Recently I purchased and read Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachians and Piedmont.
Now, before you go labeling me as a mega-dweeb, you should know that plant communities are super hot right now. All the coolest middle aged suburban garden bloggers are talking about them and how they can be used as inspirations for design.
Where have you been?
So anyway, after reading the book, I decided a hike in the Shenandoahs was in order to see what all the fuss was about. I was all psyched to get out there and identify me some sweet plant communities!
Well, it turns out that I didn’t see any of these plant communities! As I walked along the trail, all I witnessed for SEVERAL miles was plant anarchy! Maples AND Oaks cavorting (wha??), a few wimpy pines, mixed with spicebush, briars, and lots of Japanese Stiltgrass! Plus cobwebs and horseflies!
If I was in the presence of a particular Plant Community, I have no idea what it was. Maybe it was the Smorgasbord Community, or some hippie plant community that just accepts everybody.
Anyway, after hiking for awhile I arrived at a gorgeous sequence of pools and waterfalls.
Perchance, had I stumbled upon a Spray Cliff? I invoked Level 3 of Bloom’s Taxonomy and applied the knowledge I had gleaned from my field guide to my surroundings. Most of the plant life around the pools consisted of slippery algae on the surface of the rocks, some unidentifiable (by me) saplings, ferns, and a smattering of poison ivy. There was no sign of any Mountain Laurel or Rosebay Rhododendron, the species that are supposed to be “locally abundant” in a Spray Cliff. There were some lichens, but there were supposed to be liverworts. Dang!
Lean in and I will whisper you a little secret: IT TURNS OUT PLANT COMMUNITIES DON’T ALWAYS ORGANIZE THEMSELVES INTO TIDY LITTLE NEIGHBORHOODS LIKE WE DO. Nope, there are no signs saying, “Welcome to the Swamp Forest-Bog Complex!“ There are no HOA restrictions to keep things looking orderly.
This, combined with the fact that my plant community identification skills still need lots of practice, meant that this outing was a tad frustrating. That’s okay, though. I figure it took me awhile to learn to “read” individual plants (by leaf shape, habit, etc.) so learning to read plant communities will take just as long. I’m so focused on looking at tiny details of plants that I haven’t trained myself to see the bigger picture. And this, of course, is the key to using nature as inspiration for design.
The good news is that the “classroom” for studying plant communities — fields, forests, streams — is a delightful place to study.