Botany in Popular Culture: Laura Veirs

I love music for its ability to conjure up emotions, create a mood, and inspire action. The music of Laura Veirs has always inspired me to get out into nature and be more observant of the wild things around me. Her music is rich with emotions, and I feel those, too. However, when I think of her music, I can’t escape images of the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it.

Found within her nature-centric lyrics are, of course, numerous botanical references. After all, plants and their actions make excellent subject matter for all types of art. And with that in mind, Veirs asks rhetorically in the song Rapture, “Doesn’t the tree write great poetry?”

When it comes to botanical references, the song that jumps first to mind is Lonely Angel Dust, starting off right away with these lyrics: “The rose is not afraid to blossom / though it knows its petals must fall / and with its petals fall seeds into soil / Why toil to contain it all? / Why toil at all?” Plants produce seeds in abundance, as mentioned in Shadow Blues: “Thousand seeds from a flower blowing through the night.” And, as in Where Are You Driving?, they’re seeking a suitable spot to plant themselves: “Through clouds of dandelions / seeds sailing out on the wind / hoping you’ll be the one to plant yourself on in.”

 

Flowers come up often in the songs of Laura Veirs. In White Cherry, “cherry trees take to bloom.” In Nightingale, “her heart a field in bloom.” In Make Something Good, “an organ pipe in a cathedral / that stays in tune through a thousand blooms.” In Sun is King, “innocent as a summer flower.” In Cast a Hook, “with watery cheeks down flowered lanes.” In Life Is Good Blues, “Messages you sent to Mars came from a crown of flowers.” Grass and weeds get a few mentions, too. In Summer Is the Champion, “let’s get dizzy in the grass.” In Life Is Good Blues, “tender green like the shoots of spring / unfurling on the lawn.”

Trees are the real stars, though. Veirs makes frequent references to trees and their various parts. This makes sense, as trees are real forces of nature. So much happens in, on, and around them, and images of the natural world can feel barren without them. First there is their enormousness, as in Black Butterfly, “evergreen boughs above me tower / were singing quiet stories about forgiveness, ” and Don’t Lose Yourself, “we slept in the shadow of a cedar tree.” Then there is their old age, as in Where Are You Driving?, “tangled up in the gnarled tree,” and When You Give Your Heart, “falling through the old oak tree.” There is also their utility, mentioned in Make Something Good, “I wanted to make something sweet / the blood inside a maple tree / the sunlight trapped inside the wood / make something good.” And then, of course, there is the fruit they bear, as in July Flame, “sweet summer peach / high up in the branch / just out of my reach,” and then in Wandering Kind, “a strange July / a storm came down / from the North and pulled out the salt / and it tore out the leaves from the pear tree / my canopy.”

Many of Veirs songs create scenes and tell stories of being in the wilderness among rivers, lakes, mountains, and caves. Chimney Sweeping Man, for example, is a “forest resident” who “walks[s] quiet through the forest like a tiny, quiet forest mouse.” In Snow Camping, Veirs tells a story about sleeping in a snow cave in the forest, where “a thousand snowflakes hovered,” “a distant songbird [was] singing,” and “the weighted trees” were her “only home.” But sometimes those forests burn, which is captured in Drink Deep: “Now the raging of the forest fires end / and all the mammals fled / I smell in the charred darkness / a little green / a little red.” Later in the song: “the fire closed his eyes / tipped his flame hat and slipped through the dire rye / we wandered romantic / we scattered dark branches / with singing green stars as our guide.”

Nature can also be empowering, and Veirs often refers to things in the natural world as metaphors or similes for the human experience. In Cast a Hook, Veirs adamantly asserts, “I’m not dead, not numb, not withering / like a fallen leaf who keeps her green.” This line comes up again in Saltbreakers: “You cannot burn me up / I’m a fallen leaf who keeps her green.” In Lake Swimming, Veirs addresses change and how some of life’s changes may wound us but we can still shine – “shucking free our deadened selves / like snakes and corn do / … / Old butterfly / I’ll dance with you / though our wings may crumble / we can float like ash / broken but the edges still shine.”

 

The botanical references Veirs makes in her songs are not the only things that excite me. Birds, insects, mammals, fish, and worms all find a place in Veirs’ lyrics. This is why, after more than a decade of listening to her songs, I find myself coming back to them again and again. There is a sort of kinship we feel for each other when we share in common a love of the natural world. I find that in the music of Laura Veirs.

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Book Review: Good Weed Bad Weed

Distinguishing weeds from desirable plants is a skill that takes years of experience. If you’re not an avid gardener or a practiced naturalist, the distinction between the two groups may be blurry. There are weed identification guides aplenty, but even those aren’t always the most user-friendly and can often leave a person with more questions than answers. One of those questions may be, “Why is this plant considered a weed and not that one?” Through her book, Good Weed Bad Weed, Nancy Gift attempts to answer that question, offering much needed nuance to a regularly vilified group of plants.

In the introduction, Gift acknowledges that the term “good weed” sounds like an oxymoron. A weed, by definition, is an unwanted plant, an interloper and a troublemaker, without value or merit. What could be good about that? Gift, on the other hand, asserts that “it is a weakness of the English language that weeds are universally unwanted.” We need a word that describes plants that may have weedy characteristics but some redeeming qualities as well. For now, Gift uses “volunteer” – “a plant that comes up without being planted or encouraged” – suspending judgement until its performance can be fairly assessed.

Good Weed Bad Weed is a weed identification guide designed for beginners, for those wondering if their yard is “infested or blessed.” It is specifically concerned with weeds commonly found in lawns and garden beds, and “not meant to apply to farm fields or any other landscape.” It sets itself apart from other identification guides by organizing weeds into three categories: Bad Weeds, Not-So-Bad Weeds, and Good Weeds. Each plant profile includes a description, notes about benefits as well as problems, and some recommendations for control. Assigning good/bad designations to these plants is bound to cause some heated debate and outright disagreement, and Gift acknowledges that; however, we all have our “unique judgement” about the plants we encounter in our landscapes, so as “weed-lovers-in-training,” Gift hopes that we can “make a few new friends in the plant kingdom” and, perhaps, a few less enemies.

For the ten plants that make the Bad Weeds list, the reasoning is pretty clear. They are highly competitive and difficult to control [foxtail (Setaria spp.), garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), and Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense)], they are poisonous to humans despite being beneficial to wildlife [poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans ) and poison hemlock (Conium maculatum)], they are known allergens and otherwise unattractive [common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia)], or, like Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), they are on the list of top 100 worst invasive species.

The other two categories are where more personal judgement comes into play. The twelve plants considered Not-So-Bad Weeds are said to have “admirable qualities despite some negatives.” Prostrate knotweed (Polygonum aviculare) provides excellent erosion control. Orange hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum), bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare), and musk thistle (Carduus nutans) are quite beautiful and highly beneficial to pollinators and other wildlife. Nutsedge (Cyperus spp.) is edible and easy to keep in check if you stay on top of it. Bindweeds (Convolvulus arvensis and Calystegia sepium) avoid the Bad Weeds list because their flowers are so appealing. Aesthetics really matter to Gift, which is made clear with the entry for common fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus), which could have made the Good Weeds list were it not for its disappointing and forgettable floral display.

field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis)

As for the Goods Weeds list, more plant species find themselves in this category than the other two categories combined. That being said, those who have strong, negative opinions about weeds should probably avoid this section of the book, lest they experience an unsafe rise in blood pressure upon reading it. But be advised that making the Good Weeds list doesn’t mean that there are no negatives associated with having these plants in your yard; it’s just that the positive qualities tend to overshadow the negatives.

Positive qualities include edible, medicinal, low growing, slow growing, easy to control, beneficial to wildlife, not a bully, hardly noticeable, uncommon, and soil building. Certain weeds are desirable in lawns because they are soft to walk on, like ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and moss. Other weeds, like self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), stay green year-round and don’t leave ugly, brown patches when they die or go dormant. Still others, like bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), black medic (Medicago lupulina), and clovers (Trifolium spp.) fix nitrogen, providing free fertilizer. Gift notes that, for those who keep chickens, weeds like common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis) are great chicken feed.

Speaking of eating weeds, Gift concludes her book with four pages of recipes. The “Weedy Foxtail Tabouli” is particularly intriguing to me. Reading this book definitely requires an open mind, and some people simply won’t agree that any weed should ever be called “good.” Gift seems okay with that. She calls herself a “heretical weed scientist,” insisting that “a weed is in the eye of the beholder.” As “beholders,” I hope we can all be a little more like Nancy Gift.

A weedy lawn (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

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What Bugs Can Tell Us About the Value of Vacant Urban Land

Back in October 2017, we discussed some potential benefits of spontaneous urban vegetation (commonly referred to as weeds) and the abandoned or undeveloped urban spaces they inhabit. There is much to learn about the role these plant communities play in the ecology of cities and their contribution to vital ecosystem services. In a review published in the December 2013 issue of Environmental Entomology, researchers from Ohio State University discuss how studying arthropod communities on vacant lands can help “advance our ecological understanding of the functional role” these habitats may have in our cities.

Arthropods were selected as the subject of study because their “populations respond quickly to changes in the urban environment, making them key indicators of how land use change influences biodiversity.” Urban-dwelling arthropods “are diverse and occupy multiple trophic levels” and are “easy to sample.” Additionally, many of the services that vacant, unmanaged land offers are “arthropod-mediated,” including “pollination, decomposition, nutrient cycling, and biological pest control.”

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Vacant land was selected as the study site because “understanding [its] ecological value is important to the advancement of urban ecology and ecosystem management,” and even though such areas are often overlooked in conservation planning, studies have shown that they “have the potential to be valuable reservoirs of biodiversity.” In order to determine just how valuable vacant land might be, more research is needed comparing these spaces to other parts of the city. In addition, vacant lots are generally ephemeral and in due time may be developed. Whether this means that a building or parking lot takes their place or that they are converted into a park, garden, or urban farm, it is important to understand what these land use changes mean for urban biodiversity and ecological functions.

