Classify This!

In case you hadn’t noticed, gentle reader, I’ve been off your screen for a while. Not because I’ve been off with the masses, catching up on the life missed during Covid by lining up in airports or hanging out on beaches. And not even because I’ve been spending endless hours in the garden. At first in my silent spell, I was doing the latter, but not lately, not during the beastly heat waves we were playing host to here in what used to be the semi-frozen north.

Nope. I have been Otherwise Occupied. And for your sake, believe it or not!

Photo of winding road leading into mountains with jagged peaks

You just never know where reasoning will take you…
Cilaos” by Worlds In Focus is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

You see, I came to think, through routes of ratiocination too tortuous to be examined, that if I am to continue writing about Nature and all that jazz, I’d better know more about it. From a standpoint of Expertise and not just Experience.

So after some cursory exploration (routes also best left unexamined) I decided to pursue a Native Plants certificate through the Native Plant Trust. Two certificates, in fact: basic and advanced. Starting, you may be astonished to learn, with Basic.

The requirements didn’t look too tough: several core courses available online, some focused courses online or in person (Shrubs, for example), and a few electives out in the field (Ferns! Know Your Pests!). Easy peasy, I thought.

I could not have been more wrong.

See, as I saw the whole summer stretching out before me, I figured that doing all three of the core courses would be a cinch. I had from April 25 to September 12. Plant Form and Function? Roots and shoots, good to grow. Plant Ecology? Gotta get along with the neighbors. Plant Families? Mom, dad, the kids and the grandfolks. Piece of cake.

Ha. Ha. Ho.

In future posts, maybe I’ll tell you more about some of the many fascinating things I learned along the route. But this is just about one assignment.

Until nearly the bitter end, I was drowning in Plant Families. I should have guessed. We do all know what happens when we start delving into our own families. Skeletons in closets, wackos in plain view, dysfunctions up the wazoo. Why should plant families be any different?

Photo of a family at a heavily-loaded (Thanksgiving?) table, with character at far right making goggle-eyes at the camera

Happy Thanksgiving” by BenGeldreich is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

If you didn’t know about the concepts of species and genus, had never heard of Linnaeus, and had 400,000 samples (there are at least that many species of plants in the world!) to sort through and classify, how would you do it? What kinds of cabinets and drawers would you plop the plants into? That was one of those easy-peasy assignments that ended up gobbling hours and days of my time.

Here’s what I wrote:

Photo of gray rabbit in the middle of a clover patch, looking like she's inspecting to find a tasty shoot.

Rabbit” by James F Clay is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

I propose the organizing principle of Utility. I take my inspiration from my local bunny rabbits, albeit applied differently. For the bunnies, the major classification demarcator would be Can I eat that? My net extends more broadly, with several demarcators added for the things we humans get up to.

But let’s start on the rabbit end. Edibility. The bunnies and I unfortunately agree on the edibility of most of the veggie plants I grow. They’re overboard on the edibility of the flowers, but they make up for that by shunning most of my herbs.

The edibility principle does pose some challenges, though, even if we confine it to edible-for-humans and don’t fuss over whether it’s an appetizer or main course:

Closeup photo of rutabaga root, top 3/4 buff-colored, bottom 1/4 purple, with gnarls and twisted roots showing towards the top

Rutabaga” by -meredith- is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

  1. Do all or only some parts of the plant have to be edible? Brassicas (your garden-variety broccoli and cabbage) seem to skew towards all parts, although it had to take some elegant breeding moves to come up with a rutabaga. Walnut trees, only part, and you have to work to get at the edibles.
  2. A plant might be edible but poisonous. Here we have a different kind of challenge (strong influence here: Amy Stewart’s Wicked Plants). There’s rhubarb, for example: the ribs are okay, if you cook them, but even the cooked leaves can make you sick or possibly kill you.
  3. So, one added dimension of classification would be raw=poison or toxic, cooked=okay or even yummy.

We pause for a head-scratch

This doesn’t get into the question that has always puzzled me: after Murgh, Ayam and Csirke have keeled over from eating a mystery plant, why would it occur to the rest of the clan to say, “Gee, let’s try cooking it and see whether that kills us.” In this category: cassava (hello, tapioca!), bamboo shoots, fiddleheads. Even, my god, kidney beans! And pangium nuts, which have to be both cooked and fermented to get rid of their hydrogen cyanide. The clan had to do some fancy trial and error on that one!

photo of caveman, dressed in animal skins and with finger tapping a stone tablet; caption says "Maybe NYT Cooking would have a better idea..."

Photo:; caption by me.

Then it gets really complicated

  1. Another dimension: part of the plant is poisonous; part is safe, at least if properly treated. Rhubarb here; also, cashew, the nut of which has tasty edible flesh inside a toxic casing growing from a tree many parts of which can give you a nasty rash or worse. Actually, some of those in the raw/cooked dimension may belong here too. Already the classification system gets a little fuzzed.
  2. A plant might not be much of a culinary treat but have important medicinal properties. People may ingest it anyway. Plants could even taste downright nauseating but still be good for you. Many of the herbs that figure in Chinese traditional medicine notoriously fit in this category.
    picture in pastels of a girl and a boy, both blond, standing in front of a house with forest behind them, and looking amazedly at an old woman in long dress and wearing a black conical hat as she peers at them over a railing at the front door.

