Understanding Plants (and learning to listen)

I had a physical reaction to a plant this week.  Not a rash, not a cure, but unexplained feelings after handling the plant – I scrubbed my hands and experienced uneasiness.  My body understood the plant’s communication, but my brain didn’t listen.

Tod has talked many times about “feeling” (without touching) a tree in front of us when walking blindfolded, about being aware of our surroundings so we can close our eyes and point to the different plant species, about truly looking at a plant and noticing its individual nuances and more.  All of these exercises bring us closer to realizing a nature connection.

On Monday, Tod stopped beside the trail and picked two leaves.  He asked us to think about how they made us feel.  Then he held them up and said, “Raise your hand if you would rather eat Leaf A (a soft, heart-shaped leaf) or Leaf B (a pointed, thin, slightly jagged-edged leaf).”

I recognized the plants, but even if I hadn’t, Leaf B looked evil.  Most of the group agreed that they would stay away from Leaf B, even the kids who didn’t recognize the plant, which was a type of nightshade.  This nature connection exercise, on the side of the trail, was quick and basic.  Tod illustrated the plant’s communication with us, if we took the time to be aware.

We should NOT eat any plant without an absolutely, positive identification!

The next day, I was having a “I-homeschool-and-never-celebrate-miscellaneous-holidays” moment.  No doubt public school kids would be partying for St. Patrick’s Day.  Cutting out shamrocks, having green cupcakes and golden chocolates, reading limericks with gusto.  All the things my kids are totally lacking from their education.

I needed some St. Patrick’s Day inspiration and, as luck would have it, I remembered some green flowers had just bloomed in a corner of our yard.  Green flowers!  The perfect solution at 6am for an unprepared-homeschool-holiday-mom.  I didn’t know what the flowers were, but they were green and that would help relieve my lack of holiday planning.

What caught me off guard, was my feeling as I was cutting the beautiful flowers.  I felt uneasy.  I didn’t know what they were, and I needed green decorations, so I brought them into the house and put them on the table.  And, immediately, felt like I needed to wash my hands which, honestly, I rarely do after cutting flowers.  Hmmm…what was Tod teaching us yesterday??

To illustrate my lack of trust in my body’s reaction, I left them on the table and we admired them all day.


The next morning, I laughed off my flower-mistrust instinct over breakfast with Trevor.  Then, I decided to research the green flower, because I suddenly realized I was having a nature study FAIL.

Turns out, it’s of the genus Helleborus.  It will make us and our cats vomit if ingested.  Some sources say it can irritate or burn our skin.  “Poisonous.  Handle with gloves.”  Wow.  How about listening to the nature awareness part of my body that’s been screaming since I cut the flowers??

John Muir Laws has several great journaling exercises surrounding plants.  One of my favorites, which helps us “know” a plant, is called “Zoom In, Zoom Out”.  You can find this exercise in his free journaling curriculum.  The activity creates a study of an individual plant, zooms out to document it with its surrounding plants, then zooms in on the details of one part.


Butterfly bush. I quickly sketched the plant’s location, studied the leaf and flower, then zoomed in on the individual flowerettes and a cross-section of the stem.

I love this activity!  When doing it, I always find a particular detail I had never noticed before.  It let’s me spend time “knowing” the plant and solidifying the identification in my mind.

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