Knowing the names of plants…

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“Each planet, each plant, each butterfly, each moth, each beetle, becomes doubly real to you when you know its name. Lucky indeed are those who from their earliest childhood have heard all these things named.”

– John Cowper Powys, The Meaning of Culture


By Karen Stevenson

When I was in the fourth grade I wrote the names of my ancestors on the branches of a tree outlined in blue on a worksheet that had been spewed out by a ditto machine. I discovered connections to people with odd names—Ragnvald, Grete—whom I had never known. Likewise, my mother taught my brothers and me the connections of people in our small farming community like a dot to dot game. “That’s Mrs. Anderson, she’s Hilda’s sister, Grandma’s friend, and Joyce is her daughter. They live at the old Knudsen Place.”
IMG_6036When you know the names of a place, you feel as though you belong. You feel connected.
My fondest childhood memories are of the camping trips our family would take to Glacier Park. As we entered the park and the high mountain meadows came into view, my mother greeted the plants by their common names like long lost friends. “Oh, look, the Bear Grass is blooming! Look at the Shooting Stars! The Paintbrush is so red this year!” Every time I say the names of those mountain flowers I can still hear the delight in my mother’s voice.
While walking the pine covered hills around my home in eastern Montana, I readily greet the return of the wildflowers and grasses after a long winter. One of my favorites is Geum triflorum, also known by its common name, prairie smoke or old man’s whiskers, which blossoms dusty pink flowers in spring. Its fern- like leaves lie close to the ground. Prairie smoke, from the Roace or rose family, is a wild country cousin to its refined city relatives with prestigious names and pedigrees. The mystery of this native rose’s common name is revealed when the flower goes to seed. Hairy whitish strands feather out from the fading flower like a wisp of smoke or an old man’s long silver whiskers.
Eloise Butler, a 20th century botanist, described the plant in a Minneapolis Tribune article, May 28, 1911: “In the center of the flower are innumerable pistils, which finally form a lovely claret-colored ball of gossamer plumes, each serving to waft through the air the little seed-like fruit.”
The book, Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie by Kelly Kindscher (1992, University Press of Kansas), states that Native American tribes used Geum triflorum as a remedy for a wide variety of illnesses: cough medicine, a salve for sores and rashes, a decoction of roots for sore eyes, a mouthwash, a respiratory aid, a cold remedy and even a veterinary aid to stop bleeding.
I recommend a collection of plant identification books as a point of introduction to the flowers and grasses that grow in your area.

Wildflowers of Montana by Donald Anthony Schiemann 

Montana – Native Plants and Early Peoples by Jeff Hart  

Wildflowers, Grasses & Other Plants of the Northern Plains and Black Hills by Theodore Van Bruggen

Flora of Montana’s Gallatin Region by Whitney Tilt with a field guide of the book for smart phones and tablets here on


When we know the names, we learn the stories and recognize our connectedness. The world becomes “doubly real”. “Lucky, indeed, are those who from their earliest childhood have heard all these things named.”