Naming the Trees in Winter

This year, I made a commitment to learn about the trees in my neighborhood, as I participate with the students in my current online class, A Year in Flowers. This was the next logical step in my quest to find nature in the city.

I had already spent several years learning about the plants in my neighborhood. My plant blindness was fading. After taking classes and going on field trips with the Washington Native Plant Society, and with Seattle’ resident plant expert, Arthur Lee Jacobson, I recognized most of the plants in the few blocks around my apartment building. Here a hedge of sarcococca humilis, var. Hookeriana, already emitting its sweet perfume in January. On the corner, a witch hazel, all yellow curlicues. At the entrance to the alley, a stand of wild violets, re-emerging with their heart-shaped leaves from the mud.

But when it came to trees, I was at a total loss. I could lump the evergreens into major categories: pines, firs, cedars. I still had a lot to learn about species. But the deciduous trees were the bigger problem. In January, they were just so many trunks, so many branches. Without their leaves or fruit, I was stumped.

I began by trying to recognize the same trees when they appeared in different settings on my daily walks with my dog. It helped to give them names based on their appearance. The lumpy bumpy tree. The freckled grey bark tree. The cavorting branch tree.

My usual tools at this stage of my research: the field guides were not useful. I paged through three of them looking for the tree I called the grey freckled bark tree. I had put days into the search when it occurred to me that maybe the freckles were not part of the bark but lichen.

Now there are easy ways to identify a tree, especially in Seattle. The City of Seattle, through the Department of Transportation, has compiled a Street Tree Inventory which you can view as a clickable map.

Or you can start from the other direction: If you think you know the tree genus, you can look it up in Arthur Lee Jacobson’s excellent book, Trees of Seattle. After some remarks that help you identify the trees, Jacobson supplies some locations where those trees are located.

There are problems with both of these approaches. One is that the streets on the street inventory are self-reported so they may be incorrect identifications. And I have the older edition of Jacobson’s book. Many of the trees he mentions have since disappeared, especially the ones near my apartment on Capitol Hill, cut down because of new construction.

But I also spurned these as initial approaches because it feels a bit like cheating to me. I like to make myself work a little harder. I find it is the effort I put into the identifying process that helps me remember what I’ve learned. It’s like the difference between making small talk and getting to really know someone over a series of coffees and meals and conversations.

So I spend a lot of time studying the bark and branching patterns of the deciduous trees around me. Some trees are easy: the liquidambar in front of the apartment building are still bearing their knobby fruit capsules (sometimes called space balls). The hawthorn down the street finally shed its leaves during the last windstorm but is still sporting dark red haws. And who can forget the Empress tree? Even though there won’t be any lilac-colored, vanilla-scented flowers until May and strange pods until July, it is unforgettable once identified.

While walking a little farther afield with my dog, Flora one day, I happened upon a tree with the same grey bark and white freckles as the tree I was trying to identify. But this one still had leaves on it, all of them dried and crunchy. I took off a leaf and went home and used a field guide which was designed like a key. Gradually I made my way to the beeches and decided my grey freckle bark tree was a beech.

I mentioned this to my friend Dan and he said, “Oh a copper beech. They don’t shed their leaves until spring. The new buds push out the old leaves.” He knew because he had one in his yard. And indeed, when I looked up copper beeches I learned all about abcission (the process by which trees shed their leaves) and marcescence (some trees hold onto their leaves through the winter, notably oaks, beeches and hornbeams). The leaves won’t fall off until wind snaps the brittle petioles. One theory about why this is advantageous for a tree is that it discourages herbivores from nibbling on the emerging twigs. A mouthful of brittle, dried leaves is not appealing.

Looking up the name beech, I discover that its species name (Fagus) derives from a Latin word for edible that comes from the same root as beech. The name beech is also cognate with book. This may be due to the lovers’ practice of scratching entwined initials within a heart on the bark. Because the tree retains the same bark for its entire life, rather than shedding it like madrone or birch, or growing new protective layers like most trees, the writing remains for the tree’s lifetime. The beech is a book, recording forever the moment in time when RF and FH decided to memorialize their love.

And when I looked up beeches in Arthur Lee Jacobson’s Trees of Seattle book, I found there was another one a block away. On my next walk, I found that tree. It had the same smooth grey bark with white freckles on it. Lichen, I learn. Lichens love beeches because they don’t shed their bark.

Alas, when I turn to the Street tree inventory, it identifies my grey freckle bark tree as a Midland English Hawthorn. That’s clearly wrong. I know where the hawthorn tree is. Just a block away. So at this point, I’m going to let hold my identification lightly in my mind and heart and wait for the tree to reveal itself to me when the leaves emerge.

How do you identify strange trees in the winter? If you’d like a challenge and some companionship along the way, you can sign up for the Year in Flowers class. It’s $20 for a month, $120 a whole year of lessons.

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Michaelmas Daisy

The Michaelmas daisy, among dead weeds
Blooms for St Michael’s valorous deeds

Any of the various asters can also be called a Michaelmas daisy, so named because they are members of the Daisy (compositae) family and they bloom through Michaelmas, providing a late show of color and bloom in the garden.

There are species of asters native to America, Switzerland and Italy. The aster amellus or Italian starwort is the original plant dedicated to Archangel Michael, whose holiday we celebrate on Michaelmas, September 29. (For more on this holiday, see this article.)

The 16th century herbalist, Gerard, commented on the aster native to England, the sea starwort (aster tripolium) which grew along the coast but flourished when brought into the garden. He called it tripolium because “It was reported by men of great fame and learning [he was referring to Discorides]..that it doth change the colors of his flowers thrice a day.”

In the 17th century, the plant collector, John Tradescant Jr. began bringing asters from North America to England. In 1633 he brought over the Virginia aster (aster lateriflorus). Later he introduced the very popular New England aster (Aster nova-angliae) and New York aster (Aster nova-belgii). These plants have since been reclassified; they are still in the tribe of Asters but under the genus name of Symphyotrichum (from the Greek words for “growing together” and “hair”—poor plant, aster is a much more appropriate and glamorous name).

