Okay.. maybe this is a silly question but how do go about learning about plants? We are surrounded by some beautifully landscaped areas but I have no clue how to start. The Peterson’s and Golden Guides are for “wild plants”. I seem to in the mood of firing off questions at your blog, Lissa.
Not a silly question at all. Great question. I’m sure others will have lots of advice here, so please chime in, folks.
My best advice is to start with a good nursery in your area. Spend some time just browsing the aisles, especially looking out for plants you’ve seen in your neighborhood but don’t know the names of. When we moved here, that’s how I learned that the big, wide-leaved plants in our front yard with the spires of beautiful purple globes are agapanthus, or “lilies of the Nile.” We see them all over town, purple ones and white ones. (I snapped a photo yesterday for our Challenge, but haven’t uploaded it yet.)
You could even take some pictures to the nursery with you—on your cell phone or iPod perhaps—to show the knowledgeable workers there and ask for identification help.
Something I did in both New York and Virginia, but haven’t done here in California, was to make a visit to the local branch of the cooperative extension agency. This is a governmental organization funded by the Department of Agriculture. You can find the number in the blue pages of your phone book, or try the Cooperative Extension System website. This is a fantastic resource and almost everything there is free. You can take in a sample of your soil for testing to see how you might need to amend it for certain types of gardening. There will probably be lots of information—booklets, fliers, etc—about native plants, invasive plants, wildflowers, and such. We took home stacks of fliers from the Charlottesville, Virginia branch, I remember. There was also a lovely garden there of native plants, all clearly labeled (bring a camera when you visit!) and a how-to display on composting. And there were “Master Gardener” volunteers on hand to answer our plant- and bug-related questions!
Actually a trip to the county extension agency is a great field trip for anyone, would-be plant identifiers or not.
Another great resource is your local native plant society. This is something I usually look up within the first month of our living in a new place. In Virginia, the local NPS offered guided nature walks at a nearby preserve, as well as a perfectly wonderful annual sale of native plants grown by NPS members. If you saw my big butterflies post from a few years back, you heard me gushing about how awesome that plant sale was.
Yesterday I took Jane to a native plant sale at a nearby nature center while the other girls were napping. It took us forever to even get into the building where they had the plant sale, because there were a lot of booths set up for various nature clubs and societies, and she was fascinated by all of it. At every table she struck up a conversation with the people running the booth. The old lady at the Invasive Plant Display could not have been more delighted to have this little kid seeming so genuinely interested in how to avoid nasty invasives like multiflora rose and ailanthus tree. The lady gave us a really nice booklet with color photos, saying, “I don’t usually give these out to people, but you really seem to care!”
But the topper was the butterfly table…
Oh my gosh, 2003. Five years ago. That does not seem possible. Pardon me while I shed a nostalgic tear or two for Ivy Creek and the Saturday morning butterfly walks guided by the very same man I described meeting in that post.
:::sniff::: OK, I’m better now. We made that plant sale every year we lived in Virginia. I picked up some treasures there: a wood poppy, a spicebush, a hackberry tree. I have to stop now or I’ll get weepy again.
Here in San Diego, I joined the NPS email list immediately and receive regular notices of nature walks and other events. It’s also a good place to ask any questions I might have about a plants I’d like to identify. These groups are full of enthusiasts who are eager to help—and experience has taught me that most of the members tend to be older, retired folks who are thrilled to see some “young blood” (e.g. my children) showing an interest in their favorite topic. You can make wonderful friends this way.
And finally, I would recommend visiting local public gardens or nature centers. Most places will have sections of plantings with labels. We’ve learned a ton from visiting Mission Trails Regional Center, a vast expanse of hiking trails on the scrubby hills in East San Diego County. Not that my kids and I have spent much time on the trails themselves: it’s just not something I can manage with Rilla in the sling and Wonderboy in the stroller. But the visitor center at the main entrance is a treasure unto itself, and we’ve made several visits there. The grounds around the center are full of labeled plantings. In fact, item #1 on our 100 Species list (the only entry so far) was identified and photographed there.
Here are more posts I’ve written about visiting Mission Trails:
So, to recap:
• local nurseries
• cooperative extension agency
• native plant society
• nature centers and public gardens
And I’ll add:
• befriend a neighbor with a beautiful garden. Usually this kind of neighbor will spend a lot of time outside working in his or her yard, and if you stroll by with your children often enough, sooner or later you’re bound to strike up a conversation. There’s a nice old gentleman who lives next to an intersection on the edge of our neighborhood. We see him out tending his front yard, a mini-landscape of drought-tolerant plants, several times a week. He has a whimsical touch when it comes to landscaping, artfully incorporating suncatchers, pinwheels, bits of broken pottery and glass, and even some old sun-bleached bones into his plantings. He is always wearing an enormous straw hat. There’s a four-way stop at his corner, and my kids always wave when they see him. He grins and waves back. In the winter there’s a breathtaking row of tall poinsettias—really!—lining his driveway. In summer, sunflowers. One of these days I’m going to get up the nerve to pull over and tell him how much I enjoy driving by his garden. Maybe this winter he’ll let me take a picture of his poinsettias for our Challenge list, too. I’ll bet he could rattle off a hundred species in no time…
Anyone care to add to this list? How do you learn about plants in your neighborhood?