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Knowing wild flora adds insight to gardening

Jeff Lowenfels

This time of year it is a good idea to just let the gardens grow. Instead of toiling in the yard, how about a little walk about in the woods? It is time to look at some other plants than your own.

Of course, if you do take a hike, how are you going to identify the plants you see? You could take a friend who knows Arctostaphylos alpine from a Rubus arcticus or a Pyrola grandiflora. Or you could pick up a few books a teach yourself. While there are over 2,000 plants out there, it is really not that difficult to learn a few of the basics, especially since those that flower provide some real interest.

All it takes is a book or two. And the first "must have" ID book for Alaskan plants is "Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers," by Verna Pratt. It is the easiest ID book I have ever used. Look at a flower, call its color and then look it up by matching it with the color coding on the outside of the pages. This book makes it a snap to find the flowers you are trying to identify. The pictures are fabulous and every day-pack should have a copy.

Next on the list is Janice Schofield's "Alaska's Wild Plants." This little book is a guide to most of the edible plants you can find while you are hiking in Alaska. You will be amazed at how many of the things you take for granted could support your life. If you spend any time hiking and camping, this is pretty useful knowledge to have and it is located in one very easy to carry around book.

If you are looking for a more scientific "key"-type manual that is light enough to carry in your pack, then consider getting a copy of the "Forest Plant Identification Guide" for the Chugach National Forest. It is put out by the USDA and the Alaska Region of the Forest Service and is particularly useful if the plant is not in flower and you can't find it in Verna's book.

Finally, while definitely not a book you would want to lug around in a back pack -- because it weighs so much -- "Flora of Alaska and Neighboring Territories," by Eric Hulten. This is one serious piece of scientific work, with over 1,000 pages of hand-drawn, plant pictures and detailed, scientific descriptions. Whew. Who knew there were so many kinds of vascular plants in The Great Land?

Every Alaskan should have at least one of these books. We have too much wilderness not to know what plants we are walking amongst. And, more often than not, some of these plants can be found in your yard. They may not be weeds, but if they are, at least you will know some more about them.

One other book worth mentioning is a classic, "Botany in a Day," by Thomas Expel. There is an art to plant identification, sure. Somehow Verna Pratt is able to teach us that art, but there is also a lot of science to identifying plants. This book will enable you to learn the parts of plants so that Verna's and others' descriptions will make more sense. You won't have to rely so much on the pictures and illustrations.

As important, you will learn the patterns that specific plant families exhibit so that you will be better able to identify new plants, even using the other books.

Another benefit of "Botany in a Day" is that you will use the knowledge in your garden as well as outside of it. Those very same patterns of wildflowers and shrubs and even trees exist in our domesticated plants. Recognizing them, as well as the relatives of wild Alaska plants you are growing in your gardens, will add a new dimension and layer to our hobby.

Jeff Lowenfels is a member of the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. You can reach him at teamingwithmicrobes.com and hear him (and call in) on the Garden Party from 10 a.m.-noon on Saturdays on KBYR, 700 AM.

Garden calendar

TOMATO AND CUCUMBERS AND PEPPERS: GREENHOUSE PLANTS NEED TO BE POLLINATED TOO. OPEN THE DOOR AND LET IN THE BUGS OR DO IT YOURSELF WITH A SMALL PAINT BRUSH.

POTATOES: HILL ALL BUT THE TOP THREE INCHES OR SO.

THIN: BEETS, RADISH, CARROTS, LETTUCES.

MULCH: KEEP WEEDS AT BAY. USE MULCHES.


Jeff Lowenfels
Gardening