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Updated: Jul 26, 2019

by Carrie Perkins

I chose Vassar College in part for its stunning library. With stained-glass windows, long wooden tables lit by little lamps, and secret passageways, it reminded me a little bit of Hogwarts. Whether camping out with coffee and snacks to study for exams or just curling up with a book on a rainy day, it became my favorite place to study.

So it was to my great surprise that I found an even better study spot toward the end of my time at Vassar: the college’s greenhouse. Complete with patio table and chairs, the whisper of misting machines, and the chattering of insects, it gave the library a run for its money. Covering every bench were hundreds of unique and sometimes rare plants, from succulents with their thick, fleshy leaves to orchids that filled the air with amazing smells.

The Vasser College greenhouse

But my one true love was the banana tree, which sat right beside the patio table. It towered over everything else in the greenhouse, spanning from floor to ceiling and sprawling left and right. It provided the best bananas I have ever tasted. They were creamy, melted in your mouth, and were bursting with flavor. Oh, how I miss you, my dear banana tree.

Carrie Perkins is Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland-College Park, where she studies patterns of persistence of the aquatic plant Vallisneria americana, a foundation species native to the northeastern U.S. that is threatened by increasingly harsh and unpredictable weather events and chronic poor water quality. Carrie earned her bachelor’s degree in biology and German at Vassar College in 2014. Before entering the Plant Sciences program at UMD, she was a linguistics project manager at Morningside Translations and then worked as a lab technician in Loyola University Maryland’s biology department. In her spare time, she enjoys running with the Federal Hill Runners Club near her home in Baltimore.

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Updated: Jul 26, 2019

by Tony Chang

A young Tony Chang

My mom is an incredible plant caretaker—she just knows how to make things grow. She has the ability to pick plants from the wilds of the forest and somehow tame them to flourish as house plants. When my parents divorced, I was five years old. The sudden shift from two parents to one was jolting. I lived with my dad and only saw my mom once every weekend. That shift made me cherish the moments I could spend with my mother. Typically, when we saw each other we would visit the plant nursery together. My mom, being alone, an immigrant, and not speaking much English, found solace and security amongst the docile plants. So, despite not having any interest in plants myself, I tolerated going to the nursery as an opportunity to hang out with my mom and try to understand why she loved plants so much. On one of our many weekend trips, I noticed a batch of baby Venus fly traps near the cash register. I thought they looked more like an animal than a boring house plant and was instantly fascinated. I really wanted to buy one and be a great plant caretaker like my mother, but my mom thought they were hideous. Also, she said we could not afford one, and that if I wanted a Venus fly trap, I would need to save up for it.

I looked at the price tag. Four dollars?! That was a lot of money for a 6-year-old! Since we were so poor and I didn’t get an allowance, I remember resorting to picking up change off the street after school to save money. My dad used to give me coins for doing math, to encourage me to be better at arithmetic. Our household exchange rate was a nickel for every page of hand written multiplication problems. I’d spend evenings furiously trying to finish the problems as quickly as I could so I could acquire more change. Over several weeks, I saved enough coins to buy the plant! On my next visit to the nursery, I showed up with a grocery bag full of change and my mom let me buy the Venus fly trap. It was actually the biggest purchase I had ever made! We dumped all the coins on the counter and the cashier thought it was ridiculous. It was fun to watch the cashier count the coins one by one and finally add up to $4. I was elated to take the plant home and excited that I was going to take care of a plant of my own like Mom! My father did not know much about plants, so I was on my own with the fly trap. All I knew was that Venus fly traps were carnivorous and I remember thinking, “I guess part of taking care of something is feeding it, and this thing needs to eat.” I spent afternoons swatting flies around the house and the backyard, constantly trying to feed the fly trap. It was a delight to see it close up around the flies and a few days later, expel out the exoskeletons. I remember wanting to touch it all of the time because I never saw a plant move on its own. However, despite my enthusiasm, over time it began to wilt and yellow. I just kept force-feeding it more flies, not quite understanding why it was dying. Finally, I asked my mom what I had been doing wrong, and she asked if I had been watering it and keeping it in a sunny place. It didn’t occur to me that I needed to give it sunlight and water! The next day, I immediately over-watered it, but by then it was already too late. My Venus fly trap died and my mom was oddly psyched about it because she always thought it was an ugly plant. It was my first, but not last, failure as a young horticulturist. I still think fondly of my first plant. Who knew a Venus fly trap could teach a child to save money, practice fast arithmetic, and help him understand his Mother’s love and appreciation for plants?

Tony Chang is a 2017 Smith Fellow and an ecological data scientist, applying machine-learning techniques to ecological problems. He now knows that the vast majority of plants require sunlight and water to survive.

