In our last plant post we talked about plants that you might find just outside of your backyard, in a nearby wooded area or marsh. Today, though, I want to talk about two of my favorite backyard plants. These plants are ubiquitous in yards and roadsides all over Pennsylvania. They are both considered weeds by most, but to me they will always be beautiful and fascinating plant neighbors.
The first is one everyone is familiar with. For the life of me I do not know why everyone hates this “weed” so much, as nothing makes an otherwise plain yard more beautiful than to be speckled with bright yellow flowers.
Yes, the dandelion! The dandelion’s name comes from the french, “dente de lion,” which translates to “lion’s tooth.” This name comes from the jagged edged leaves of the dandelion plant, whose little triangles you can see in the following picture:
Dandelions are my favorite flower. Besides the beautiful yellow color, they are also very tough, as anyone who has tried to rid their yard of them will know. They are hearty, and grow back against all odds, which I thought made them a great role model as a young girl growing up.
Dandelions are also useful for other reasons. Their leaves can be eaten, although they are best earlier in the spring before the flowers bloom. The flower petals can be used to make dandelion wine, and the root can be roasted and crushed to make a caffeine-free coffee. People often made this coffee in the American Civil War, actually, when real coffee was scarce.
The next plant that you can find all around you is another of my personal favorites–onion grass. Onion grass is actually from South Africa, but has been naturalized in the United States. It is not really a grass, as the name implies, but a small plant with leaves that are upright and long. You can see a picture of some from the yard near my apartment here:
Onion grass does in fact have small wild onion bulbs and can be eaten (as long as no chemicals were used on the lawn!) much like chives are. I am not completely sure why I loved onion grass so much as a kid, but I really did. It could be because I used to make “soups” from different plants and mud in old jars to pretend to eat, and the small onions were a perfect ingredient! Once in kindergarten or first grade we had to bring in a ‘sign of spring’ for show and tell, and I brought in a clump of onion grass. The teacher was confused and asked me if it was, in fact, an indicator of spring, because she had never heard of it before. I had never thought, until then, that maybe I was the only one excited to see it when warmer months finally arrived.
It is impressive to me, in retrospect, how much time my brother and I must have spent outside growing up. How was I familiar enough with our yard and the plants that grew there to associate onion grass with Spring at such a young age? It is the type of knowledge you can only get by spending hours and hours immersed in the small things, crawling around in the grass. Now that I am so much higher up off the ground as an adult, I’m not sure I would even notice onion grass if not for the memories I have from childhood. For this reason it is important we get kids out there when they are young and still have the size and imagination to experience the natural world up close and without separation.
I would like to add that while my brother and I did spend a lot of time outside by ourselves, we only did so because my parents first spent the time taking us out there and exploring with us. Without that influence I am not sure if we would have been so eager to get out there!
So head outside and see what there is to see! You don’t need to go far, especially if you have a young child with you! There is plenty to explore even within a five foot radius. What types of plants do you see? Do you know their names? Are they similar to each other or different? Can you find any insects or evidence that they have been eating there? What is the soil like? What kind of conditions make it a good place for those plants and insects to live in? What else would you expect to see living in this type of place?
There are so many things to learn. It can seem overwhelming, especially if you aren’t very familiar with the plants and animals that live in your neighborhood. It doesn’t have to be, though! Let’s each try to learn just one new thing today. I, for one, am going to try to figure out what that small purple-flowered plant is that I saw growing next to the onion grass.
Have a great adventure!