Still if you were looking for one in a nursery, you’d probably say you were looking for an aster. There are many varieties available, most of them hybrids of the New England and New York asters, in many colors and sizes, with names like Harrington Pink (an heirloom aster dating from the 1930s) and Persian Rose, September Ruby and violet Carpet, Purple Dome and Wood’s Pink.

Aster Etymology

Asters are named for the stars they resemble—the name comes from the same root word as astrology and asteroid, asterisk and disaster–and in England, they are sometimes called starwort (wort simply means herb or plant with healing properties). Several legends are told about their origins. One says that Virgo scattered stardust on earth and they became asters. Another attributes their origin to the goddess Astraea (often associated with the constellation Virgo) who withdrew from earth out of sorrow and looking down wept. Her tears became asters

Aster Folklore

In ancient Greece, aster leaves were burned to keep away evil spirits and drive off serpents. Pliny the Elder recommended a tea of aster in cases of snake bite and an aster amulet to ease the pain of sciatica. Virgil wrote about it in the Georgics:

There is a useful flower
Growing in the meadows, which the country folk
Call star-wort, not a blossom hard to find,
For its large cluster lifts itself in air
Out of one root; its central orb is gold
But it wears petals in a numerous ring
Of glossy purplish blue; ’tis often laid
In twisted garlands at some holy shrine.
Bitter its taste; the shepherds gather it
In valley-pastures where the winding streams
Of Mella flow. The roots of this, steeped well,
In hot, high-flavored wine, thou may’st set down
At the hive door in baskets heaping full.

Helen Baroli in her book about Italian holiday food mentions picking yellow Michaelmas daisies on the beaches near Rome. She also made a yellow sponge cake called “Margherita” (daisy) on Michaelmas.

I don’t think the cake has any asters in it but the Plants for the Future website gives aster amellus, the native Italian aster, a rating of 2 for edibility and 2 for medicinal qualities. The roots have been used to make medicine for coughs, pulmonary infections and malaria. However they warn that although the native aster is probably safe to eat, the hybrid decorative varieties may not be.

The aster is considered a herb of Venus and like the daisy, which belongs to the same family of Compositae, it has been used in love divinations.

Growing Asters

Asters are easy to grow. I just saw a meadow full of three-foot high purplish-blue asters in a marsh on Puget Sound, where I presume they were growing wild. Although the plant can grow in poor conditions, it likes moist soil and lots of sun. Asters should be divided every three years.

One of my favorite garden writers, Paghat, offers a selection of aster photographs and tips on cultivation (at least in the Pacific Northwest) at her website.  Check her index for other asters.

She’s also the person who referred me to Picton Garden in Worcestershire, the site of the original Michaelmas Daisy Nursery founded in 1906 by Ernest Ballard. He was an English plant breeder who specialized in Michaelmas daisies.

China aster painted by Redoute

Chinese asters come from a different genus Callistephys, but they also bloom in autumn at the same time as the Michaelmas daisy. Their name means beautiful crown from the Greek kallistos (beautiful) and stephanus (crown). They were often planted in Chinese gardens in pots and arranged in a row with one shade blending into one another to produce a rainbow effect, something that might be fun to do with asters in your garden.

The sheer variety of China asters in shapes and color, is why aster means “variety” in the language of flowers. Asters are also associated with elegance and daintiness.


Barolini, Helen, Festa: Recipes and Recollections of Italian Holidays, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich 1988
Gerard’s Herbal, edited by Marcus Woodward, first published in 1597, reprint by Studio Editions 1994
Martin, Laura C., Garden Flower Folklore, Globe Pequot Press 1987
Martin, Laura C., Wildflower Folklore, Globe Pequot 1993
Martin, Tovah, Heirloom Flowers, Fireside 1999
Parson, Frances Theodora and Mrs William Starr Dana, According to Season, A Celebration of Nature, Houghton Mifflin 1990
Ward, Bobby J, A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth & Literature, Timber Press 1999
Wells, Diana, 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 1997


The lovely picture of the purple aster was taken by Heather Oetkin’s elementary school students and featured at the Human Flower Project website, where Julie Ardery admits that asters are on her hated plants list.

For Cecily Mary Barker’s depiction of the Michaelmas Daisy Fairy
First published on September 9, 2011

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Flowers of July: Lotus & Water Lily

lotuses4Every Fourth of July, the talented pyrotechnicians who create the firework display that decorates the sky over Lake Union in Seattle devise new fireworks and the year I was working on this article, I was pleased to see fireworks that looked like lotuses, with outer petals fading from white to pink and central rings of rose deepening to red. The lotus, after all, is the flower for July in China. And the water lily, the flower of July in England, blooms in water. What could be more cool and refreshing during the hot days of July than contemplating the water lily?

From the earliest Indian collection of Buddhist sutras, from the reign of Ahyu, comes this description of the beginning of the world:

“Between the mountains there were many rivers, flowing in all directions along 100 different routes, moving slowly downhill, without waves. The rivers were shallow and their banks weren’t steep, making them easy to ford. The water in them was clean and pure, and flowers floated on the surface in abundance. The currents were full of them…”

According to this passage, the lotus was the first flower appearing in a world of water.

Natural Facts about the Lotus & the Water Lily

Although there is a botanical distinction, the lotus and water lily are often used interchangeably in folklore and mythology. Generally lotus refers to the water lily of India or the plant depicted in sacred art and stories, while the water lily is more often used by naturalists. As an example of the confusion, the World Book actually has two entries, one for the lotus, one for the water lily, both clearly referring to the same plant and neither referring to the other entry.

The lotus of India belongs to the Nelumbo genus (Nelumbo is the Sinhalese name for the plant). It has large flowers and leaves that sometimes grow up above the water. The plant’s thorny stalk discourages fish from nibbling on it. The upper cupule or fleshy capsule of the lotus dries out at maturity and separates from the plant. Floating about, it scatters seed from the many perforated holes in its surface.

In Asia, there is only one species of lotus with red and white blooms. Yet early Buddhist scriptures, referring to the seven precious lotuses, mention blue and yellow flowers. The water lily, native to Egypt, has blue flowers but the yellow-flowered water lily is native to North America. This mystery may be addressed in this Buddhist sutra:

“The lotuses of heaven can change according to people’s wishes, flowering when needed. In this way they bring joy to the hearts of all. There is no need to declare one false and the other real. Both are called the wondrous lotus flower.”

