Of Women and Wildflowers by Sara Wright

Women and plants have been in relationship since the dawn of humankind. Women were the Seed keepers. Women created agriculture. Women learned what herbs to use for healing. Women noticed wildflowers, loved them, grew them and painted them, created poems about them. Some women and plants still share a deep bond, and as an herbalist I am one of these women. My relationship with wildflowers stretches back to the first word I ever spoke – “cups” for the wild buttercups I loved and gathered as a toddler.  

Recently, I joined a wildflower identification site online because wild flowers are so dear to my heart. Every spring I am drawn into the forest glades to meet my diminutive friends that burst unbidden, unfurling from moisture laden rotting leaves. So many are fragrant!

 With the summer solstice on the horizon and abnormally high temperatures, we are living a withering drought, and my intrepid little wildflowers are fading, their annual cycle completed earlier than usual. Even in a good year this wildflower season is never long enough for me.

During the 40 years I have lived here I have collected or rescued many wildflowers bringing them home to this little sanctuary that is tucked away in the woods with a brook running through the entire property. I have rarely lost a wildflower that I dug in the wild.

“Invasive roses”

Because Maine is such a diverse state with respect to its microclimates, I am deeply curious as to where other wildflowers might be growing, as well as wanting to see/learn about those I don’t know, so I anticipated exciting new information coming my way when I joined this online group.

What a disappointment. The first time I was on the site I discovered to my dismay that someone put up a picture asking for identification/information and the responses were overwhelmingly negative because this little cluster of flower heads was considered to be an “invasive.” I was shocked. The offender was one of my favorite wildflowers, some call Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis), similar in appearance to an early phlox with a pleasing fragrance. I had painstakingly dug and replanted these pink to lavender clusters from an abandoned house, and thirty years later had a lovely ring of them around my cherry tree. Hardly invasive. I knew a few old farmhouses who still kept these old fashioned flowers around, but although I have traveled extensively through Maine I have never seen an area that was invaded by this delicate flower that was introduced from Europe a few hundred years ago, and more recently was sold as part of wild seed packets (!).

“Invasive Rose”

 According to the official “expert” plant site, Maine.gov, one has to remove this ‘monster’ by pulling it up by the roots and then using special herbicides to eradicate it although it gravitates towards wetland areas – the one place no herbicide should ever be used. What nonsense. These are shallow rooted plants and easily removed. And by the way, herbicides were condemned by Rachel Carson 60 years ago in Silent Spring. Doesn’t anyone remember?

Still thinking that I might have ‘overacted’ because I love this flower, I continued reading what people – almost all were women – were saying about other wildflowers for about a week. A distinct pattern emerged. Some excited newcomer would be thrilled with a wildflower that she found only to discover it was an invasive that had to be removed. A lecture followed and then Maine. gov. was cited as the definitive source.

What constitutes an invasive according to Maine’s government ‘experts’ I wondered, so I went to their site.

“In Maine a plant is considered invasive if it:

  1. is not native to Maine
  2. has spread (or has the potential to spread) into minimally managed plant communities (habitats)
  3. causes economic or environmental harm by developing self-sustaining populations that are dominant or disruptive to native species

Invasive plants are a direct threat to what we value about Maine’s natural and working (working???) landscapes. The aggressive growth of invasive plants increases costs for agriculture ( ie agribusiness), can affect forest regeneration, threatens our recreational experiences (huh?), and reduces the value of habitats for mammals, birds and pollinators. Invasive species are the second-greatest threat to global biodiversity after loss of habitat (not true). Invading plants out compete native species by hogging sunlight, water, nutrients, and space. They change animal habitat by eliminating native foods, altering cover, and destroying nesting opportunities.”

Next, I checked to see what plants the government considered to be invasive in Maine. After reading through the list of land plants – about 150 species (the aquatic list was equally long) I felt fury. According to this source most of the wildflowers and some trees that thrived here were considered invasive! It was true that a minority of the plants cited were truly invasive, but none of them graced this property. Because I am very knowledgeable about wild plants in general, I knew the identity of most of the problematic (or potentially problematic) land plants. But I just couldn’t get over that so many of my delicate wildflower friends were on the list. Healing herbs of all kinds, wild roses, lupine, clover, yellow iris, my beloved forget – me – nots. None of these plants were invasive; I knew this from direct personal experience. I decided then that many people seem to be confused about what healthy plants do quite naturally. “They don’t behave themselves” as one woman quipped quite seriously, as if nature was supposed to behave according to human standards. What I did know was that with care and attention and the right soil natural plants will thrive and eventually spread in an area that suited them.

