By Aarju

My mom and I walk into a bright classroom, many other families chattering amongst themselves. My legs, sore from the tour, carry me to a plastic chair. The man leading the tour hands everyone a small plant. It is a dark vibrant green and has little spikes for leaves. I like the way the little tree reminds me of a miniature christmas tree, as if I was a giant. He tells us the plants are a token of appreciation and he hopes to see us again in the next school year. I walked out of the classroom content and excited to watch my new plant grow, it was the first plant I had ever received!

The next weekend, my mom and I go up to our house upstate. We take the little sprout of a tree and put it into a nice row of soil. I wake up the next morning to wet mud and a blanket of dew that covers every plant and blade of grass. The tree looked greener than ever. Little dew drops on it, like crystals from the sky.

Every weekend my mom and I go upstate to our garden, watching the little pine tree grow, until it was not so little anymore. Eventually as the years go by, week by week, we do not show up as often. The car ride was long and I got too busy. Sometimes we wouldn’t drive up for months at a time. Slowly forgetting the plant I once cherished.

Quarantine struck New York City. Hit hard. Lockdown. My mom and I drive upstate, carrying all our bags, taking our lives with us. Everyday my mom goes to the garden, digging, weeding, and planting. One morning my mom asks me to come to the garden with her. I groan and roll out of bed, as any typical teenager would when forced to get out of bed earlier than noon. Dew drops caress my bare feet as we walk to the garden. In the middle of the garden, I spotted my tree. Long and elegant tree branches filled with pine needles. Each pine needle magnified from crystalline dew drops. As I crouch next to my little tree, I remember doing this exact same thing countless times when I was younger. When life was simpler.

Through quarantine I nurtured my tree, a symbol of childlike happiness, and life before the pandemic. My tree and I started as small plantlings and we will one day grow into beautiful strong trees. Memories continuing to flow through our roots.

Aarju is fourteen years old and she loves writing!

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By Brian Gomez

My love for plants marked a new period in my life and can specifically be tracked back to when I first arrived in Miami, Florida from Colombia when I was a small child. My mother worked in a flower factory, and some days I would not see my mother as she would leave for work before I woke up and arrive home after I was already asleep. However, even if I did not see her, I knew she had come home because of the new fresh cut flowers I would find in a vase in the morning before I left for school. While she brought many types of flowers home, her favorite was the flowers of the Strelitzia reginae, known to us at the time as “Ave de Paraiso”. This evergreen perennial creates beautiful flowers whose shape resemble that of a bird. My love for other beings has expanded, but this plant will always have a special place in my life, reminding me of my mother’s bird-like free spirit.

Brian Gomez is an undergraduate student at Florida International University. He is pursuing a double major in Biology and Biochemistry.

Photo by David Brooke Martin on Unsplash

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By Rachel Reeb

Of all the road trip games (the License Plate game, Punch Buggy, etc.), “Spot the Milkweed” is my favorite. The rules to win are simple: be the first person to spot the oval leaves or pink flowers of the plant species Asclepias syriaca and yell “MILKWEED!” at full volume. This game has a small but loyal following of one person (myself) . . . but what we lack in numbers we make up for in enthusiasm.

“Spot the Milkweed” was born my freshman year of college, while I was field technician in an ecology research lab. One of my first assignments was to collect leaf-tissue samples from natural populations of the species (you guessed it) Asclepias syriaca, also known as common milkweed. That summer I traveled to more than 30 sites across the state of Virginia, mostly in parks and roadsides, to find this ubiquitous plant. I was on an incredibly tight schedule; typically visiting several sites and driving hundreds of miles a day, with only a vague idea of where the milkweed was located.

common milkweed in bloom

On a particularly exciting day I raced down the entire 80-mile length of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, needing to find and collect from several different populations before an afternoon thunderstorm caught up with me and my driving partner. We completed our collections with only minutes to spare before the pouring rain arrived. Near or far, rain or shine, I learned how to pick milkweed out of a field with an expert degree of accuracy. This action of searching for plants out my car window became so routine that it evolved into a game for me; one which I continued to play even after the fieldwork ended that summer.

The following summer, the game advanced to an entirely new level of difficulty. My field assignment was to study populations of common milkweed across its entire range in North America. This totaled to 60 sampling sites across 26 US states. My driving partner and I lived by a military-strict schedule, usually entering a new state every day. The land managers who informed our search were as helpful as they could be, but still we were often left with vague instructions such as to “drive along this train track” or “hike to this field.” Sometimes, we were led to milkweed that had been mown over or misidentified entirely. In those cases, we’d have to scour the property and find a replacement. I found myself in the most random and unexpected places that summer. Some were unpleasant . . . smelly drainage ditches and painful thorn patches. But the vast majority were beautiful . . . a network of national historic sites, ecological research stations, and nature preserves which spanned the country.

The highlight of my trip was the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma. At 40,000 acres, this preserve contains the largest remnant of tallgrass prairie left in the world, complete with bison. I was encapsulated in a sea of grassland that extended, nearly uninterrupted, in all directions. While searching for milkweed I was hit by an overwhelming sense of comfort, despite being 1,300 miles away from my university in Virginia. This landscape should not have felt like home. It was flat, silent, treeless, without a single human being in sight . . . the exact opposite of the east coast.

But there was something familiar: a patch of pale pink flowers, sticking out of the grass. Milkweed had become a beacon for me, making each new place recognizable. I followed it across the country like a trail of dots, showing me the connections between every state, every field.

At another time in my life, I would have hidden inside the empty guest house where we stayed that night in Oklahoma. I would have been intimidated by the vastness and loneliness of the preserve. But there were milkweed just outside, welcoming me into the fields. Enticing me to search for wildflowers and insects and bison, and to bear witness to a spectacular sunset.

milkweed growing along the edge of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, USA

This has remained a consistent theme in my life, even years after the milkweed-collecting fieldwork had ended. In searching for this plant, I learned how to notice my surroundings with a new level of clarity. It sparked an impulse for exploration that I had not known before. I’ve made it a goal to visit every state in the USA… I have four left to go! Milkweed often greets me at these travel destinations and leads me on a personal tour.

During the pandemic, an entirely new level of isolation, I’ve become even more grateful for this connection with a non-human. I rarely leave home these days and I hugely miss being able to escape into natural spaces, as I used to. Luckily for me, however, my favorite plant is just as fond of the city as any other place. So, I play “Spot the Milkweed” to pass the time; until it’s safe to leave again. I still feel a rush of joy when I see their pink flowers peeking out of the grass, like an old friend waving hello, ensuring me that that I am never truly alone.

Rachel is a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, studying plant ecology. You can learn more about her research (or her updated Spot the Milkweed scoreboard) at

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