Each spring I look forward to seeing the mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) twist their way up and out of the ground, unfurling like umbrellas and creating a short-statured canopy for imagined woodland sprites. The size of the colony gives me a clue about the quality of soil and moisture in the area. The plants also let me know that box turtles are probably nearby, waiting for the mayapples to ripen. Box turtles and mayapples have a partnership: turtles love to snack on the fruit, and the plant gets an improved chance of germinating its seed once it passes through a turtle’s digestive tract.
Growing up with Midwestern winters, I enjoyed the peculiar twilight-purple of an Illinois hawthorn’s bark (Crataegus mollis) against a field of snow. It’s a celebration of the serene and richly colored snow-filled landscape. The hawthorn tree also helps me understand that the field was browsed, perhaps by deer or cattle, roughly twenty or thirty years ago. The browsing discouraged other plants from growing, but not the fully armed hawthorn with its two-inch thorns that dissuade animals from nibbling.
Of all the stories I have seen, heard, or read, the most magnificent is the epic saga the land has to tell. Step outside; undulating hills, rivers and their valleys, the plants that thrive—all are chapters in a story that began long, long ago. Some stories are large, with continents moving, mountains lifting, and valleys forming. Other stories are small, such as the American beech (Fagus grandifolia) that tells us about the deep, rich soils that help it thrive, or the ants that help a trillium (Trillium species) transport its seed.
Years ago I planted a milkweed, commonly called butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), in my garden because I liked the flowers and because milkweed is the only food for monarch caterpillars. Just days later, one monarch caterpillar appeared on the plant. It felt good to be helping butterflies. The next day I noticed four caterpillars on my one plant. The third day the plant was gone, entirely consumed. But, nature is clever. The plant had enough “oomph” left in its roots to send up entirely new stems, leaves, and, weeks-later-than-typical, beautiful orange flowers. This was a reminder that nature’s story has been unfolding for thousands of years, whereas I have been attentive for less than one human lifetime. Butterfly weeds have probably gone through that double emergence for eons and are well-adapted to the drain on their resources.
Reading the landscape is a daily adventure for me. It’s my way of actively seeing and not allowing nature to drop into the role of “wallpaper” in my life. I find delight in a plant, a view, or a toad hopping past my foot, in the rich connection to the world around me. I learned to look for nature’s stories from the many amazing teachers I have encountered in person and in books. Sharing those stories completes the circle between subject, student, and teacher.
Janice Little is the director of education and public programs at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens.