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A time to pick

By Dr. Kathleen G. Ferris

Tiny neon green shoots poked up from the dark spring earth. Tempting, tantalizing, impossibly green they shone like jewels against the bare soil. As I stood on the side of the house, beneath an old brick wall and the delicately spreading fingers of the Japanese maple, the new shoots of my mother’s prized hosta lilies called out to my three-year-old fingertips. They drew me in like sirens steering me toward a scolding. It was late March in St. Louis. The days were chilly and damp, but with a hint of April’s coming warmth. I was alone in the garden, playing my three-year-old games while my parents worked inside, making dinner and discussing the day.

The day was quiet. Maybe it was a Sunday. My memory is, understandably given my age, a bit fuzzy on the specifics. I wasn’t at daycare so that’s a pretty good clue that it must have been a weekend. I also can’t say exactly what lead to the next sequence of events, what thoughts I had before the first domino fell. Maybe I was playing farm girl, one of my favorite childhood games where I would pretend that I lived on a farm, a farm like the one my grandfather still lived on, and that I had to spend the day doing chores. For some reason I found the notion of farm chores romantic at that age. Probably because I had never had to actually do any … So maybe it was the farm girl game that caused me to cross the invisible line between play and peril. Perhaps I was pretending to harvest my crops and the hostas were just the nearest thing to hand, the first casualty of my imagination. But though I don’t remember the specifics of that day I do remember the feeling of it. And the feeling was of overwhelming attraction. Attraction to the beauty of the hostas new spring growth.

The freshness. The lithe, liveliness of the firm green shoots. I just couldn’t stay away. And so I picked them. Each and every last one.

I snapped off their jaunty green heads, marveling at the smooth feel of them against my fingertips, the way they glinted in the dappled sun below the maple. And then I brought them proudly to my mother, to display the verdant bounty cupped gingerly in my tiny hands. And she was angry. Angrier than I had ever seen her before. And rarely seen her since. I had ruined her entire hosta garden. Every last lily had been plucked. She had loved those lilies. And so I got in huge trouble. After my punishment, and after my tears, when the storm of broken stems and spirits had passed, my mother said “Katie. You know what I think? I think that you should become a botanist when you grow up. Because then you can pick any plant you want and you won’t get in trouble.” And something about that must have stuck. Because here I am, some thirty-three years later, making my living by my pen and my trowel, a professor studying how plants adapt to harsh habitats and form new species. And, with the right permit of course, I can pick any plant I want. And I never get in trouble. So thanks Mom. Even from betwixt the ruins of your once-lovely hostas, you still give great advice.

Kathleen Ferris (second from left), botanist, with her research group at Tulane University.


Kathleen is an Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. She studies the genetic basis of adaptation and speciation in Monkeyflowers. You can learn more about Kathleen's research here and follow her on Twitter @ferrisifolius.

Photos courtesy the author. Top left: Kathleen as a young botanist. Top Middle: Kathleen in a sea of yellow monkeyflowers. Top right: Kathleen's mom, still smiling despite the loss of her host garden.

[PLS Editor's Note: Want to read more about monkey flowers? Check out an earlier Plant Love Story "Oh Where, Oh Where has my monkey flower gone?"]


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