The water lily belongs to the Nympha genus, derived from the same word as Nymph. The Greek word nymph, besides being used to describe the feminine spirits of water and trees, also means something young and budding (like the larva of certain insects) and is the name for the labia minora. In Europe, the common white water lily, the one painted by Monet, is Nympha alba while in North America, we’re more familiar with Nuphar lutea, the yellow water lilies, also called spatterdocks or cow lilies. The English sometimes call the plant “brandy bottle” because the flowers smell like stale wine which attracts flies, the pollinators for the plant.

According to Chelsie Vandaveer, the Amazon Water Lily (victoria amazonica) imprisons its pollinators. The pure white flowers open in the evening and release a fragrance like pineapples. Beetles attracted by the smell find their way to the pale flowers on the dark water and feast on the central petals, while the flower closes over them. Then the anthers ripen and shed their pollen all over the trapped beetles. By the second evening, the flowers have turned pink and lost their fragrance. They open again and release the pollen-covered beetles which fly off in search of more white flowers with that incredible fragrance. Thus the lily is never self-pollinated since it can only be pollinated when the flower is white and fragrant. I love this description of the flower that changes colors and fragrances overnight, all in the service of sex. No wonder it’s considered a magical plant.

Yellow water lily

Growing Lotuses

The Sunset New Western Garden Book does distinguish between lotuses and water lilies.

Water lilies, listed under the genus Nymphaea, have round leaves with a notch at one side where the leaf stalk is attached. The flowers float on the surface of the water or stand above it. Water lilies sold in nurseries are hybrids. Hardy water lilies come in colors ranging from white through yellow to red. Tropical water lilies come in more colors, including blue and purple, but are more sensitive and prefer (no surprise!) to live in areas where orange trees flourish. They can be grown in colder climates, especially if the roots are stored in damp sand over the winter.

Lotuses, in the genus Nelumbo, have perfectly round leaves that spring up in summer above the water level and large fragrant flowers on separate stalks. Lotus roots should be planted in spring in 12 to 18 inches of fairly rich soil, which is then covered with 8 to 12 inches of water. They often will not bloom the first year, unless the summer is warm early. If the water will freeze in your area, the pond should be covered or filled with more water in winter. Nelumbium luteum is the American lotus, with pale, small flowers. The Indian or Chinese lotus, Nelumbium nelumbo, usually has pink flowers although white, rose and double varieties are available.

To make things even more confusing there is a genus called Lotus but it’s a completely different plant, a member of the pea family. Let’s not even go there.

Lotus Engraving
Engraving of a lotus from an old herbal.

Sacred Loremohenjodaro

When the white lotus descends to this world, it changes everyone’s life for the better. Chant from the White Lotus Sect, Ming dynasty

Jonas Balys, a Lithuanian folklorist writing on the lotus for Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia of Folklore and Mythology provides a great summary of the significance of the lotus through the ages.

The oldest representation of the lotus was made centuries before anyone ever wrote about it: a statue unearthed at Mohenjo-Daro showing a wide-hipped goddess, lifting her breasts with her hands and wearing lotus blossoms in her hair.

The Hindu goddess Laxmi, is also called Padma, Kamia and Kamalasana, all names for the lotus. She emerged from a lotus which sprang from Vishnu’s forehead (an improvement on Athena’s method of birth, I think). Vishnu himself is pictured holding a conch, a wheel, a mace and a lotus in his four hands.

lakshmiThe earliest written reference to the goddess in a supplement of the Rig-Veda describes her as born of the lotus, standing on the lotus, garlanded with lotuses. She is the hue of the lotus, lotus-eyed, lotus-thighed. She is often depicted flanked by white elephants who pour water from their trunks over her and the lotus she holds. Supposedly elephants love to eat the steam of lotuses.

In India, the Lotus also represents birth. Vishnu puts forth from his body a single giant navel on which Brahma, the lotus-born Creator is seated. This lotus has 1,000 golden petals from which mountains rise and waters flow.

Buddhism borrowed the lotus pedestal from Brahma. The Buddha is often depicted sitting on a lotus or holding a lotus. Yoga students and meditators sit in lotus position.

Legend says that when the Buddha was born, he walked seven steps in ten directions and with each step a lotus flower appeared. Look closely at the soles of his feet when you see a statue of Buddha — you may see the imprint of the lotus.

Buddhist periods are initiated by the appearance of a lotus, which indicates the location of the sacred tree of the Buddha. If there are no blossoms, no Buddha will appear. At the beginning of the current era, the Bhadrakalpa, there were 1,000 blossoms, signifying the birth of 1,000 Buddhas.

The Buddhist sutras say that the lotus has four virtues: scent, purity, softness and loveliness. Yet as Chang Chin-ju notes, many other flowers are soft, clean and fragrant. The lotus was singled out because Chinese botanists once believed that it flowered and bore fruit at the same time, thus symbolizing the ability to transcend the limitations of time.

In China, even before Buddhism arrived bringing its special devotion to the lotus, the lotus was honored as the plant of summer. One of the eight immortals holds a lotus, the “flower of open-heartedness” or a lotus-pod wand. It was an emblem of purity, fruitfulness (because of its many seeds) and creative power.

The Lotus Sect of Chinese Buddhism believes that people can be rewarded for virtuous acts by leaving the cycle of reincarnation and going to dwell in the Western Heaven. This paradise contains the Seven Treasure Pond which brims over with the Water of Eight Deeds and Virtues. The bottom of the lake is covered with gold dust and the lotuses are as big as carriage wheels. The blue flowers give off a blue light, the red a red light, the yellow a yellow light and the white flowers a marvelous fragrance. The different colors have different meanings. White represents purity, blue goodness and red enlightenment.

The Sacred Lake of Lotuses is often depicted in Temple Courtyards. Each soul has a lotus on this lake which will open to receive them after death and where they will wait until the time of its opening. The flowers thrive or droop according to the piety of the individual on earth; for the devout they open immediately when he dies, admitting the soul at once to the divine presence.

