I’ve just returned from a week of vacation in a nearby provincial park where, among other things, I discovered many wildflowers I’d never seen before. After my initial delight and surprise I realized this was because, in other years, we’d always gone there in August, when many of these flowers were no longer in bloom, and I hadn’t even known they were there. The biggest thrill, probably, was finding wild columbine and blue flag. But there were many more, and I spent a lot of time searching through my copy of Wildflowers Across the Prairies. (An excellent reference book. Even reading the flower names is fun: lilac-flowered beardtongue, hoary puccoon, nodding onion…) In fact, I’d say flowers turned into a minor obsession on this trip.
What’s with this passion for naming and categorizing things? It’s useful to identify plants like wild raspberry, hazelnut, or Labrador tea. A person should be able to recognize poison ivy and stinging nettle, just for the sake of self-protection. But why should it matter that this yellow flower is a form of groundsel, and those other ones are yellow avens? Why would you want to distinguish among the many types of vetch?
Yet naming and classifying is important to us, whether it’s grouping plants into families, sorting minerals, or dividing history into periods according to one scheme or another. I suppose it’s a way of looking for order in the world.
Much of the pleasure of wildflowers (or birds, or rocks, or mushrooms) is in the discovery, that involuntary “oh!” at seeing something exquisite for the first time. Still, there’s also something satisfying in being able to not only describe a plant but also name it. Columbine. One more little check mark in the book.