But what really struck me forcibly was the realization that the women were intent on perpetuating patriarchy with its rules, and anyone that deviated from the ‘Great Father’s’ words (Maine.gov), like me, was immediately condemned as a heretic. My objections were met with outright hostility.

More disturbing was the idea that ANY plant that wasn’t ‘native’ to Maine was a threat. This included many herbs that continue to be gathered and used in healing like elderberry that I wild craft, prepare as a tincture, and use daily.

I also wondered if any of these women thought about the flowers they purchased at local greenhouses. The plants sold in these places are genetically engineered and it’s almost impossible to find any that are native. Most disturbing, most of these plants have lost their ability to attract pollinators or to reproduce. I could argue convincingly that these plants aren’t even ‘real’ anymore. Most ‘behave’ well though, provide brilliant color, and conveniently die off after a few years so they must be replaced.

It also occurred to me that we treat many people the way we treat plants ‘from away’. For example, if you are white and Christian, ‘born and bred’ in Maine (or anywhere else in this country) you are native.  Really? I guess people forget that their ancestors came from Europe like some of the offending plants, with one difference. The plants did not kill off the Original Peoples of this continent.

To extrapolate further, the experts make a definitive point that foreigners are potentially dangerous and ready to infiltrate the dominant culture in nefarious ways. And that if allowed to thrive, these others might infiltrate and destabilize the native population. No room for diversity here. It’s disruptive.

Needless to say I have abandoned this online site. It is depressing to see that patriarchy even infiltrates wildflower sites with women perpetuating a system that is hopelessly destructive. Every attempt I made to present a ‘both and’ argument around discernment when it comes to wildflowers was stonewalled. No one got it.

And if you have Native American roots as I do you can’t help but be aware of the irony.  

Bio

Sara is a naturalist, ethologist (a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Maine.



Categories: General, Indigenous Spirituality, Nature, Women's Spirituality, Women's Voices

Tags: , , ,

19 replies

  1. I’m so sorry you had this experience.
    Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass has a beautiful discussion of non-native plants. If I remember correctly she says that some act like bullies and try to take over, while others settle in well and become welcome members of the community. The example of the second type is plantain.
    For years I grew purple loosestrife in my garden. It has been called invasive by the duck hunters.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Robin gets it – all plants – native or not have bullies -those that would take over – and others that adapt well. It is the way of nature to have both. This invasive craze has more to do with people than plants I think.
    Oh yes, purple loosestrife is a bad guy…. of course rarely is it mentioned that it only grows in very wet places… I tried to introduce some around here down by the brook – not wet enough. Most invasives like other plants have parameters – it is ridiculous to see the list just in Maine alone.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. No one seems to get it that under any circumstances nature is always changing – even without climate change or globalization.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Such an important post, Sara. I hear about “invasive species” frequently from my Virginia book club people. Some of these people work in forest and land management. Great point you make: “This invasive craze has more to do with people than plants I think.” There is this human penchant, it seems, to long for the “genuine,” the “authentic,” and the “true,” something achieved by eradicating (or attempting to eradicate) that which people who claim to be in the “know” are willing to engineer. Happens over and over again.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Beautiful flowers! Here on the other coast, people also make a big deal out of “invasive” plants. Even in my urban neighborhood. When the house across the street was flipped a couple years ago, the so-called developers dug up the whole yard, which they said was full of invasive plants (I have no idea what they were), and replaced them with so-called native plants that are tall and look like droopy brooms. Between them–only dirt. No grass. Is grass invasive? I also agree that the invasive craze has more to do with people. That yard was once beautiful; now it’s barren and ugly. Phooey.

    Well, good luck with your work with plants and trees and the health of your part of the planet. Bright blessings.

