Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Making Friends

Since we moved into this house a little over a year ago, I have been trying to identify all the plants around our yard.  It has been a long process--despite the fact that we have quite a small lot, there's a good variety of plants growing here and there, from full-grown trees to wildflowers, and I am an absolute novice when it comes to gardening.  I have a little drawn map of the yard, and I write in the name of each plant as we discover it.  Some of them were easy to figure out (our sweet alyssum, for example, which I had in my yard growing up).  For others, we have had to wait through the seasons to see identifying features.  We had a fruit tree, for example, that had dropped its fruit just before we moved in, so we had to wait all the way until early this summer to see what kind of tree it was (pluots--yum!).  And a few of our identifications I'm still not completely sure about; for example, I'm thinking our pluot is a Early Dapple based on the color and taste, but the harvest time didn't quite match what I found online.  I know we have a Japanese maple, but I'm not sure what kind.  And the same with the crepe myrtles: there are so many varieties, so many different colors.  How to tell whether it's a Carolina or a Tuskegee?

I do wish I had a horticulturalist friend I could have over for the afternoon to go through the yard and label everything for me with a professional eye.  It would be wonderful to learn from someone "that knew it before me."  Unfortunately, I have no such friend...and it's certainly a great learning experience. ;)  But I must admit that I am a field-guide failure.  Every time I go through a leaf key, the results end up being a plant completely unlike the one I'm trying to identify.  So my usual method is to google random search terms, then click over to the image results to see if I can find a visual match.  This has been surprisingly successful, thankfully.

Now, our latest conquest: 

I have actually been trying to identify this guy since we first moved in.  It is situated right in front of one of our living room windows, so it always seems to be peeking at me through the shade, and it's lovely green-red leaves brighten up the room.  But my "green leaves red tips shrub california" searches always came up empty.  When I was out in the yard the other day looking for signs of fall, I noticed it was developing berries, so I added "fall berries" to the search terms.  Bingo!  Nandina domestica, or heavenly bamboo:

lovely red-tipped leaves

buds and berries
It seems to be quite a common shrub around here; I see it in lots of yards and along the roadsides.  But as I said, I'm a gardening novice!  Even the commonest of landscaping stand-bys are mysteries to me. ;)  Apparently those berries I saw will be turning scarlet in the cold season--a bright spot in the yard to look forward to this winter. In fact, in the last week they have already changed from a pale green to a dull-red hue.  And another reason I'm glad to have identified this one: the leaves and berries are technically poisonous.  They would have to be ingested in very large doses to be harmful to be humans, but it's good to know all the same. 

It gives me such a sense of satisfaction to be able to name the plants in our yard and neighborhood.  I don't know what it is: my personal affinity for order?  That inborn sense of wonder over the natural world that Charlotte Mason always writes about?  A desire to feel master of my home? :)  Is it just me?  Whatever the reason, I do love putting a name to the "face."  And then sharing the name with my children.  My son in particular seems to relish in any newfound opportunity to classify and categorize--I think he takes after Mommy.  And there is something particularly special about finally discovering the name for something you see every day, something you have watched through the seasons, looked at closely over time.  I'm reminded of a section of a Parents' Review article:

Geography is a science both mathematical and natural, embracing as it does through the magic words "flora, fauna, and production," the sister sciences of botany, zoology, and geology.
We want our children to learn all these, for they will draw them more closely to mother earth, but they need not at first ever hear their names.
One of our maxims is "teach the thing before the name."
"Go out," we say, "into the country, learn its sights, its sounds, its smells, learn the flowers by sight and by names, the creatures in their homes and by their customs, the stones of earth by their look and from touch, and the configuration of the country."
Then you will have learnt at first hand from the most wonderful books, and have something to classify and amplify in your later studies.
So the study of science starts with projects like these, little joys like these.  The children watch and wonder, and then they are given the words to describe what they see.  The relationship is formed, the "friend' is made.    And these are friends worth having!


  1. I like the idea of these discoveries being new friends!

  2. I've had very similar experiences as we've moved from one state to another in recent years. Isn't it so much fun when you DO find out what something is?! I found orange berries last year in Pennsylvania and had no idea what they were. I found out they were American Bittersweet. I had never seen orange berries before. Now we're in Texas, and we have a shrub that is full of orange berries. I don't know if it's the same thing. Those berries from the American Bittersweet popped open and exposed red berries inside. I'll see if these berries in Texas do the same thing.

  3. How interesting, Penney! I have lived in California my whole life and I am *still* getting familiar with all the common trees and whatnot here--I can't imagine starting from scratch in a new state! But what an adventure--and so many new friends just waiting to be made! :)