Appreciating Spring

ground ivy swathI love the smell of the air in spring. It is so sweet, I just drink it in. It’s like honey, only lighter. I have figured out why the air smells better in spring than at any other time of the year. Every tree and bush that possibly can is blooming, some very inconspicuously and others with showy gusto. Maples have tiny flowers, and oaks have long catkins. There are ornamental cherries and apple trees, and lilacs and lots of bushes and trees whose names I don’t know. All of them are throwing their sweet scents into the air. Anywhere you walk, it smells good, and then every so often you pass a particular shrub, a certain tree, and for a minute the perfume intoxicates you.

The colors are amazing. I’m not even talking about the colors of the flowers, simply the colors of all the leaves and foliage that come back in spring, or that have been around all winter and get highlighted by newly juxtaposed leaves.

The colors of spring are not simply an undifferentiated new-leaf green, they are a subtle, wide-ranging palette of greens and browns and reds. Different shadings of yellow-green, green-yellow, mixed in with greeny-browns and true browns. Deep greens of rhododendrons and evergreens and firs, the latter two with light lime-green tips. Japanese maples, of course, start with red leaves immediately, but other trees and plants start in the red range. The leaves of pink dogwood are deep greeny-pink when they first emerge. Rose bushes have new leaves tinged with red around the edges. Peonies send up their red shoots that later turn green. Other plants start right away with dark green leaves, like the violets that begin with deep green shoots. Day lilies start sending up leaves early, though they don’t bloom until summer. The leaves are a medium green yellow, just a little lighter than iris leaves, which start emerging shortly after the daylilies do.

What also pleases me to see in the spring is the way trees and plants get clothed in their foliage. Driving along the highway this spring has given me a particularly good opportunity to observe this. Trees and bushes don’t come to life fully and thickly leaved. It’s a gradual process, which makes the landscape look like a sponge painting for a few weeks. It appears as if someone has taken sponges of different textures and densities and daubed on the foliage. Some of it is very airy and lacy, while other textures are thicker, richer, more opaque. This, with the wide-ranging palette of shades, makes me feel like I am moving through a living painting.

Flower Salad

I love using flowers and herbs in salads and cooking.

They give me an involvement with the dish I’m making that is different – more intimate, more interesting, more exciting.

Making salads in the summer involves a little routine.Nasturtium
I take the flat basket I use for gathering herbs and go into the backyard.
In late spring there are chive blossoms, violet flowers, dandelion flowers. In summer there are nasturtium blossoms and leaves, lemon gem and tangerine gem marigold flowers, chives, wood sorrel, violet leaves, and purslane. Chickweed grows where it’s shady and cool and is unobtrusive in salads.

And there are more weeds to eat, flourishing where I let them grow in my garden.
A few years ago I discovered the tasty pleasure of adding a few leaves of herbs like lemon balm, bee balm, thyme, and basil. And oh yes! the johnny jumpups! They don’t have a lot of taste, but the flowers sure are pretty in with the other colors in the salad.

I’m not always a big fan of salads, but adding in these flowers and herbs makes the salad more appealing and flavorful, so I eat it much more readily.


Flower Friends

Flowers and plants have always been part of my life.

When I was a young girl, living in South America, I would make garlands of flowers to wear in my hair.

When I was a bit older, I would take the local kids and introduce them to plants in the neighborhood gardens.

Iris WeaverIn my late teens, when depression became a frequent visitor in my life, flowers and plants became real sanity-savers for me.
I was living in New Haven and didn’t have a car, so I walked everywhere.

I would walk with my head down, which meant that I got a good view of the ground. I found myself one spring noticing the first crocuses, and then the daffodils and tulips and other flowers coming along. Across the street from the house where I rented a room was a magnolia tree that blossomed gloriously. I got such pleasure looking at it through the window while I sat working.

Seeing the first flowers and plants coming up gave me joy and somehow lifted me out of my pain for a while. I don’t know what spiritual chemistry plants have to do this, but I have experienced it ever since.

Some years later I was living in Salem and again dealing with deep depression. As spring came on (I was now in school and again without a car), I found where on my everyday routes the crocuses and daffodils were, later the violets and then the roses.
That’s when I realized that I’d been looking for the flowers every spring wherever I lived.

As I got to know a great many more wildflowers and wild plants (commonly known as “weeds”), as well as their cultivated relatives, I would watch for the appearance of all these friends as well.

Now I watch for their arrival in summer and fall as well, and watch the plants that keep some greenery throughout the winter.

I have found a few flowers that bloom in late winter or early spring and I especially adore their color when all else is still so bare.

This spring look down at the ground and around you to see what flowers are coming up. Watching the process of plants grow and change is a wondrous experience. Bring some fresh flowers into your home, either cut flowers or blooming plants. If those are beyond your financial means, learn to identify wild flowers which are free for the picking and just as beautiful in a vase as cultivated flowers. As a matter of fact, many of our weeds are actually plants that once were grown in gardens and escaped to become common roadside sights.

Plants have given me companionship and joy and helped me through dark times. I hope you find your own form of that connection.

