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Grandma Knows Best

by Kayri Havens

Pitcher’s thistle
Pitcher’s thistle, photo by Pati Vitt

I’ve heard that a great plant love story is a lot like a country song…it’s good to include a grandma.

So how does my grandma fit into my plant love story? She was the first to say she thought I should be a botanist (when I was about 6 and didn’t even know what a botanist was!). Why she came to this conclusion, I don’t know, and sadly never asked. Perhaps it was my penchant for dissecting peas before I ate them (“look at that baby plant in there!”) or my ability to name all the plants in my mom’s garden. Or maybe she was just prescient.

Regardless, I ignored that advice and had a number of other career aspirations throughout my childhood and teen years from horse trainer to law to engineering. But during my sophomore year of college, and after a second tap on my shoulder from the teaching assistant in my plant taxonomy course saying “you should consider a career in botany,” I finally agreed with her. I decided to become a botanist. Grandma knew best.

Fast forward a few decades, well into a very happy botanical career, and Plant Love Stories says, “tell me about your favorite plant.” When you’ve been fascinated with plants as long as I have been, it’s surprisingly hard to say which one is your favorite. Those who know me, are probably betting on Pitcher’s thistle (Cirsium pitcheri), a beautiful and rare native thistle that I’ve been studying for over 20 years. A good bet to be sure, because what’s not to like? It lives on the beach, it supports scores of pollinators, and it brings me to beautiful Door County, WI for fieldwork. The trifecta, right?

But it’s hard to forget your first love, and for me, that’s the Organ Mountain evening primrose (Oenothera organensis). That plant saw me through my dissertation. I have some planted in my yard and it delights me most summer evenings when its huge yellow flowers burst open in just a few seconds at dusk and beckon in hawkmoths.

Organ Mountain evening primrose

Last year, after moving to a new home after 20+ years of gardening the same yard, I became acutely aware of how many other loves I had. I missed my plants. I really, really missed them!

I started frantically replacing the ones I missed the most. First, my evening primrose went in. Then two fringe trees and some paw-paws. Next, I planted butterfly milkweed, purple milkweed, blazing stars, wine cups, a clematis with little blue bell-shaped blooms, and some bluebells for good measure. A dogwood, a redbud, and some dutchmen’s breeches followed. A few Indian pinks and a bottlebrush buckeye were added after much searching. And I’m not done yet. I am fickle when it comes to plant love. I suppose it is like trying to pick your favorite child…it is impossible.

For those of us who love plants, we may find it hard to believe that most people don’t feel the same way. I think perhaps it might be because no one tapped their shoulders when they were young and pointed out the beauty of plants, their names, their uniqueness, and the gifts they give us. And no one said, “you should be a botanist.”

So please remember to share your plant love frequently, particularly with kids. Because the future of our planet depends on those children and on plants!

Kayri Havens is the Senior Director of Ecology and Conservation and Senior Scientist at Chicago Botanic Garden. Her research interests include ex situ conservation, the effects of climate change on plants, restoration genetics, and pollination biology. She collaborates with a variety of academic institutions, agencies, and stewardship organizations to improve conservation efforts for plants and won’t rest until everyone knows that “Plants are not optional!”


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