Alphabet Stories of Botany: Guest piece by Harry Weekes

Harry Weekes is a writing teacher at the Community School in Sun Valley Idaho. My dear friend, Julie Caldwell, told me about hearing Mr. Weekes reading this at the school’s commencement program. Thanks to both of them – Julie for passing it on, and Harry for agreeing to share this wonderful essay, “Alphabet Stories.” I think my fellow garden peeps will love it.

Alphabet Stories
Harry Weekes
Field Botany and Creative Writing
The College of the Atlantic
27 July – 1 August 2008

A, of course, is for Acer rubrum, the small winter twig we observed in our night ‘keying out session.’ I searched the key in vain for what I thought was the distinguishing characteristic of this slender branch, which was that the bundle scars and leaf buds bore a striking resemblance to a blend between the faces of the gorilla generals from “Planet of the Apes” and some Indonesian Monkey God. For whatever reason, this was absent.

B just so happens to be birdsfoot-trefoil, whose name is derived from its fruits, which are said to bear a resemblance to a bird’s foot. This is the true- especially if the bird is dead and lying on its back, and is, perhaps, a cartoon. I am reminded of a cartoon chicken lying in state. Or maybe the Chickenhawk from Foghorn Leghorn somehow tricked to lie prostrate by Foghorn himself.

C is none other than Corylus cornuta, whose fruits look like lion’s claws, or some bizarre gall. They conjure up wonderful images and associations, which are only made stronger when you learn its real name- the beaked hazel-nut. Buried in the ‘claw’ is a none other than the nut.

D, as always, stands for danger. In this case Drosera rotundiflora, the round-leaved sundew. It would appear, though, that the old Maine Camp trick of dragging a sleeping cabin mate out to the bog and dangling their fingertips onto the pads of the sundews will not, in fact, make his fingers dissolve. This appears to be a Great Heath legend.

E are the Ericads, the Ericaceae, with their usually green, glossy, thick and shiny leaves. This family really covers the spectrum of names and genres. It carries the old, stately names, like Rosemary. Then there are the anime cartoon breakfast cereal characters, Crowberry, Cranberry, Blueberry and Teaberry. And not to leave out either the horror movie possibilities or the Legion of Doom, there is Leatherleaf.

F Fabaceae includes the beach-pea. This family name reminds me of the superweird man model Fabio and how he got hit in the face by a gull while riding a rollercoaster. There are gulls shrieking on Seawall where we find the beach-pea, and I can’t help but wonder if this would freak out Fabio.

G Green-fringed Orchis and its stalk of inflorescence. We have orchids at home. Great beautiful orchids that smell mildly like chocolate, or spray out in clusters of flowers that look like china carvings. Occasionally, one of the orchids will be damaged by an errant ball, and there is silence. The green-fringed orchis is a blue-collar orchid and I can’t help but think vaguely pissed off at those others. I imagine that my hunching over it, poking its genitals, and saying with a mixture of condescension, derision and surprise, “That’s an orchid?” only angers it more.

H Huckleberry is one of the names I wanted to use for a child. I grew up with Huckleberry Hound and Huckle the cat from Richard Scarry, and later on, Huck Finn. I put the name down on our ‘name list.’ It was only after mentioning the name a third or fourth time that Hilary, my wife, realized I was serious about it. She looked very deeply into my eyes and said, “no.” When I see that bog huckleberry is covered with little yellow piles of resin glands I feel slightly better about the decision.

I Ibex are ridiculous mountain goat-like creatures that live in the Alps and bounce down virtually sheer cliffs landing on postage stamp sized ledges of rock. Occasionally, they yodel. The Ilex genus of plants, which includes winterberry, is pretty much nothing like this. They don’t seem to be a very athletic berry and are even described as having sessile fruits. To top it all off, their call is a very soft grunt, kind of the opposite of a yodel.

J My grandfather spent time in northern Minnesota, and he had a lot of prejudice by familiarity with many families of Swedish descent living in the North Woods. My grandmother used to mutter things like, “Dumb Swede,” to which my grandfather would reply, “That’s redundant.” The bayonet rush is in the family Juncaceae and its scientific name is Juncus militarius. I am reminded of my grandfather.

K The sheep laurel, as you know, is an ericad, and the member of the family who stands way over to the left in the family photos. It is the one people point at and say, “Who’s the one with the whorled leaves that aren’t shiny and waxy?” “Kalmia angustifolia,” they say. You bob your head like you know what they are talking about.

L I will forever associate lupine with Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius, who readers of the book come to know as The Lupine Lady. The Lupine Lady sets out to do the three things her grandfather challenges- to see the world, to live by the sea, and to make the world a more beautiful place. I have done the first two. I am working on the third, but I don’t yet know what that is.