February 2003

Before Weeds


Before I ever think of plants as weeds, I think of them as friends, companions. When I go into my backyard or out walking, I greet different plants that are my friends. So many plants that grow wild, or should I say “naturally” (i.e. not cultivated), that many people consider to be just weeds, I see as helpers, friends, allies. I use the term “weed” only because it’s convenient, but I think to call a plant a weed, meaning it’s worthless or useless, is an insult, inaccurate and untrue.

garden bouquet 5-25-13

Bouquet–Geum, Kale, Comfrey

When I see a plant, I always have to identify it to myself, which can get to be annoying when I’m walking and passing one plant after another. It’s sort of like a Firesign Theater sketch where the character is driving on the freeway and speaking, but behind him you hear a constant verbal litany of the signs that he’s passing on the road.

This mental plant identification is a constant, sometimes distracting, undercurrent. I do think of an occasional plant as a weed, when it is where I don’t want it or has no use that I can think of. (My boyfriend Al says to me: “What about poison ivy? Do you think it’s a weed?” And I ask myself, do I consider poison ivy a weed? What use does it have? I seem to remember something about birds eating the berries, but I’m not sure.)

Some plants I get annoyed at for being aggressive or invasive or (I’ll admit it) ugly, and I may refer to them as weeds. But even then, I don’t believe that those plants are of no use. Some of my plants I grow in the yard and some in pots on my porch. Certainly some of my favorites are the ones I’ve chosen to cultivate, even digging them up from where they grow wild. Others I’ve gotten to know grow where they grow wild and a few have come into my yard on their own to be with me. They surround my house and my life.

I get help from plants and use them for many things.
Beauty for my yard and my home, healing work, protection, flavoring food, eating them, making things with dried plants, dyeing fabrics and yarns. They are an integral part of my world.

Spring 1994

Learning How Plants Heal Me

When I’ve been most depressed in my life, I’ve turned to flowers. They could reach inside my darkened spirit and touch my heart. They lifted me up just a little, enough to help me carry on.

I’ve always been connected with plants.  My earliest memories include plants: smelling gardenias (we lived in South America), eating mangoes and tangerines right off the tree, watching a miniature-cucumber vine twining up the side of my house. I adored the way tomato plants smelled. By the time I was five, my mom had taught me the European tradition of making flower garlands to wear in my hair.

All of this was really good, and important, because in the midst of what might have seemed a semitropical paradise there was very nasty abuse going on. I lived in a community that was ostensibly Christian, but their version of Christianity was authoritarian and punitive, and hid a deeper, very damaging cult within it.

Growing up as a young child in this environment was hellish. The plants that grew all around me were a saving grace. They were safe, hospitable, beautiful, and undemanding. They couldn’t hurt me (even if they had thorns) the way humans could. Their energies and their spirits were a haven for my soul and spirit.

I wasn’t consciously aware of this, of course. I just gravitated toward plants, any and all, and spent time with them. I loved walking in woods and fields, down city streets, greeting the plants and looking at gardens. I always knew the names of some plants, and in my teens I started teaching myself about them, getting to know them better.

In my teens I became aware of the power of flowers to reach inside me and change something fundamental. I didn’t even know I was depressed, I just could barely function and get about. When I walked down the street from my house I would look at all the flowers popping up in the spring; I knew where all the crocuses were, the daffodils, the tulips and forsythia, the budding magnolias. I cannot give you an explanation, but seeing them was vital to my continuing to struggle on.

In my thirties, in another city, I again would note where all my plant friends grew, following the succession of plants, flowers, seeds from spring to fall. They were dear to my heart.

When I moved to that city 26 years ago, I wanted to put down roots, both figuratively and literally. I planted a rosebush in the yard next to my building. It didn’t make it, but my gardening chops did. Well, they developed, let’s say, with a lot of coaching from the plants!

Along the way I learned how to do all sorts of wonderful things with plants. How to get colors for my yarn and fabric, how to make medicines, what wild plants are good eating, how to decorate my house with wreaths and bouquets made from my favorite plants. And I learned to listen to what the plants have to tell me, by their colors and form, by their whispers in the wind, by the energy they share with all of us. I learned how to let them bring their healing into my heart and body and life.

The ways that connecting with plants have helped me are myriad. Sometimes it’s been just lifting my spirits by seeing a plant friend. Sometimes it is the taking myself out of myself while working with the plants—preparing a dye bath, making a tincture or oil or vinegar, putting plants to dry for later use, making up a tea blend in the morning.

Other times it is the involvement with the plant world and nature. Walking in the fields or woods or down the street, greeting my plant friends, collecting flowers, leaves, roots, for medicine or dye or wreaths or my dinner-plate.

Digging in the earth in a garden is life-changing. It puts you in touch with the earth and earth energy, and brings you into your body.

When I first began gardening professionally, which meant a lot of time with my hands in the dirt!, I was terribly uncomfortable in my body while gardening. I hadn’t spent much time connecting with my body in my 40-plus years of living, and the connection with earth brought me into my body. It took time for me to get comfortable being more in my body and aware of it. I’m glad I allowed myself to do that, because I am much more comfortable in my body now, and I really love having my hands in the dirt and feeling that very visceral connection with Nature.

I feel like plants helped save my life. They certainly helped rescue and maintain my sanity. I am deeply grateful for the gifts of the plants in my life. I hope that you may find a way to bring their healing presence into your life.