During my childhood, a regular pastime at our North Georgia cabin was the late afternoon walk. As I got older — 13 or 14 — I’d often go out for a solitary adventure.
I noticed how the sloping clay sides of the roadbed near our house contained an entire ecosystem. There were various species of wild pea with their delicate pink flowers and fern-like leaves. Violets — common and Birdsfoot — sprouted alongside passionflower and black-eyed susan. Orange touch-me-not glowed from the shadows of the riverbank far below our cabin.
I was once even lucky enough to stumble upon a congregation of lady slipper orchids hidden in the shadows of a wooded grove.
It was a rare find that I never forgot and visited every summer we spent in the mountains of North Georgia.
I’d pick a variety of the more plentiful blooms, but I knew to leave the endangered ones due to my environmentally minded parents’ explanations. Back home, I’d carefully trim my cache and store it in a vase filled with well water. Then, I’d pull “The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers: Eastern Region” off our bookshelf and thumb through until I could identify each new species. The “Field Guide” never failed me, and I committed the new names — wood anemone, fire pink — to memory.
Each season brought a new show of color to the woods. In spring, I learned to look for the common bluet and native iris. In early summer, I could expect a show of delicate white and pink mountain laurel on the slopes that ran beside our home. By fall, the goldenrod would have taken over, turning the roadsides yellow. And in winter, I’d look forward to seeing all the colors again.
I’m grateful that my mom went old school with her list of approved leisure activities because I wouldn’t otherwise have memorized those wildflower names. Now, when I walk in the North Georgia woods with my young son and daughter, coming across a stand of wildflowers transports me back 20 years or more. It’s always a gift to stumble over the first showing of dwarf iris in early April. A low haze of purple glimpsed through the trees is a giveaway for a stand of these delicate beauties, and they’re often accompanied by the common bluet, which ranges in shade from periwinkle to near-white. We crouch down for a closer examination of the iris in their amethyst-and-orange beauty, but ultimately, we leave them where they are because we’ve discovered that picked ones wilt, even in water. Such is the condition of the delicate wildflower. It just does better in its natural habitat.
So, as you enjoy walks with your loved ones or on your own this spring, I urge you to take a moment to notice the wildflowers. These blooms are tiny gifts that you’ll often have to crouch to see, but their perfection is worth the effort. Nature, with no help from man, produces an ongoing show that is visible from the wooded glens of the Appalachian mountains to suburban Atlanta parks. Grab a copy of the “Field Guide” and page through it — there’s an up-to-date version at penguinrandomhouse.com, but you can pick up a used one on eBay for a bargain, and the experience will be just as rich. It’s fun to hunt down the names of flowers you’ve seen, even the tiniest blooms. If you have kids, they’ll never forget the identification process, and you very well may start a tradition that they’ll pass on to their children someday.