In China, the envelopes given to the family at a funeral are impressed with the outline of a lotus. And in rural areas, people still burn incense to the Spirit of the Lotus. In Chinese Buddhism, the goddess Tara is also called Lotus. And Kwan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, is often depicted holding a lotus which she gazes at with downcast eyes, or reclining on an expanse of lotuses.

In Chinese Buddhism, the lotus became a symbol of purity. “Bathing in the clear water of the spiritual pond, the lotus’ roots dig deep into the soil.” It represented being able to distance oneself from vulgarity. But Mahayana Buddhism takes this symbolism a step further: “This flower doesn’t grow in the highlands, but rather it blooms in the vile swamps.” In other words, purity is no different than pollution—the spirit can bloom in any circumstance.

The lotus became a popular symbol in Chinese folk custom. Pictures showing fat dancing babies holding lotus leaves or flowers are purchased in the hope that people will give birth to several boys in succession (because the Chinese word for lotus sounds the same as a word meaning “one after another”). And since lotus leaves protect the goldfish under them, the lotus also symbolizes abundance year after year.

Long before the classical Hindu scriptures wrote of the lotus, the lotus was an important symbol in Egypt. In fact, the lotus may have come to India from Egypt. It was associated with the sun because it opens in the morning and closes at night. Horus, the sun-god was often depicted sitting on a lotus (like Buddha and Brahma). The lotus was also the flower of resurrection, used in funeral rites and depicted on tombs. Mourners would pray that the deceased would have the chance to bloom again, “like a water lily reopening.”

The water lily appears all over the tomb of King Tutan-kamen which was built in 1361 BC. Water lilies adorn the tops of columns. The oar King Tut is using to row to the land of rebirth is made in the image of a half-open water lily. A beautiful woman who resembles Cleopatra offers the water lily she holds in her hand to another woman to sniff.

A Dakota legend tells about the origin of the yellow pond lily common in North America. A Star Maiden came down from the night sky and wanted to live with the Dakota. The chief, Red Strawberry Man, sent his son with the maiden to consult the tribe’s advisor who lived across the lake. While rowing across the lake in the darkness, the son’s canoe hit a log and the Star Maiden tumbled into the waters. In the morning, the first yellow water lily appeared at the same spot.

Lotus Holidays

The sixth moon of the Chinese lunar calendar is called the Lotus moon. In Peking, the birthday of the lotus is celebrated on the 24th day of the sixth month, according to Burkhardt. People flock to see the pink lotuses blooming in the lakes around the Winter Palace with the same enthusiasm the Japanese bring to cherry-blossom viewing. The sight of the lotus blooming in ponds and moats signifies that prayers to the Dragon-Prince have been answered and there will be sufficient moisture for an abundant harvest.

On two Chinese lunar holidays that usually fall in the month of July, the Chinese celebrate with lotus flowers. During the festival of Tanabata, the weaver woman, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, children carry lotus flowers. And lotus lanterns are lit for the Ghost Festival on the first day of the seventh lunar month.

Thoreau wrote an entry on June 25, 1852, that implies it was the custom for young men to bring water lilies to church on Sundays while they were in bloom:

“The nymphaea odorate, water nymph, sweet water-lily, pond-lily, in bloom. A superb flower, our lotus queen of the waters. Now is the solstice in still waters. How sweet, innocent, wholesome its fragrance. How pure its white petals, though its root is in the mud! It must answer in my mind for what the Orientals say of the lotus flower. Probably the first a day or two since. To-morrow, then will be the first Sabbath, when the young men, having bathed, will walk slowly and soberly to church in their best clothes, each with a lily in his hand or bosom, with as long a stem as he could get. At least I used to see them go by and come into church smelling a pond-lily, when I used to go myself. So that the flower is to some extent associated with bathing on Sabbath mornings and going to church, its odor contrasting and atoning for that of the sermon.”

June 2

Heat lingers
As days are still long;
Early mornings are cool
While autumn is still young.
Dew on the lotus
Scatters pure perfume;
Wind on the bamboos
Gives off a gentle tinkling.
I am idle and lonely,
Lying down all day,
Sick and decayed;
No one asks for me;
Thin dusk before my gates,
Cassia blossoms inch deep.

Po Chu-I (772-864) Autumn Coolness, translated by Howard S Levy and Henry Wells

Lotus Dreams

Jian Nan Shi Gao, a Song dynasty poet, was 78 years old when he had the following dream: He met an ancient man who told him: “I am the lotus scholar and responsible for the mirror lake. But now I am leaving, and I was wondering if you could take my place minding the moonlight, wind and dew and protecting the lotuses? Every month you will receive 1000 jugs of wine in payment.”

Lotus & Palm
Lotus & Palm border from the Palace of Darius 1 at Susa. Pesian, 6th century BCE in the Musee du Louvre.

Lotus Medicine

Indian folklore prescribes the leaves of the lotus to cool the fires of ardor. Pliny says the same thing: “According to tradition nymphaecea was born of a nymph who died of jealousy about Hercules, and therefore those who have taken it in drink for twelve days are incapable of intercourse and procreation.”

Huron Smith (quoted by Coffey) noted in 1933 the medicinal use of the yellow pond lily (nelumbo lutea) among the Forest Potawatomi who call it pine snake, because of the way the roots look when exposed. The roots were cut in quarters to dry, then pounded into a pulp to be used as a poultice for inflammatory diseases.

Michael Moore, the noted North American herbalist, prescribes it for exactly the same thing that medieval herbalists did: cooling of too much heat (appropriate during the heat of the Dog Days!) Moore recommends using the dried seeds and tea made from the root for soothing inflammation of the intestinal and urinary tract, caused by “too much sex, three days driving in a subcompact in the summer—or the jalapeno syndrome.” The fresh root is especially good for soothing the reproductive organs, whether used internally or externally. Moore cautions that the root is for cooling and shrinking hot, inflamed and sharply painful conditions, not for dull, congested, subacute and achy conditions that need stimulation. The root can also be used as a poultice or bath for inflamed joints.

