- I make some new friends and got some questioning looks while I was foraging for old blooming shrubs and certain kinds of flowers that I had seen here and there but didn’t grow myself.
Lee Bailey, Lee Bailey’s Country Flowers
It’s close to midnight on May Eve and my daughter, Shaw, and I are slipping through the alleys of Seattle, armed with clippers and black plastic trash bags. We dodge dogs, splash through puddles, dash between shadows. Security lights flicker on in our wake. We know our way through these back streets. We’ve been doing this for years. So far we have not been caught.
We have come, as we do every year, to gather flowers for May baskets. Because we live in an apartment building and have no garden of our own, the flowers we collect are purloined. We clip purple blossoms from lilacs overhanging backyard fences, snip the snowball-shaped white flowers that grow on shrubs along the sidewalk, snap twigs studded with pink petals off trees in parkways. Until I began my year-long project of getting to know the plants in my neighborhood, the lilacs were the only flowers I could name. We knew the others by the common names we gave them: snowball flowers (viburnum) and bell-flowers (Pieris japonicus).
At home, we spill our take onto newspapers spread on the floor. The air fills with the sweet scent of lilac, the musty aroma of hawthorn, the spicy odor of viburnums. Sometimes we arrange the flowers in cones, fashioned from colored paper twisted and stapled shut, with a ribbon for a handle. One year, inspired by Martha Stewart, Shaw arranged the flowers in tiny glass jars and twisted wires around the rims for handles.
Late at night, we tiptoe through the halls of our apartment building, hanging a floral tribute on each glass doorknob. So far we have not been caught.
Foraging. That’s what I call this activity of gathering plants I have not planted. A broad word for a broad activity. To forage is to wander, to raid, to rummage, to strip of food. In fact, the word food comes from the same root word as forage, a root that also gives us foray, fodder, foster, pasture, pastor, antipasto and repast.
Animals forage for food. Bees for blossoms. Birds for berries. Wildlife biologists have theories abut how foraging happens, including the optimal diet model, patch selection theory and the marginal value theorem.
Eric Charnov, the scientist who came up with the Marginal Value Theorem, explains it this way: If you are collecting apples in an orchard, you will pick the most easily accessible apples from the closest tree, before moving to another tree. It would be inefficient for you to strip all the apples from one tree or to flit between trees selecting just a few choice apples from each.
I came to foraging by a meandering path. For over twenty years, I’ve been writing about holidays, a topic that has fascinated me since I was a lonely sophomore at Reed College, poring over dusty volumes of folklore in the Gothic gloom of the library.
Because of the holidays, I fell in love with the seasons, and because of the seasons I fell in love with plants. Each plant flourishes at a particular moment in time and that moment is specific to a particular place on earth.
In medieval England, young people roamed the woods on May Eve looking for flowering branches of the May tree so they could bring in the May. (Plus it was a great excuse to go frolic in the sweet-scented darkness of early summer.) Lilies-of-the-valley are the flowers of May Day in France, tucked into every buttonhole, while lilacs are associated with May Day in Ireland. And for every country, every province, every county, the flower that blooms on the first of May will be different.
So I began looking for the plants associated with each season in my neighborhood. Though I have long harbored a romantic fantasy of buying land in the country and building my own cottage, I’ve chosen to live in Seattle, in an urban village (Capitol Hill) in the heart of this major metropolis. And so the plants I can gather at the start of spring, at the height of summer, in the waning days of the year, are plants that grow in the city.
Fortunately I have an abundance of materials available to me. One May Day, we made baskets out of orange pill containers with ribbon handles stapled on and filled them with viburnum flowers, cherry blossoms, the lacy fronds of wormwood, the foliage of St. Patrick’s tongue, and some purple flowers that I have not yet been able to identify. One thing that was missing which we usually include was lilac: although it is blooming in our neighborhood, I couldn’t find any blossoms I could reach while prowling around in the dark with my plastic bag and clippers.
This week take a stroll around your neighborhood and create a bouquet of the flowers and foliage that you find. (You might have some ethical concerns about what you can and can’t collect. When in doubt, asking is always recommended. Although I figure that plants growing wild in alleys and vacant lots and freeway verges, are free for the taking.) Bring them into your house, use them to make a wreath or put them in a basket and leave them on a friend’s doorstep. The idea is to find out what is available right now, on this turning point in the year when we celebrate the flowers.
All the photos are mine except for the lovely lily of the valley which was taken by Carmine Profant.