pine trees became known this year as “pollen bombs” when the kids watched me detonate a branch by shaking it. “Susan and Joe” (Black-eyed Susan and Joe-pye weed) moved into the neighborhood, settled in a new perennial garden, and produced lots of little Susans and Joes.
Taste and smell seal the deal for instant recognition. If a plant has scented or edible parts, its identity becomes one with that sensory encounter. Sourgrass, spicebush, garlic mustard, mulberries, mint, serviceberries – each has a place in the shared experience of our schoolyard, and the memory of its appeal passes along through its common name from one group to the next.
Honeysuckle, of course, is a classic favorite. Once a child locates a patch in bloom, others swarm like bees to collect the nectar. One of my favorite parts of these seasonal rituals is observing how eagerly experienced kids transmit lore to newcomers. “Go like this. Pull on the end of the honeysuckle and a string comes out with nectar. Or, just suck it out.”
On Day 20 of the plant challenge, there was a final group field test. Students used the annotated field guides they had created and were encouraged to share their ideas with each other before writing down their identifications. I watched them examine and analyze leaves, review the stories they had heard, ask to smell or taste a leaf, and discuss possibilities.
“That is so poison ivy – see the three leaves?”
“But it has thorns, and white flowers.”
“Oh, right – then blackberry? Poison ivy doesn’t look bad for you, but it is, and blackberry looks bad for you, but tastes good.”
“What about this one with the camo bark?”
“I think it’s sycamore – like, I’m sick of camo and I can’t take it any more!
At the end, when the class had successfully identified all 50 plants on our list, I paused on the hill overlooking the woods. I reminded them of where we had started a few weeks ago – “grass?” – and asked, “Now what do you see?”
“Multiflora rose, redbud, tree of heaven, princess tree, box elder, clover, plantain, honeysuckle …”
“But aren’t there more than 50 kinds of plants at Jemicy?” someone asked. “When can we learn the rest?”
On the last day of school, this question means Objectives Met.