Warning: Although I’m convinced by the reports of reputable herbalists and the ancient folk tradition that ingesting lotus root is safe, Jeanne Rose in her herbal marks the water lily with her symbol for highly toxic. And David L Spess, in his book on Soma, posits that plants from both the Nymphaea and Nelumbo families were the source of the divine hallucinogen, known in the India tradition as soma. He says that both plants are psychoactive, as well as having rejuvenating and healing powers.

Lotus Panel
Assyrian carved stone panel of a lotus blossom from the 6th century BCE

Lotus Food

Every part of the lotus found in India (Nelumbo nucifera) is edible. Seeds are roasted to make puffs called mahkanas. The plant’s roots are ground up to make lotus meal.

Native Americans also used the ground flour of a similar plant, Nelumbo lutea. Thomas Nuttal (quoted by Coffey) made notes in 1821 of the way the Quapaws of Arkansas used the plant. The young leaves were cooked, the tubers baked, the young seeds eaten raw or cooked and the ripe seeds of winter roasted, boiled or ground into meal. Furthermore they extracted an edible oil from the seeds.

You can eat the seeds of yellow pond lily. Moore offers a recipe from an Alaskan herbalist, Janice Schofield, for Pond Lily Popcorn, made by popping 1/4 cup of seeds in 2 tablespoons of oil and flavoring them with butter, nutritional yeast and whatever else you fancy. He comments that it sounds more palatable than the way the Assiniboin and Micmac ate them: fried in bear fat.

Lotus border
Lotus border painted on cornice moulding on the Portico of Thersilion at Megalopolis

How to enjoy the water lily in the month of July

  • Rent or borrow a canoe or kayak and go out on the water near some water lilies
  • Chant Om mani padme hum (a lotus wishing-spell)
  • Sit in lotus position
  • Create a pond (perhaps using a barrel—but don’t use redwood — it discolors the water) and plant some lotuses
  • Burn incense to the spirit of the lotus
  • Make an offering to the Buddha or Laxmi of a water lily floating in water


Burkhardt, V.R., Chinese Creeds and Customs, Hong Kong: South China Morning Post, 1982
Chang Chin-ju, translated by Jonathan Barnard, “Lotus, Flower of Paradise”
Coffey, Timothy, The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers, Houghton Mifflin 1993
Jenks, Kathleen has a wonderful section on the lotus sutras, plus beautiful lotus paintings at her fabulous website, Mything Links
Kear, Katerine, Flower Wisdom, Thorsons 2000
Moore, Michael, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, Santa Fe: Red Crane Books 1993
Sunset New Western Garden Book, Menlo Park: Lane Publishing Company 1979
Rose, Jeanne, Herbs & Things, Grosset & Dunlap 1972
Spess, David L., Soma: The Divine Hallucinogen, Inner Traditions 2000
Vandaveer, Chelsie, “Why does the Amazon Water Lily imprison its pollinators?”
Ward, Bobby J, A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth and Literature, Timber Press 1999
Wells, Diana, 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, Algonquin Books of Cahpel Hill 1997


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Wet January

winter creek

Photo by John Brew

by Kelly Fine

January is the middle of the long wet season here in Seattle. It’s mid-January and I’m sitting beside a fast-flowing stream, a piece of vinyl between me and the wet sponge of the forest floor. I’ve come to my favorite neighborhood park – a remnant of second-growth forest – to see what drizzle, rain, and fog have made of the woods.

I visit these woods often enough to know that the leaf litter surrounding me has been wet for months. The water and fine sand splashed over its surface give it a matte sheen. On cold nights the leaves freeze brittle, and over the course of the overcast mornings, each leaf slowly relaxes again. As usual, it’s overcast today, and beyond the trees I can see a stretch of the white stratus cloud blanketing Seattle. That’s because the maples and alders surrounding me have lost their leaves for winter, and most of the taller shrubs have done the same. If I were a tree facing six months of cool, dim winter, I’d probably give up my leaves and go dormant too. But winter brings plenty of rain to those plants that keep their leaves all season, and the clearings in the canopy allow plenty of cloud-strained light to reach the understory evergreens — Oregon grape, young conifers, sword ferns, salal, and the mosses and lichens that grow on every surface of these woods and thrive in the Northwest winter.

Photo by Michelle Simkins

Photo by Michelle Simkins

When I lived in southern California, I thought I knew what health looked like: chaparral growing steadily in the sunlight, ravens gliding overhead. But in these wet woods, health looks like moss slowly pushing forth into another white day, drinking water from the air. On the lower branches of a small hemlock near me, moss grows long and thick. Sprays of hemlock needles emerge from the mats of moss, but it’s the moss that will shade the ground during the next cloudbreak. The moss reminds me of a retriever’s fur, muddy but drying in clumps after a dunk in the river.

Photo by Curtis Kukal

Photo by Curtis Kukal

Big-leaf maples must be the mossiest trees in the Northwest. Running my hand over the damp moss of the maple trunk beside me, I notice a pale dust lichen splattered over its surface and fir needles caught deep in its net. Springing from the moist decay held in place by the moss, I find a small mushroom, its delicate cap thin as an inner artichoke leaf. But the most prominent living things springing from the moss are licorice ferns. Moisture-loving, they poke their tips out from the moss every fall when the rains return. After the maples lose their leaves in November, the ferns come into their prime; maybe this access to the sky gives them the light and water they crave. Now they’re extending more than a foot out from the maple trunk beside me, and their tips are just starting to feel the pull of gravity. I’m not sure I’ll ever adjust entirely to the sight of ferns growing from live tree trunks, but almost every big-leaf maple in these woods supports at least a few of them.

Rain is never far from these woods in winter, and now it arrives, a few hard drops splattering my notebook page. Soon the mere tug of a pen will tear that page. I have a lot to do today, and the cold is starting to stiffen my writing hand. Rain gathers at the tip of a sword fern leaf, sags into a teardrop, and rips free. I want to stay and see more, but I should go. As I’m debating, a black lab discovers me on the ground and gives one startled bark. I tell him it’s okay, and he comes wriggling to bury me in steaming breath and dog delight.


Kelly Fine writes from suburban Seattle. Find her at Cracked Offering.

To view more of John Brew’s photos, go to Flickr. To see more photographs and other work by Michelle Simkins, go to her website:  Greenwoman Studio.