    Margaret Tarrant’s ‘Hansel and Gretel‘” by sofi01 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

    But we don’t have go all the way to China to find numerous medicinal uses of plants. My personal library includes Native American Medicinal Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary, which indexes the uses of 3,000 indigenous North American plants. There I find the most unexpected uses for some of the flowering plants in my garden: among the several medicinal uses for my foamflower, Tiarella cordifolia, for example: an “Infusion of roots and leaves given to fatten little children.” For what, is not stated. I’m thinking: Hansel and Gretel?

  3. Many other plants might not be wise to ingest, but have medicinal properties when used as poultices or other external applications.

Beyond the bunny

That last point explains why I decided to label this classification method as “Utility” rather than “Edibility.” Unlike bunnies, we can come up with a wide range of possible uses for plants that we couldn’t or wouldn’t eat. Clothing (cotton, hemp, linen, even some tree barks, and the fig leaf that plays such a large part in the pop version of the Judaeo-Christian origin story). Material for making useful items (wood, or course, but also reeds, flexible twigs or branches, straw that can be braided for cord or tied together for bedding or other uses, palm leaves).

In fact, if we appreciate the diversity of human cultures throughout history, we might find that almost all plants could fit somewhere within a classification scheme according to utility. Even poison ivy makes good food for goats. For hunting, you could dip your arrow tips into any of a number of plant-derived toxins.

Painting of Socrates in apparent prison cell half-sitting on a pallet on a wooden platform, just before taking a cup being offered to him by a man carrying a tray. Socrates's right arm and hand are lifted up, as though he was declaiming, as his left hand touches the cup. His followers clustered in the room are in various positions of grief, some comforting each other, none of them looking directly at him.

Jean Francois Pierre Peyron (1744-1814), “The Death of Socrates, 1787. kms7066″ by SMK Statens Museum for Kunst (officiel) is marked with CC0 1.0.

And if you need to eliminate a pesky philosopher named Socrates, look no further than that kissing cousin of the homely carrot, hemlock (herb, not tree).

So why not use my system? Although we might enjoy identifying plants for the sheer fun of knowing their names, I suspect that the most crucial plant question throughout most of human history has been “What can I do with this plant?” The answers may change; the people who first used natural rubber to make balls to play with could never have imagined what Firestone would get up to with it.

But the question of utility makes a constant, and, I think, should be more emphasized today, as we lose species at an alarming rate. Each species lost represents a potentially vital gift to humanity thrown away. Too many of the planet’s drawers have already been emptied forever.

Your turn:

If you haven’t already done so, you can sign up for the newsletter, which is just a notice when a new post goes up. Whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. I try to reply to every comment, but feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. If I’m going to be getting geeky about plants, especially native plants, is there some question that you’d like to see me research and write about?
  2. What, besides eating, is the most important use of plants for you?
  3. How did the summer go in your garden? Did you also have a heat wave and/or drought, and if so, how did you cope with it?
  4. Would you like some rabbits?

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Thanks, as always, for reading, and double thanks for responding!

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10 Responses to Classify This!

  1. Susan McKenna says:

    Kate!!! While i am always impressed with your expertise as well as experience, last summers undertaking was truly monumental. Regarding your questions, you know me, i like to look at gardens. And rabbits. ❤️ Faithful Reader, 🦢

  2. Hillary says:

    Good for you for getting a Master Gardener’s/ Native Plants certificate. A completely legitimate reason for not writing for a while!

    • Kateri says:

      Thanks for the pass on my long spell of quiet, Hillary. I do find, though, that sometimes the learning gets solidified by writing about it, so I hope I’ll be sharing as I go along. There are some courses on trees, shrubs, and wildflowers coming up over the next few months, and I’m signed up for all of those–just not everything all at once this time!

  3. Teri says:

    Wonderful to see what you are learning.
    I wonder why deer eat some plants and not others…because I am working to plant a garden that deers don’t find yummy.

    • Kateri says:

      That’s a good question for research, Teri! I notice that plant sellers generally don’t promise deer-proof, only deer-resistant, because if the deer are really hungry, they’ll eat just about anything in the plant kingdom, except maybe the stuff that would poison them. But why would they gobble up hostas and usually leave peonies alone?

      I have it on good authority that the best deer repellent is a very large, energetic dog. But that doesn’t help at night when the deer sneak in to graze.

      So, into the research hopper with that one!

  4. Teague Skye says:

    Well. I would love some bunnies. My first thoughts regarding vegetation is beauty and second is medicinal. Then comes food. With trees it’s beauty first and lodging second – not just “oh i could live in that tree!” But “I wonder who all lives in it and feeds from it…” But then you know i have rather odd priorities.
    And may i say you are becoming a masteress at your weaving of academic terminology and ideas with your ever-present witticisms. Much gratitude for the inspiration. Peace.

    • Kateri says:

      Thanks, Teague!
      I do find myself wondering about who all is up in those trees, too. Isn’t it nice when studying nature, rather than dispelling wonder, increases and enhances it?
      Would gladly ship you my bunnies but I’m afraid they’re committed New Englanders.

  5. Irene Hoge Smith says:

    Well worth waiting for!

Comments are closed.