Confession of a Man Who Appreciates NATIVE Flowers
May 24, 2020
Like most men, I had absolutely zero interest in flowers - that is until one day when I began to realize that out there beyond the flower garden exists an infinitely fascinating and complex world of native plants, most of which happen to make flowers. Yes, flowers are pretty incredible examples of God's engineering, but native flowers are so much deeper than what you see on the surface. They literally carry the stories of this land in their genes. In the days before there were fences, or paved roads, or cattle pastures, a Garden of Eden existed right here in the American Heartland. Stunningly beautiful and varied, it was more wild than any National Park, yet imminently able to support life. Native plants were its backbone, and they still connect us with the land's deep past. There are species of trees growing at Nan Awaya Farmstead that are older than this continent itself; dinosaurs once took shade under their branches. Other plants on the farm carry special adaptations that they developed while existing with the giant animals that lived here during the height of the last Ice Age. More recently, native plants were put to countless ingenious uses by the Native societies that flourished here before colonization. When I look at a native plant, I can’t help but wonder what incredible American landscapes and what stories from history does that plant connect me with that I will never even fully know about. Over the millennia, each species of plant has been incorporated into an infinitely complex web of life. Most native blooms provide food to specific members of the 4,000 species of native bees and/or to butterflies. Plant leaves and stems feed specific insects that are food for other animals. On the smallest end of the size spectrum, out of the millions of unnamed microbe species that live in the soil, each species of native plant has unique relationships with specific ones. Together, the plants and microbes do incredible things that sustain the cycle of life. You might not be able to see this directly, but you can observe the results. The greater the diversity of native plants that live on a given piece of land, the more carbon that landscape pulls out of the air, the more fertile the soil, the cleaner the water, and the more resilience that land has against flood and drought. The Native American communities that are Indigenous to this land understood a great deal about the essential role that local native plants play in the web of life. They used that knowledge to build societies that got much of their food, medicine, construction materials, clothing and manufacturing materials from local plants. These societies didn't just survive. They thrived in a sustainable way, enjoying a quality of life that was in some ways higher than ours today. Much of the knowledge that they gained through 14,000 years of interacting with the local land is now gone from the earth, and nearly all of the native landscapes of this continent have been damaged or destroyed. In doing this, people have threatened our own future because even if we have become less aware of it, these landscapes still support our existence.
Atoka County, OK is located at a crossroads between the eastern Great Plains and the American Southeast. Plants from both areas, totaling about 1,400 species in all, are native to this county. When we purchased the land for the Nan Awaya Farmstead, almost nothing visible remained of the native prairie plants that these soils once supported. We have since changed the management to support a native landscape. When we see a native plant that was not here before reemerge from the soil, it is of so much deeper meaning to us than just a pretty flower. It is like watching a piece of our favorite part of the world - the American Heartland - springing back into life when we had thought it was gone.
Over the past two growing seasons, we've been working hard to learn to identify the plants that grow in the farm's pastures, documenting well over 100 native grasses and wildflowers in the process. In honor of having just seen our 50th species of native wildflower come into bloom on the farm this spring, we've put together the attached slideshow (just click on the picture to start it). It shows only some of the native wildflowers that have have come up this year for the first time, or which we have only recently learned to identify. As you enjoy the pictures, think about the stories that each of these native plants has to tell us about the land.