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The Isle of Eigg

by Fiona Doubleday

I am rethinking my relationship with time and, in particular with the seasons, after a recent visit to the Isle of Eigg off the west coast of Scotland.  The island is only 5 miles long and is owned by the 80 residents who call it home.  In 1997 the islanders raised the funds necessary to buy their island ending a long period of unsettling change.  Since then I think the islanders believe anything is possible and their engagement with life is evidence of that.

Eigg is the most beautiful of islands with heather hugging hillsides that seep away towards sandy shores.  To the north west of the island lies the island of Rum.  This island watches over Eigg and offers up the most astonishing summer sunsets.  I was humbled on Eigg as I walked the shores and climbed the hills letting the land speak its own tales.

It is a land that is carved out by crofters who continue to live off the land with their roots firmly fixed in seasonal changes.  I am not sure you could live on Eigg and not live through and with the seasons.  In the summer the days are so long with warmth and light to grow the food.  In the winter the days are much shorter and the wind and rain take a grip on the tiny island.  Islanders spoke of days and nights dictated by seasonality as part of the heartbeat of island living.

This tiny land is often battered by Atlantic storms and in those times the ferry does not sail.  The people of Eigg are cut off from the people who supply them with so much, making the community pull together to survive.  Self sufficient in energy, the islanders are far more aware of how much energy they are using and have become experts at living with less.  Only a very few cars travel the single island road, erasing motor sounds from the soundscape.  The result is true peace.

Peace is around every corner and through every flowing burn.  Your ears adjust to a different way of hearing.  Your body is cleansed by clean air as it learns, once more, to breathe deeply.

When I first stepped onto the island I had an overwhelming feeling that humans shouldn’t be on this land.  I tried to walk gently on the land as if to acknowledge the spiritual guardian that is Mother Nature.  My breakthrough moment came while standing alone on the shore.

While encircled by a wild soundscape, I entered into a deep and illuminating meditation which reached to the deepest parts of my soul.  My conscious mind filled with images from my childhood: growing up in the countryside and feeling completely and utterly free.  These were very old memories that had long been forgotten and I welcomed them back.  As the meditative state began to depart I felt much closer to the land that is the Isle of Eigg.

My travels later that day took me to an old crofting museum where I met her.  She was sitting on her wooden chair by the fire but her bones had grown cold and weary.  As I sat with her she began to tell me of a life well lived with a family much adored.  She was a crofter on a small Scottish island in a time now forgotten. She told me about a time when crofting was all that there was.  Her family lived on the edge of survival for long periods when the weather grew harsh and the land tired.

Her tales inspired every step I took from that point onwards.  She stayed with me the rest of my time on Eigg, even while I was visiting the tea rooms buzzing with locals waiting for the supplies to come off the ferry.  As they chatted, she watched and I listened.  When it was time to leave I looked for her but she had gone.  She will be back on her chair with her bones growing cold.  But now I can take her tales of a life well lived and know that, through her, I learned to walk with the land.  My visit to Eigg took me back to a place located deep in my soul and I will be forever grateful.


All photos by Fiona Doubleday.

Fiona Doubleday is the mother of four beautiful children and lives on the Isle of Arran in Scotland. They live on a smallholding where they grow herbs, cut flowers and willow. Fiona runs a small craft company With Love From Arran and is a freelance writer. She teaches online courses, blogs regularly as Scottish Island Mum and is creating a new web site called One Soul Many Hearts which launches October 11.



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Temple of Rhododendrons

My friend, Mary Oak, introduced me to the concept of Goethean observation. J. W. vonGoethe, who I knew only as an author, had wide-ranging interests, which included science. As a writer, he was on the leading edge of the Romantic movement and as a scientist, he moved away from the objective scientific method popular at this time. His approach was similar to what we call today a holistic approach, studying plants in their own environment, rather than as dead samples in a herbarium, and appreciating the whole plant as well as the parts. Rudolf Steiner admired Goethe’s perspective and incorporated it into his teaching, which is how Mary, who teaches at Sound Circle Center, learned about it,

None of the human faculties should be excluded from scientific activity. The depths of intuition, physical exactitude, the heights of reason and sharpness of intellect together with a versatile and ardent imagination, and a loving delight in the world of the senses—they are all essential for a lively and productive apprehension of the moment. Goethe

Under Mary’s tutelage, I used Goethean observation to get to know a rhododendron at Volunteer Park. I must admit that prior to my observation I had a lot of disdain for rhododendrons, those ubiquitous plants that decorate the yard of every older Seattle home. But going through Goethe’s process changed my perspective.

Every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us. Goethe

Goethe suggested getting to know a plant by moving through four phases, from the most objective to the most subjective. In the first phase, you make precise observations. For instance: the flowers are purple, have five petals, have ten pistils and one stamen. The flowers appear in groups of ten at the end of slender branches. I could go on and on, but the point is to simply state the facts without interpretation, so even though I might want to speculate on why there are ten pistils (two for each petal?) or describe the branches as weaving a basket of flowers, I restrain myself. The goal is a list of observable facts.

There is a secret element of regularity in the object which corresponds to a secret element of regularity in the subject. Goethe

In the second phase, your goal is to look for patterns and repetition within the plant, and to imagine how the plant develops through time. For instance, you might pick leaves in various phases and lay them all in a row to see how a leaf develops. I didn’t do this with a leaf but I did observe the flower in almost every phase, from the bud to the shed petals which littered the ground beneath the plant. The flowers about to open looked wet and crinkled. When they unfolded the golden spots on the most vertical of the petals attracted bees which were crawling into the flowers. And then the petals slipped off, leaving behind the pistils and the stamen. The base of the stamen began to swell. The plant I was observing even had some dried fruits from the previous season: hard stems, brown nut-like fruits and some papery seeds inside.

During these first two phases, drawing the plant helps you develop your observation powers and slow down to more thoroughly appreciate the details of the plant. I traced around the actual shape of a flower and pressed one into the pages of my journal. The color got even brighter and more fluorescent against the white of the blank page.

