When we moved from the woods to the suburbs, my one regret was that our kids would not have direct access to nature right by our driveway. My Dad said they were never worried about me wandering off too far, even when I was a toddler, because there was a field of wildflowers just behind the house to contain me. I dissected them every day, pretending to cook or just satisfying my curiosity. This familiarity with blossoms was my first biology class.
My daughter's school has a "Life Lab," which is what they call the garden, where they learn things like the various plant parts. They may be able to absorb this academically, at least for the short term, but that's nothing like the intimate connection I had with flowers and the rest of the plant parts as a child. A pistil is an abstract concept for a young child, unless they've been allowed to pick flowers. In Life Lab, kids are rarely allowed to pick anything, even grass blades or weeds. They're told that the plants have a right to live.
Okay, but let's not forget that plants have a redundancy system. Nature has always had to produce lots of extras in order for a species to survive. I understand why a garden that serves hundreds of school kids might need this rule, but in the world at large, I think we can give our children a more nuanced message about when it's okay to pick.
According to the USDA Forest Service website, picking wildflowers without a permit is not okay. However, their page on wildflower ethics opens with the observation:
There is a deep impulse we carry from childhood into adulthood to reach out and pick a flower in a beautiful butterfly-filled meadow or along a public wooded trail lined with spring beauties, irises, or wake-robins. It is because we all carry such memories that we have devoted an entire website to Celebrating Wildflowers.
If we tell kids not to pick anything, soon no one will carry such memories. How can we cultivate those experiences of wonder and joy, bringing up the next generation of conservationists? The USDA seems to suggest that we go on nature walks as if walking on eggshells, careful not to disturb any of the plants. However, what about species that are abundant, or even invasive?
The same Forest Service website details the issue of invasive plants crowding out native species:
Invasive species have contributed to the decline of 42% of U.S. endangered and threatened species, and for 18% of U.S. endangered or threatened species, invasives are the main cause of their decline.
The Forest Service advises people not to "pick and transport" invasive wildflowers, apparently just in case mature seed pods were part of the bouquet, giving the weed a chance to take over a new area. However, I see no harm in playing with such flowers right where you found them.
Pictured in this post are my daughters picking clover-like "oxalis" in our backyard last year. I had seen this flower proliferating throughout our town, seemingly in every spare patch of grass. I didn't have to consult a field guide to know that picking these particular blooms would have little impact on the survival of the species. Even if we had been on public land, I think it would have been okay to tell them to go ahead and pick. I had in fact uprooted all of these plants from our backyard last spring, confident that they would blow in on the wind again. We made "clover" crowns for St. Patrick's Day again this year from the new batch of oxalis.
I checked an online flower finder to identify these yellow charmers, and it turns out that oxalis pes-caprae or "Bermuda Buttercup" is a non-native which can become invasive. So, can we call this one a win-win, Forest Service?
It's often been said that kids are little scientists, and I believe there is much to be learned by picking plants to pieces. Besides the educational benefits, there is certainly intrinsic value in giving kids unstructured time to do as they like in nature. I'm not saying they should feel free to pluck anything they spot, but parents or caregivers can point out anything that looks too vulnerable.
Is there somewhere you can find a few weeds for your toddler to ransack? Perhaps you can find a field or neighborhood lot for older kids to romp in? Is there a space where you can plant your own wildflowers? Maybe you're even bold enough to let your backyard go to seed and grow yourself a meadow. Finally, a reason to skip mowing the lawn.