Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Take a walk with a taxonomist and inevitably you'll find yourself identifying and classifying plants along the way. During the daily walk regime that I'm now following, I'm accompanied by a botanist who pinches leaves, lags behind to gaze lovingly into the cups of blooms, takes photographs, and calls out scientific names for plants about which I'm forced to ask their common names in order to keep up with the plant world.

Yesterday, I was enchanted when I spied the beautiful and succulent wildflower, jewelweed, also known as touch-me-not , or Impatiens capensis,  as it is known to taxonomists. The orange-yellow blooms spotted with brown looked like tiny jewels glistening in the shadowy light of the woods, and I couldn't resist asking about their identity. We were walking the Mountain Goat Trail again, and the jewelweed was one of the few wildflowers still blooming alongside the walking path. It's a plant especially adapted to hummingbird invasions, but a few butterflies fluttered through the little patch I spied. The trumpet-shaped flowers hang down from the plant, and my botanist friend plucked a pod of the plant to demonstrate how the seeds explode out of it when touched—thus, the name "touch me not."

Although I admire the aesthetic look of certain plants, true to my astrological sign of Taurus, I'm always asking about the practical applications of flowers and leaves. In fact, I've written several young adult books in which the hero boy traiteur (healer) uses plants to treat diseases and perform miraculous healings. I didn't realize until yesterday that the spotted jewelweed has medicinal properties, and the leaves and juice from the stem of this plant are used to treat poison ivy, poison oak, and other types of dermatitis. Salves and poultices have been used to treat eczema, even warts and ringworm. Native Americans and herbalists have been treating those who suffer from serious cases of poison ivy and poison oak with jewelweed for centuries, and I wish I had known about its healing properties the three or four times I've suffered from this skin reaction.

Most of the time I'm more attuned to the beauty of plant life, and just yesterday I received copies of my latest book of poetry, Between Plants and People, which contains striking photographs taken by my botanist friend, Victoria Sullivan. It's a book that explores the interrelationships between humans and the plants around them, and here's a poem about the plant on the cover of the volume, a lovely plant that isn't a wildflower and has no medicinal qualities:


Does she ever change her expression,
the open-faced resident in twisted vine
behind bars of an iron fleur de lis?
her cup, a candle-lit window
overlooking the black silence,
upright stakes soldered
to enclose female virtue.

She tells us she cannot stay
beyond the spring she launched,
her inner voice grand with birth
and sweet yearning for the sun,
inviting us to part the stakes,
promising wild happiness
to even the nearsighted
who might gaze upon
something familiar but enlarging,
a pink goddess shaped
like unexpected love.

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