We do not know what is stirring in the atmosphere that surrounds us, nor how it is connected with our own spirit. So much is certain—that at times we can put out the feelers of our soul beyond its bodily limits, and a presentiment, an actual insight is accorded to us. Goethe

In the third phase, the mystical and subjective enter the equation. Step back and allow words to enter your mind that might express the spirit of the plant. For a writer, this is the time when the metaphors and adjectives I’ve been suppressing come to the forefront. The sunlight fell through the foliage of the rhododendron creating a dappled shade underneath. The trunk grew straight up, then the branches arched and curved outward, and the thinner, more supple branches that bore the leaves and flowers bent down even more, creating a sense of enclosure. The effect was that of a temple, with the flowers as offerings to the gods. The word “glory” came into my mind, and with it a sense of joyous exaltation (and this was from someone who has never liked rhododendrons).

The fourth phase remains mysterious to me. This is the realm of the poets. It involves becoming one with the plant, so much so, that you could speak as the plant, for the plant. It takes time to develop. I will work up to it by practicing the first three steps. Still, I felt my first exposure to Goethean observation was successful. A plant that I had previously overlooked is now one I view with appreciation. If you have the time and desire to get to know a plant better, I recommend this practice.

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Measuring the Immeasurables

For the past month, I’ve been focusing on the practice of phenology, with the students enrolled in my Year of Flowers class. Phenology is the practice of tracking seasonal changes in nature. Phenology pretends to be a science, but I think it’s really an art, and an art closely allied to poetry.

Change is always happening in nature, and it happens gradually. But in order to accurately annotate when change occurs, phenologists have to pinpoint the change (called a phenophase) to a particular moment in time. The data must also be attached to a particular place. At Project Budburst, where I am making reports on five plants I have chosen to observe over the year,  I must name each location and provide latitude and longitude, plus details of the site where the plant grows (shading, irrigation, habitat, etc.) .)

If you want to see a truly wonderful visual example of this go to Nature’s Calendar, the British phenological site, and click on Maps. Here’s a direct link to the snowdrop map , one of my favorites. When the map is fully loaded, click on the little bar that displays two red arrows at the top of the blank graph and slide it to the right, to watch the snowdrops burst into blossom all over the United Kingdom.

The language of phenology is as delightful as it is precise. For instance, budburst is defined as the date when the widest part of the newly emerging leaf has grown beyond the ends of its opening winter bud scales. Or (at another web site) the date when the protective scale coating is shed from the bud exposing tender new growth tissues of one or more flower buds or leaves. First bloom (for most flowers) occurs when the petals are open enough so you can see the stamens inside. In plants that have catkins or cones, first flower occurs when the plant starts disseminating its yellow pollen. Other markers such as full flower and full leaf are indicated by percentages: full leaf means 90% of all the leaves on the plant are open, while full flower requires less of a show: only 50%.

These measurements help create a standard process that can be easily quantified and thus easily reported but end up omitting the true sensory experience of being with plants, like the crinkled, glossy texture of the dark green leaves of the passion flower unfurling or the spatter of spent maple blossoms on the sidewalk, crunching under foot. So although we come to phenology with a desire to be more attuned to nature, the emphasis on analysis and annotation can sometimes get in the way of truly seeing the world around us.

That’s why I asked the participants in the Year in Flowers class to also look  for immeasurables.  I was inspired by reading Hannah Hinchman’s book A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place. In this lovely, illustrated book, Hinchman draws maps of the place she lives and sketches the plants she encounters. She makes detailed observations, for instance this about the way different trees extend their seasonal growth:

Beech droops.
Ash extends symmetrically.
Maple makes pagodas.
Oak like small mice.
Horse-chestnut umbrellas.
Pignut hickory like cupped hands.

 One of the things Hinchman notices (and records in her journal) while walking around her neighborhood is “kinds of shadows cast on the bottoms of shallow streams by the movement of the water surface, or things floating on it.”

Different students in my class chose different immeasurables, for instance, Nancy is observing spring runoff—she noted the drinking sounds from the trees, with the thickets of aspen demonstrating the most gusto. Anne Marie is tracking seasonal affective disorder. I’m not sure how she’s measuring it but Bill Felker’s whose Poor Will’s Almanack  I’ve enjoyed for years (he didn’t create a print version this year but you can check out his blog posts), used to have a system that involved points for cloud cover, weather conditions and number of hours in a day that resulted in a total score. Mary in Texas noted how the morning light streamed from the southeast, striking the table in the dining room. “Sometimes it is so bright we can’t comfortably sit at the table.” Rasma is watching reflections in water. Her observations were like poetry:

Feb 16: wind ruffles, fir needle boats, blue blue sky
Feb 21: snow clouds and croaking raven wings, pointillist tree back against blue and white; vee-line geese
Feb 22: evening shadows with birds heading to roost; purple depths and windblown orange leaves
Feb 23: sunny ripples; multiple hues of green, brown, gold against cerulean blue

What immeasurable can you measure?

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Wild Grasses

I became an urban naturalist because of my fascination with holidays, an obsession that began back when I was a lonely sophomore at Reed College, spending my evenings in the library, copying weird customs out of Funk and Wagnall’s Dictionary of Folklore and Mythology and led me to graduate school at UCLA in Folklore and Mythology. Somewhere along the years of studying and celebrating, I recognized that most holiday customs were related to what was happening in nature at that particular place at that particular moment in time.

This day, August 15, is one of my favorite holidays because I can celebrate it with a simple custom: gathering wild grasses. I learned about this tradition from Gertrud Mueller Nelson who learned about it from her mother, who took her children down to the river to gather wild grasses on August 15, the Catholic feast of the Assumption. They would bring the grasses home in big bundles and pray over them. This ritual derived from a German custom of gathering wild flowers and herbs on this holiday and taking them to church to be blessed by the priest.

August 15 is an old harvest holiday (probably once celebrated on the full moon), when the grain goddess (later the Virgin Mary) would be asked to protect the harvest. All I ask is an opportunity to learn more about the wild grasses that grow on my block. There are plenty of those fancy ornamental grasses, planted by homeowners for decoration, and I admire those, but I’m more interested in the wild grasses, and their resemblances to rye, barley and wheat, the grains that have nourished humankind for centuries.