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Updated: Jul 26, 2019

by Andrew Hipp

"And so, when his prescribed devotion to boyish beauties has carried our candidate so far that the universal beauty dawns upon his inward sight, he is almost within reach of the final revelation. And this is the way, the only way, he must approach, or be led toward, the sanctuary of Love. Starting from individual beauties, the quest for the universal beauty must find him ever mounting the heavenly ladder, stepping from rung to rung--that is, from one to two, and from two to every lovely body, from bodily beauty to the beauty of institutions, from institutions to learning, and from learning in general to the special lore that pertains to nothing but the beautiful itself--until at last he comes to know what beauty is." -- Diotima, in Plato's Symposium 211b-c, translation by Michael Joyce

I don't really have a love story about plants. There are, however, many moments I cherish that are connected with plants. The first, I think, are prowls I took by the Menominee River in Wauwatosa when I was nine or ten years old. I would get up early in the morning and bike through suburban streets to a storm sewer outlet that was vomiting into a river we all believed would eat the skin off our feet if we stepped into it. Was it really polluted so badly? Probably not. In either case, when I was there and most of the neighborhood was still sleeping, I was as free as a person could hope to be. I don't suspect that I could at that age have distinguished an oak from a maple, and I frankly had no interest. But the love of this particular place I came to find out was a love of particular places in general, a love perhaps of knowing that each one is a place of my own. As I learned particular plants, I would suddenly see them everywhere, and the individual places and moments of my life came to be associated with plants I found there.

There were the spruces beside my tarp in the Rattlesnake Wilderness outside of Missoula the summer I was 20. I was on my own, and hardly into the wilderness, but I didn't see a soul and I felt I could be at the edge of the world. The rain that night didn't stop, and I wrote letters home until I fell asleep. I rose to a clear sky the next morning, and the tips of the spruce branches were bejeweled with rainwater. I walked from tree to tree, sipping water from between the needles until I was no longer thirsty.

There was the abundant wild ginger in Wyalusing State Park when I was 22. I knew I shouldn't pull it up, but I pulled a few, just partly, so I could get a section of rhizome to sauté in oil that I poured over pasta. It hardly tasted of anything, but the odor was worth the price of admission.

There was the wild strawberry on Outer Island the summer I was 23, as I was scrambling up a bluff in search of the common butterwort, Pinguicula vulgaris. I found only one berry. It was perfect. A few minutes later, on the same bluff, was the butterwort.

In northwestern Ohio, my wife Rachel and I camped in a backyard where there was an abandoned concrete silo whose roof had long since rotted or blown off. We were 27, biking through the upper Midwest for a few weeks, sleeping where we could, seeing everything. Inside the door was an impromptu garden of ferns and mosses in the shade and cool, a few meters of mesic forest hiding in the dry Ohio landscape. A few years later, in upstate New York, during a family reunion when Rachel and I were 29, I found a patch of woods filled with broad beech fern (Phegopteris hexagonoptera). I think about it frequently.

When I was 15, I awoke in the middle of the night in a shelter I'd made in the woods with a group of Boy Scouts I was teaching about wilderness survival. There beside my cheek was a glowing piece of bark, riddled with luminescent fungus. I placed it the pocket of my sweatshirt and fell back asleep. When I woke up the morning, I studied it closely. It didn't look like anything special, but I knew it was.

Carex buxbaumii (Buxbaum's sedge) – UW Arboretum, WI

There were so many plants in the UW Madison Arboretum during the years that I was a ranger. The gravelly moraine overlooking Greene Prairie was thick with Pasque flowers and Carex siccata, and when I think of them I think too of the woodcocks spinning overhead through the month of March just as Arcturus would start shining in the south. There was a red oak in Gallistel Woods whose bark had peeled off, revealing a reticulum of Armillaria rhizomorphs. There was another red oak in Wingra Woods--there were of course so many red oaks in Wingra Woods. In a windstorm it cracked loudly and slowly fell, back arched like a dancer dropping into the arms of her partner, hitting the ground and bouncing before it came to rest. Did this moment last one second? Ten? I couldn't tell you. This was 20 years ago, and it's still clear in my mind.

I love all these times and places and the plants that were there with me. I feel so grateful for this cacophony of moments I've been given and the individual plants that came along with them. I love the funny places they grow, the seedlings sprawling underneath the edges of fallen logs, the hollows where Dutchman's breeches run amok, the burned woods where mosses recolonize cinder piles and sedges poke out from burned-out hummocks. When I am wandering around with a notebook in my hand, finding plants in their goofy, individual places, doing their funny things, I'm about as happy as a person could hope to be.

Carex richardsonii (Richardson's sedge) – UW Madison Arboretum, WI

Andrew Hipp is a naturalist who got interested in evolutionary biology by way of sedges. He actually wrote the book about sedges, and Rachel Davis (Rachel from the stories above), painted them.

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