Wildflowers or weeds?

Wildflowers! Today I got a break from the massively complicated paper I’m writing, and we also had a break in the rain, so I went out to check in with the neighborhood wildflowers. A few years ago, I set myself a project of photographing them every Sunday, so I know just what will be there, but I hadn’t taken a look yet this year.

My main wildflower photography spot is a forested hillside next to Edgewood School, and over the years I’ve seen literally dozens of types of wildflowers there (of course, not all at once). Yet, when I went to photograph “wildflowers,” I found myself struggling to define the term. Obviously I’d photograph the shooting stars, the cat’s ears and hound’s tongue, the native iris, the fawn lilies, and the wild roses, but how about the ox-eye daisies? They’re lovely flowers, but I’m told they’re “naturalized,” that is, they came to Oregon with the Europeans then learned to thrive here. (Yes, I photographed them.)


What about the dandelions? They’re “native” but also “weeds.” (Eventually I photographed them too, for the sake of thoroughness.) How about the periwinkle? I drew the line there – the very healthy patch right at the edge of the forest looked too likely to have escaped from someone’s yard.

In a garden, we have clear categories. There are the things you planted, things you didn’t plant and don’t want (weeds), and things you didn’t plant that you welcome anyway. My grandma called those “volunteers.” I have a few of those in my own yard – two red-cedar trees, natives that sprouted up nicely near the back fence; pretty little cyclamen that inexplicably appear in my lawn every fall; and a walnut tree that popped up beside the driveway ten years ago and has grown large enough to provide nice summer shade.

Back when I was photographing the wildflowers every week, I was thinking of writing an essay about categories of plants as gardened or native or weeds, and relating that to politics, where people could be making a “garden” (colonists deliberately transforming what they find) or “native” (indigenous people making their own choices) or “weeds” (with entire categories of people targeted as undesirable and problematic by virtue of who and where they are, and because they’re a “problem,” the people in power sometimes think it’s okay to focus on how to get rid of them).

These supposed problem people could be natives, like when the American settlers wanted to put farms and ranches on land that was already in use. Poison oak is native to our region, and I have to say, if we could magically banish it without poisoning the environment or paving it over, I’d be in.

Or, the supposedly problem people could be immigrants. Tansy ragwort blooms with clusters of cheerful yellow daisies, but it’s toxic for horses and livestock (and us too, if it contaminates our food supply). And its direct ancestors came from Europe, just like most of us.


Anyway, that’s what I’d been thinking of writing about – relating the wildflower/weed distinction to the research I’ve done with Gerard Saucier on the very dangerous ways that people sometimes think about others.

But this time, going to the woods made me want to write on a topic closer to home.

There’s this lovely book, Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who’s a botany professor and also a member of the Citizen Potawatomie Nation.

The full title of the book is “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants,” and that’s very much what it’s about – how we can live in the world consistently with both science and the more personal and sensual knowledge that comes from direct experience of the world around us.

One thing that especially struck me, as a white woman living in North America, was her idea of people “naturalizing” to a place. She writes:

Maybe the task assigned to [Americans of non-indigenous ancestry] is to … strive to become naturalized to place, to throw off the mind-set of the immigrant. Being naturalized to place means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit. To become naturalized is to know that your ancestors lie in this ground. Here you will give your gifts and meet your responsibilities. To become naturalized is to live as if your children’s future matters, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do. (p.214.215)

My family’s only been in the Willamette Valley for 150 years or so – three sets of my mom’s great-grandparents came as settlers. When I say “only 150 years” I know that’s far longer than many of my neighbors’ families have been here, yet that’s a barely a blink of an eye to the Kalapuya people.

Here’s the lovely wildflower known as camas – it grows tubers underground that the Kalapuya used as a dietary staple, and in May it turns whole meadows purple. When it sprouts in my own yard I leave it be.

It would be great to explore what “naturalizing” could mean, how we could use it as part of our ethical considerations when we make choices. It’s not the Kalapuya people’s job to tell me — they have their own lives and priorities. But I’d like to make choices compatible with their stewardship of this land over the centuries before my people got here. I’d rather they be able to see me as a potential asset, and not an invasive weed.

By the way, if you’re curious, today was still the earliest phase of wildflowers at Edgewood. There were spring maids all over the place, little plants with pinkish purplish flowers (my phone camera makes them more purple than they are):

And there were two other kinds of much larger plants getting ready to bloom, Oregon grape (which is not what I’d call a wonderfully attractive state flower, but so it goes) and trillium.

oregon_grape trillium_buds

And also the periwinkle!


About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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7 Responses to Wildflowers or weeds?

  1. Robin Turner says:

    Coincidentally, I just signed up for a workshop on photographing wild flowers hosted by a group I recently joined, Friends of Grove Farm. Grove Farm isn’t actually a farm; it’s a small patch of woodland with a few open spaces that I walk through on my way to the gym. Maybe that’s my way of naturalising myself in London – my ancestors may have lived in England and Wales for millennia, but I still feel a bit like an immigrant here.

  2. Steve in NC pneuguy says:

    Hi Laura,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts — I always enjoy your MNs. This one got me to thinking about the topic from a somewhat more “ground level” perspective.

    I wonder what roses think about wildflowers that “volunteer” to share their garden without an invitation?

    Love, Steve ________________________________

  3. Pingback: Thinking like a rose | The Meta-Narrator

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