For a while, I was following the blog of Henry, a professor in San Francisco, who had taken on the project of identifying all the wild grasses he could find in the city in his blog. His commitment only lasted for two months in 2007 but it inspired me. How many wild grasses can you find and identify today?


The lovely photograph was taken by Melissa West.

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Foraging in the City

When I first started writing about foraging four years ago, it was rare. Now the internet is full of blogs which feature the adventures of modern foragers. Foraging used to be an activity done by herbalists who gathered their materials out in the hills or elusive mushroom hunters who sold their finds to fancy restaurants. Now it’s affiliated with the local food/slowfood/DIY/urban farming scene. And everyone’s doing it.

Foraging usually refers to finding your food growing naturally (digging clams on a beach), not harvesting food you’ve cultivated (harvesting clams at a clam factory). The grandfather of American foraging was Euell Gibbons, whose famous line was “Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible.”

Seattle has our own famous forager, Langdon Cook, who lived for over a year in a cabin in the wood in Oregon with his wife, poet Martha Silano, which is where he learned to forage. He writes a blog, leads foraging tours and also has a book on foraging: Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager. New York City has Wild Man Brill who forages in Central Park  and more recently Ava Chin, the Urban Forager.

One of the big concerns with foraging is safety. Do you know for sure this plant is not poisonous?  Samuel Thayer, expert forager, has a long rant about this in his book, Nature’s Garden: Edible Wild Plants. He believes the preoccupation with poisonous plants is a fable that is economically and socially useful. It teaches us that nature cannot be trusted and keeps us from straying too far from the beaten path.

At the same time, Thayer is very conscientious about how careful one must be in identifying plants one intends to eat. He offers five steps: 1) tentative identification 2) finding a reference in a field guide 3) finding the plant in two other guides 4) finding other specimens of the plant and 5) becoming absolutely convinced. He points out that we never unpeel a banana and then worry: “is this really a banana?” You should be that convinced about any plant you intend to eat. And he suggests that the best way to learn about edible plants is to go foraging with a knowledgeable plant person. Plant lore, is verbal lore, passed down over generations.

I still remember reading the journal of Sophie Trupin, a homesteader on the plains of North Dakota at the turn of the century. Her family had emigrated from Russia and she wrote quite movingly about their difficulty knowing what plants they could eat or use for medicine. In the end, they relied on the help of the native people living in the area, for instance, to find a plant that healed a serious burn.

Another issue for the urban forager is property rights. As far as I can tell, plants growing in a public space (growing on the median strip, over-hanging the fence in an alley, growing on a traffic island) are considered public property. However, you can’t forage in city parks—that’s illegal.

Several years ago, a group of artists in Los Angeles, calling themselves the Fallen Fruit Brigade in Los Angeles published maps showing the location of fruit trees in various Los Angeles neighborhoods. In Seattle, a similar venture called City Fruit matches homeowners with extra fruit with volunteers who will harvest the fruit and take it to a food bank.

It’s always best to ask for permission if you are harvesting on someone else’s property. That way you can also check to find out if the plants were sprayed, another safety concern for the urban forager.

Foraging is usually applied to searching for food but I also forage for flowers. Debra Prinzig, who has written a wonderful book, The 50 Mile Bouquet, about locally-grown, seasonal flowers, posted a blog post about flower foragers Vicki Prosek and Valerie Prosek who gather flowers along freeway verges which certainly seems like a noncontentious source.

Coming up soon: the best urban foraging: blackberries! I like to pick them along the Burke Gilman trail. What and where do you forage in the city?

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Birds Do It, Bees Do It, Even Rhododendrons Do It!

Several months ago I signed up for a six-day web challenge posed by Else Kramer, a photographer in the Netherlands, who sent me a different photo assignment every day. The first was to look up. I enjoyed the different perspective I got when looking up. But for the urban naturalist, the corresponding assignment for this time of the year is to look down.

So much is happening during this transition from spring to summer–the reproductive efforts of plants create a lot of detritus–and most of it ends up on the ground. I was in Portland two weeks ago and had a great time just walking around, studying the different things I encountered on the ground.

Trees shedding their seeds provide most of the material on the sidewalks right now. Earlier in the year, maple trees littered the sidewalks with spent flowers. Seattle writer and forager, Langdon Cook, recommends eating them in fritters.

After the flowers are gone, maples produce their fruit: those bright green maple keys, which are actually called samaras.  These “whirly birds” are pairs of seeds, one on each side, attached to a thin membrane that is shaped like a wing. They spin as they fall so they can travel long distances to find a new place to sprout, especially if carried by the wind.

I also love the seeds of elms which come wrapped in a see-through, round-shaped light-brown membrane. These are often found heaped in drifts, filling gutters and home-owners end up sweeping them away, like so many autumn leaves.

Birch trees are casting off their catkins, which curl on the sidewalk like spent caterpillars. Those catkins are also flowers: the male catkins are the long brown ones, the females are shorter and a greenish color.

When you find flowers on the sidewalk, look up because you can catch the tree in flagrante delicto. The hawthorn I spotted today on my way to work was in the process of producing swelling green fruit from the center of every discarded flower. And the mock orange a little farther along the street was doing the same. The poppies are also doing it!

Limp white, purple and red blossoms carpet the ground beneath the rhododendrons in my neighborhood. Look at the nearby shrub and you will see the reproductive process in progress: the flower petals being shrugged from the stamen, and perhaps the swelling at the base of the pollinated stigma.

I spent some time prowling around the Internet looking for the specifics of rhododendron sex. I must say that most plants are quite discreet about their reproductive activities. The best I could do was find instructions for hybridizing rhododendrons which advised that the stigma (that’s the longish thing with the pink tip protruding from the center of the flower—it is attached to the ovary deep inside the flower’s base) should be receptive (to pollination, usually provided by bees) about three days after the flower opens and stay receptive for about three to five days. Sounds somewhat suggestive.

Another plant that scatters sidewalks with petals is the ceanothus or the California lilac. At this time of the year, I call it the blue dandruff plant since the bright blue petals are as tiny as dandruff flakes.

These are some of the things I see when I look down as I walk through my neighborhood. What do you find as you look down?

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