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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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A little knowledge can reveal a world of natural beauty

Jim Kershner The Spokesman-Review

My wife, Carol, and I have been obsessed lately with pistils, stamens and sepals.

These are, if you remember your 10th grade botany, the parts of flowers. Back in 10th grade botany, I could carry on at length about the utter uselessness of learning about pistils, stamens and sepals. What am I going to do with that? Grow up to become some stupid plant veterinarian or something?

This helps explain how I earned my D.

Little did I know that, 36 years later, I would be peering intently at a cheerful golden bloom on a Spokane hillside, trying to determine if its bracts were indeed broadly lanceolate and ridged on the back. I now know that lanceolate is a shape and not, as I guessed on my 10th grade botany final, “a Knight of the Round Table portrayed by Robert Goulet.”

We have become, in our impending dotage, wildflower enthusiasts. We have become excited about wildflowers for the same reasons we get excited about birds – because they are beautiful, they are wild and it somehow seems wrong to ignore them.

Wildflowers are also, of course, an excuse to waste enormous amounts of time in the mountains and deserts. Our children used to roll their eyes at the amount of time we’d spend trying to get a pair of binoculars on a chickadee. They would truly be appalled at the time we now spend rubbing the leaves of the Wooly Pussytoes.

Hey, we get our fun where we can.

I take a walk a few times a week on a wild Spokane hillside, and paying attention to the wildflowers has proven to be surprisingly entertaining even this close to home. For example, there’s a beautiful little purple flower that pops up on a tall stem every March all over the Inland Northwest. You’ve seen them by the dozens, whether you know it or not. I’m sure that I saw thousands before I started paying attention and looked it up. It goes by the poetic name of Grass Widow.

What a perfect name. The stem looks like a stalk of grass, topped by one beautiful purple bell, all alone, like a widow.

Maybe knowing the name isn’t important. Maybe it serves only to make me feel smart. However, I find it somehow satisfying to say, “Look at the pretty Grass Widow,” as opposed to “Look at that pretty flower thingie.”

(It’s even more satisfying to say, “Check out the Woolly Pussytoes,” but that’s a different kind of thrill entirely).

Then when the Grass Widow goes away, it’s replaced by an always-changing variety of phloxes, lupines, cinquefoils, yarrows and, of course, the arrow-leaved balsamroot’s big yellow bouquets. If you live in the Inland Northwest and you’ve never seen the latter, you really don’t get out enough.

Wildflower-hunting has also made our vacations more fun. On a recent trip to Arizona, we stood on a high mountain overlook, peering down at the desert floor. The desert looked, somehow, orange. We figured it was because of the red sand that makes the Painted Desert looked painted.

When we descended to the desert floor, we discovered it wasn’t sand at all – it was acre after acre, mile after mile, of blooming orange flowers. At one time, we would have written these off as “lotsa pretty orange flowers.”

Not any more. We pulled over. We peered. We kneeled. We got out our wildflower books. We frowned. We finally figured out it was the Desert Globemallow.

Did knowing the name make this flower any more beautiful? No. Of course not. However it did allow us to learn an interesting fact: The Desert Globemallow creates a spectacular orange carpet in the desert only in certain, very wet years.

So maybe the Globemallow would have been just as pretty by any other name (“orange thingies”) but we would not have felt so fortunate to see them. We saw them only because we were there at the right year, at the right time.

So (as I would say to my 10th grade self), maybe there’s something to the idea of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Maybe botany is not such a useless discipline. Maybe it’s not too late for me to switch careers and become a plant veterinarian.

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