    Like

    • I had to laugh although your story wasn’t funny in the ordinary sense of the word but tragic – still I have a vivid imagination and its easy for me to see a whole property bulldozed and re planted with dirt and droopy (probably native brooms that have deep root systems – just a guess) – that might be the good news for the soil but visually a disappointment – dirt and brooms make borijng bedmates! Can’t help wondering what the people are like! And lawn grass is not invasive – think of the billions of dollars and the amount of gas this country uses to keep those lawns! Not to mention the pesticides – that might be the other plus.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow what a disturbing and yet not really unexpected experience you had with that group. We surely must be in the dying stage of Patriarchy (Please Goddess!!) when this attitude is grasping at the condemnation of all plants that originated from elsewhere as “invasive.” The analogy made between bullies is an excellent one and human bullies seem to abound these days! Maybe all these folks should foreswear eating honey and the honeybee was brought to the Americas from Europe so … not “native.”

    Keep on with your beautiful love and attention to the natural world and all the beautiful flowers you encounter on your daily walks. “May you walk in beauty” – a Navaho saying I think though I could be mistaken.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I’m so sorry you had that experience. I have a mix of native, non-native, “invasive”, and “non-invasive” plants in my garden. You’re right – whether something is invasive or not depends on the circumstance and whether it is beneficial where you are. After you mentioned Dame’s Rocket looking like phlox I looked it up and found out that I’ve been growing it for 20 years thinking it was phlox! It’s one of my favorites, too. It does spread, but that can be nice because for a couple of weeks the whole space is awash in these beautiful blooms and then they die back and make way for the summer plants. I was always very careful to keep them away from the boundary between my yard and my neighbor’s so they wouldn’t “escape” into her yard, and then a couple of weeks ago I was over there and noticed that she had intentionally planted some!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Love the Dame’s Rocket story…. and you are not lone – most folks think it is phlox and I love it the same way you do… an early bloomer that gracefully makes way for the summer plants that will follow – it’s a lovely plant and so easy to cull if that’s your preference. Ridiculous that its an invasive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have a friend from Ukraine who I met through our love of plants. Almost yearly we exchange plants to share in our respective gardens. He loves dames rocket and deliberately planted it in his garden, so when I see it I think of him–a lovely association. He shares about the different plants he finds and grows on a private FB page, and mostly just enthuses about them, no problem with native or not, invasive or not.
      For years I also thought dames rocket was phlox, and at first was angry because it wasn’t and it didn’t have a lovely scent, and now I love it and look for it. It please me that the flowers and buds are edible. In my ramblings around southern NE–CT, MA–I have never seen it be invasive–rather it is not that easy to find.
      If the maine.gov site got its head out of its ass it would acknowledge how many of the plants were brought here on purpose, and share how incredibly useful they are. If they are really going to do their jobs, they should make sure not to let anyone grow anything not native on their farms or gardens.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. I love Dame’s Rocket and never thought of it as invasive. I love Purple Loosestrife, too. You are so right that this idea that any nonnative plant is invasive is a patriarchal idea and smacks of colonialism. Shame on the maine.gov site! Thanks so much for addressing this important topic.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you for your post, Sara, and for your attempts to have meaningful dialog about a complex issue. Unfortunately, I have also seen this kind of ‘purism’ about invasive and non-invasive plants. My training in permaculture was that it is a mixed bag, as you say, and a good idea to look at individual contexts and situations. Do we think tulips are native? Yet they are in every ornamental garden, and spring comes with nothing for the bees and other native pollinators, since most people plant ornamentals that are not nurturing their ecosystem. Yet I don’t see anyone ripping out tulips, which certainly spread.

    My own perspective, as you’ve likely gathered, is to focus on the ecosystem health. Native plantings tend to offer food and habitat to native species, so it’s good to know what they are and have a lot of them around. Other non-natives can also be beneficial in this way, and do not ‘take over.’ While others don’t take over, and yet do not offer nearly the habitat or food that natives do. And lastly, some do need to be kept in check until the system balances out. If we weren’t so busy damaging the ecosystems, often they would be able to handle the introduction of new species, as they have since forever. Thank you again for your post! :)

    Liked by 2 people

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