Urbanization is often measured by comparing the amount of built area to the remaining green space. Where there is a high degree of urbanization, there is a low degree of green space comparatively. As urbanization increases, so does habitat fragmentation, pollution, and the urban heat island. In the meantime, biodiversity suffers. The authors cite a number of studies demonstrating that increased urbanization negatively impacted beneficial insect populations. For example, a study in the United Kingdom found that bumblebee diversity in gardens “decreased with increasing urbanization of the surrounding landscapes.” Similar results were found in a study we wrote about.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Together with remnant natural areas, parks, private and public gardens, greenways, and commercial landscapes, vacant lots are part of a mosaic of urban green space. Each of these areas “experience different levels of disturbance and harbor varying plant species,” which, in turn, “influence arthropods and the services they can supply within and between patches.” Because vacant lots can remain undisturbed and virtually unmanaged for long periods of time, they help provide a contrast to the homogeneous, highly managed green spaces that are common in cities. By their very nature, they “have the potential to aid conservation and enhance green space quality and connectivity within city centers.”

It’s one thing to recognize the value of vacant lots; it’s another thing to change the negative perception of them. Aesthetics are important, and to many people vacant lots are an eyesore and a sign of neglect. Some management may be necessary in order to retain their important ecological value and assuage the feelings of the public. The authors present a number of ways that vacant lots can be and have been managed in order to achieve this goal. They also consider how certain management strategies (mowing, removing and/or introducing plant species) can impact arthropod populations for better or worse. Yet, where vacant lots are left alone and allowed to advance in the stages of ecological succession, changes in arthropod diversity and ecosystem function also occur. For this reason, “the regional species pool of a city requires a mosaic of all successional stages of vacant land patches.”

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Finally, the authors discuss the conversion of vacant land to urban agriculture. Even this land use change can have dramatic effects on the arthropod community. For example, undisturbed or unmanaged areas are a habitat requirement for cavity and soil nesting bees, and regular disturbance associated with farming may interfere with this. Also where pesticides are used or plant diversity is minimized, the arthropod community will be affected.

Thus, “the study of vacant land ecology necessitates a transdisciplinary approach” in order to determine how changes in vacant, urban land “will affect diverse ecosystem functions and services.” A variety of management strategies are required, and land managers must “determine the most appropriate strategies for improving the sustainability of cities from a connected landscape perspective.” It is clear that vacant lots have a role to play. The extent of their role and our approaches to managing them requires careful investigation.

One thing is certain – for biodiversity’s sake – don’t pave over vacant lots to put up parking lots.

2017: Year in Review

Awkward Botany turns 5 years old this month! 

In the five years since I first introduced myself I have had the pleasure of sharing my writing and photos with thousands of people. Together we have formed a tiny community of nature lovers, botany nerds, and phytocurious folks. It has been fun seeing the audience grow and our interactions increase. The World Wide Web is a crowded and chaotic place, and you can never be sure what will come of the pieces of you that you throw at it. Luckily, my little project has not gone completely unnoticed. The crowd that enjoys it may be small, but it is composed of a solid group of people. Thank you for being one of those people.

If you were following along in 2017, you are well aware that weeds and invasive species have been regular themes. Both of these topics are still obsessions of mine, so while I don’t have plans to continue to saturate the blog with such posts, I will still be writing about them. I’m actually working on a larger project involving weeds, which you can read more about here.

Speaking of which, I have threatened a couple of times now to interrupt my weekly posting schedule in order to make time for other projects. So far that hasn’t really happened, but this year I am fairly certain that it will. It’s the only way that I am going to be able get around to working on things I have been meaning to work on for years. There are also some new things in the works. I think these things will interest you, and I am excited to share them with you as they develop. Once you see them for yourself, I’m sure you’ll forgive the reduced posting schedule.

One thing I have resolved to do this year is learn to draw. I love botanical illustrations, and I have always been envious of the artistic abilities of others. My drawing skills are seriously lacking, but a little practice might help improve that. While it is bound to be a source of embarrassment for me, I have decided to post my progress along the way. So even if you have less to read here, you will at least get to check out some of my dumb drawings. Like this one:

Drawing of a dandelion with help from Illustration School: Let’s Draw Plants and Small Creatures by Sachiko Umoto

One of my favorite things this year has been Awkward Botany’s new Facebook page. With Sierra’s help, we have finally joined that world. Sierra has been managing the page and is the author of most of the posts, and she is doing an incredible job. So if you haven’t visited, liked, and followed, please do. And of course, the invitation still stands for the twitter and tumblr pages, as well.

Lastly, as I have done in the past I am including links to posts from 2017 that were part of ongoing series. These and all other posts can be found in the Archives widget on the right side of the screen. During the summer I did a long series about weeds called Summer of Weeds, the conclusion of which has a list of all the posts that were part of that series. Thank you again for reading and following along. Happy botanizing and nature walking in 2018. I hope you all have a plant filled year.

Book Reviews:

Podcast Review:

Poisonous Plants: 

Drought Tolerant Plants:

Field Trips:

Guest Posts: