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Native Plants

I was involved with the native plants community for several years, and still try to plant a few of my own each year.

The best reason is conservation. Without help, they’re going to die out.

There’s also the historical aspect. These plants are rooted in the local community, and often have historical uses that are intriguing but little-known. By engaging with the community, you learn that lore, and can do your part to spread it, too.

There’s a plant native to the Houston area, for instance, that looks, in season, like the related English Holly, Ilex aquifolium, found in Christmas wreaths. This is Yaupon Holly, Ilex vomitoria.

yaupon

Ilex vomitoria.

That name has meaning. It was used by the native Americans, who would drink it until the point of emesis (vomiting); Yaupon the plant’s leaves contains caffeine, 0.27% by weight. The leaves were roasted before being boiled to extract the active ingredients; ‘black drink’ was used in some Native American circles as a ceremonial drink, and as a daily staple in others.  The explorer Cabeza de Vaca describes some Native Americans drinking as much as two to four gallons per day.

Indigenous Southwestern groups that consumed Yaupon teas included the Muskogee, the Choctaws, the Natchez, and multiple tribes within the Creek Confederacy; among the Tonkawa in Texas, Yaupon tea was reputed to be an all-purpose medicine. It was prescribed for stomach aches and to stimulate menstrual flow. On the other hand, the plant’s gender distribution, in which male plants vastly outnumber female ones, might explain why, in some areas, only men were allowed to drink it.

Yerba mate, made from Yaupon’s South American relative, Ilex paraguariensis, has caffeine also, and world-wide brand recognition; yet Yaupon Holly never achieved the same cash crop status.

drink_of_the_gods

Mate has excellent P.R.

By learning about plants like Yaupon and how to use them, you learning interesting history, pieces of folklore, little-known medicinal uses, and ideas about how to make your own teas and solutions. You can make furniture from supplejack vine, flour from the root of greenbriar, and brews from all kinds from various plants. You can learn how to make poisons, which is like owning a dangerous animal – not for children, but fun to have.

There’s also  an aesthetic side to it. In a way, our appreciation of plants has been hijacked by an unimaginative, lowest-common-denominator paradigm. Big blooms, lots of them, bright colors, in a plant fitting a very specific profile – round, and fitting nicely in a pot. It’s about as bright and uncomplicated and aggressively nice as a thing can be.

There’s all kinds of plants that violate this rather strict and boring design mandate, that are halfway between a plant and a bush, have small blooms (but many of them), or a darker, less Disney-friendly appearance.

And some plants, of course, are downright dangerous.

Take dodder.

dodder

I’ve never even seen it in person, and only found out about it through a field guide to native plants.

Dodder is a vampire; it doesn’t photosynthesize, and has small, white, creepy blooms. Instead of making its own food, it lives as a parasite. It sends out suckers that penetrate the stems of its host plants to feed off of them. These tendrils chokes its hosts half to death; in a time-lapse video, you can see them visibly weaken and wither.

Dodder isn’t about being as loud and bright and pretty as possible. It isn’t cute, and while it has real charm, you have to look down and bend your typical definition of beauty a bit to appreciate it.

Also, you can only appreciate it in the wild, because you can’t grow it.

As a matter of fact, that’s illegal; it’s outlawed by the USDA. You are prohibited from growing it. Agricultural interests and all.

Which makes dodder just about my favorite plant.

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