M There are many lessons I learned from my grandmother. One particular one, taken from the chapter in the children’s book series of my youth called “Don’t Fuck with Grandma,” was how to grab a handgun off the floor with your toes, and bring it up to your chest and to your hand, all while you are being held up by an intruder. Another thing she taught me was what an Indian Pipe plant was, and how it always lacked chlorophyll. Monotropa uniflora used to grow around her cabin, poking out of the leaf litter as these were outside of the Great Heath.

N My real issue with New Yorkers is that no matter what the circumstance, things are always just a little ‘more’ in New York. Pizza? You haven’t had pizza until you’ve had a thin crust New York slice from Nick’s. Hotdogs? Don’t get me started. There is even pride in a New Yorker’s voice when he or she brags about how much worse the traffic is in ‘the city.’ The New York fern may be just the conversation stopper I have been looking for. “Wow,” I’ll say after hearing about how much time a New Yorker spent at the office before waiting in the longest line to get the most expensive drink, “Your fronds really taper at both ends, don’t they?”

O Oh, the Olaceae, whose member, the green ash, somehow sounds like an oxymoron. The name also sounds vaguely lewd and erotic. Throw in compound leaves, and small petioled leaflets, and you had better start covering the children’s ears.

P The Pinaceae are that great family we all seem to know, kind of like a botanical Brady Bunch. Spruces, pines, hemlocks. But every family has its Oliver- who I am pretty sure wasn’t even a Brady, but showed up from some nether world for a couple of episodes. For Pinaceae, the larch is my Oliver. The deciduous conifer, dropping its needles all at once, the Oliver, pushing up his glasses in the back yard.

Q Quercus borealis is the northern red oak, and, to me, might be the Fonzie of trees. From its acorns to its common name to its majestic scientific epithet, there is, simply, nothing uncool about it.

R The lone member of the Rubiaceae we encountered was the partridgeberry. I’m not totally certain, but I’m fairly confident that Ruben might have been the name of The Partridge Family’s manager, and I wouldn’t doubt one bit if he wore shiny green pants with tan stripes.

S Staghorn sumac and seaside lungwort, at some point, will have to meet up in some botanical common name, no holds barred, lights out cage match. For some reason I imagine this match to be the semi-finals, due to some stacked and flawed draw. The winner will then go on to beat the berries off the small-leaved cranberry in the finals.

T Trifolium arvense is the rabbit-foot clover. There is something really cute about this plant. Maybe it’s the soft, fuzzy inflorescence, or the nondescript and subtle way that it grows, close to the ground. The mildly disturbing juxtaposition to this is a strange and strong urge I have to eat it.

U The utrichs. We see two, Utricularia cornuta and Utricularia purpurea. These are the kinds of names that conjure up a certain fear and unease in me. I see a patient, not completely covered in his hospital gown, rocking forward, clutching the side of the crinkly paper-covered table to get a better look at the x-ray the doctor is thumping. “Utricularia,” the doctor says. “What’s that?” the anxious patient responds. “Bladderwort,” the doctor replies, somehow fatally.

V To carry the medical references further are the members of Vaccinium that we saw- blueberries and cranberries. I am beginning to understand and appreciate how the scrappy cranberry showed up in the finals of that cage match- it’s crafty and creepy. I could easily see using a little Vaccinium oxycoccus to inoculate against a naked bladderwort infection.

W Wild radish is actually a mustard. This kind of mislabeling can really lower a plant’s self esteem. I’ll have to say, though, that there is something very cool about the name ‘wild radish.’ We forget that some things are wild. For instance, gerbils. Gerbils, wild gerbils, roaming the steppe in outer-Mongolia, now there’s an image. Maybe adding gerbil to its name would boost its morale? The Wild Mongolian Gerbil Radish.

X Chicken or an egg question. Which came first, plants and animals named with Xs or frustrated botanically-oriented parents who got tired of using xylophone and x-ray in their kiddie alphabet games, and simply wouldn’t stoop to using ‘x-cellent’ or ‘x-tra’ special? My money is on the latter. And just so they didn’t have to rely on one species (like those poor ornithologists with their Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus), botanists created a whole family, the Xyridacidaea, whose member, Xyris montana, we saw.

Y Botanists took a page from birders’ notebooks and how Xanthocephalus killed two birds with one stone, it being the scientific name for the Yellow-headed Blackbird. In this case, botanizers cracked two nuts with one blow, or felled two trees with one chop, or whatever it is the lads and lasses cut from the botanical cloth say. For the Xylis we saw was yellow-eyed grass. Crafty, crafty, crafty.

Z There is a legend about a genus of grass that begins with a Z. The truth is furtive, though, and a secret kept close to the vest of the brother and sisterhoods of plants. Perhaps a secret handshake will gain you this knowledge, or maybe a certain flower worn in a certain way in a far off place, like Istanbul. But ask botanists directly, and their eyes will dart, they will pull on their ears, and they will perform a subtle and remarkably effective and evasive verbal jujitsu. At this time, my skills are still young. But I am hopeful. I am hopeful.