In Praise of Wildflowers

Not tame, they grow out of bounds—outside the rules that humans would put on them.  Beautiful but hardy, they are found in the most unexpected places.  Suddenly blooming on the sandy hardpan of a desert floor, surrounded by thorns.  Dotting the dusty tallgrass prairie.  Or scrabbling along a rocky scree above timberline, where the snow is never quite gone.  Saxifrage, they call these tiniest of alpine blossoms—or “stone breakers”—because they literally lodge in the cracks of granite and, over centuries, help to shatter it. 

Some are quite rare, and some so “common” they carry that very label. “Common Mullein,” for example, with its grey-green, velvety leaves and its tall stalk of lemon-yellow blossoms.  Pliny described that abundant flowerer in ancient Italy, where Romans dipped the woody stem in grease and, at night, turned it into a more fiery blossom, bright enough to light the way.  Two millennia passed, and the American naturalist Harriet Keeler described the same “commoner” in her book The Wayside Flowers of Summer, saying that it had leapt the Atlantic in the ballast-holds of ships.  In fact, by her time, in 1917, it had made its way clear to the Flint Hills of Kansas, where today, a century later, I spot goldfinches alighting, feasting from its seed pods and carrying away, inside of them, a bit of the lively yellow. 

A weed, some would say.  And those critics tend to arrange tamer flowers—a pale row of pink roses beside the porch, window boxes spilling over with impatiens, trees circled by creamy daffodils, a whole bank of red and purple tulips along the curb.  Such flowers bring pleasure in their own way, but what a miracle to come upon a solitary scarlet flash of paintbrush tucked under a gnarled pinyon or to spot the sudden unbottled sunlight of a prickly-pear blossom.  What a delight to hike above 13,000 feet and to come upon a cluster of white saxifrage—each little shoot lifting its miniscule petals in a rosette, like a tiny unruly star that refuses to be intimidated by thin air or night freezes or rocky crags.   

What beauty—especially here where no one would expect.  As the famous poet hints, maybe we could even “reconcile the people and the stones” this way—with the wildest of flowers.

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