Monday, December 26, 2022

Names I Remember, Names I Forget

One ongoing self-observation that I've had through a life of nature observation is that there are some plant names that resiliently spring to mind, and others that remain persistently unretrievable no matter how many times I learn and relearn them. For example, the latin names Gleditsia triacanthos and Robinia pseudoacacia look esoteric and intimidating, and yet for some reason I can summon them instantly. They refer to honey locust and black locust, respectfully, though I don't knowingly have any deeper interest in or respect or affection for these two trees than any others. Well, that's not completely true. I love black locust because it resists rot and burns clean. It can lie on the ground for years and still make great firewood. And a thornless version of honey locust makes a wonderful shade tree in public squares, its tiny leaflets melting back into the landscape in the fall. But I love other trees for their traits just as much. Gleditsia and Robinia, then, are two trees among many in my mind, and yet their names remain buoyantly floating above the others, at the top of the heap and the tip of the tongue. 

At the other extreme lies fennel, a delicious, fragrant vegetable that grows gloriously. A friend made a casserole with fennel and leeks wrapped with prosciutto, the cheese on top baked to a golden brown. It was to die for, and yet the word "fennel" still dropped down into the cerebral abyss, dredged back up just now only by once again googling "plant that tastes like licorice." Similarly, there's a kind of lightbulb whose name I can never remember. The others come dependably and quickly to mind: florescent, incandescent, LED, mercury vapor. But the other one ... I think it starts with an "a" but I could be wrong. That's right. I was wrong, again. Had to google. It starts with an "h," as in "halogen." 

What's the difference here? Gleditsia and Robinia make a merry, musical pair, both with impactful accents on the second syllable: gle-DIT-see-a and ro-BIN-ee-a. Fennel and halogen are less musical, with the accent landing heavily on the first syllable, like tunnel, or funnel, or allergen, or estrogen, or pathogen. But "merry" and "musical" also have the accent at the beginning, so maybe it's that the words "fennel" and "halogen" get less merry and musical after the first syllable, with consonants that are soft and easily swallowed up. I often think about this when comparing the names "Veblen" and "Einstein." Einstein has a memorably sonorous name that can be drawn out deliciously when spoken, like a double exclamation point, fitting for his matchless legacy. Veblen, on the other hand, whose quietly extraordinary career flew under most people's radar, then was long left for forgotten, has a name with soft consonants and indistinct vowels that are all too easy to mumble.

There's a belief that forgetting someone's name reflects a negative view of that person, but I find I can just as easily forget the name of someone I have just met and like. Next time that happens I'll pay attention to the sound of the name itself. It's fun to explore these things, and maybe the act of writing this will create an inner web of meaning to catch "fennel" and "halogen" before they once again drop into the abyss. 

Thursday, December 15, 2022

The Invasive Species of the Month Club

Surely it's not an original concept, but it's a great idea nonetheless: an Invasive Species of the Month Club. Nature can be baffling in its complexity, intimidating, and for some, downright off-putting. If you love plants, then you welcome the diversity of species out there to be learned. Monocultures are boring. But if you have little curiosity about nature, then complexity becomes onerous, and simplified landscapes like a front lawn are experienced as reassuring. And then there are those who really like nature and want to help it, but for whom plant names go in one ear and out the other.

The Invasive Species of the Month Club, conceived for Herrontown Woods by FOHW board member Inge Regan, helps people get acquainted with invasive species one at a time. The nonnative plants spreading through local preserves are often the same ones popping up along fence rows in the backyard, so volunteers gain knowledge they can put to use at home. Every Sunday morning we gather to go after one invasive in particular. Some can be pulled out by hand; others require loppers.

In application, the concept becomes more flexible. We may not focus on one invasive for a full month, but at least each week there is a plant to be focused on. 

Burning bush, aka winged euonymus, is easy to identify any time of year by the "wings" on its stems, but even easier in the fall when it turns various shades of red or pink. It's pretty, but because deer don't like it, its proliferation is making the forest less edible for wildlife.

We spent one morning early in December pulling out jetbead, named after its clusters of black berries. In December, it can be the only shrub that still has leaves, so becomes super easy to identify then.

Privet will keep its leaves all winter, so will be a good candidate for focused effort through the winter. The leaves can vary in shade of green, confusing someone new to the shrub, but that's the idea of focusing on one species at a time. Multiple encounters with privet eventually lead to a confidence in identifying it in all its shades of green. 

Privet was the main focus of this past Sunday's Invasive Species of the Month Club. The weather was cold and damp, with rain threatening, but surprisingly it was one of our most satisfying sessions. The little boy in the lime green dinosaur coat was totally into it, and we managed to clear a whole section of the valley of a dense tangle of invasives. There's enough space in the tree canopy to power native wildflowers and shrubs there, once the invasive shrubs and vines have been subdued. That's the goal, but the process of group effort and gaining increasing confidence and familiarity out in nature have their own satisfactions.