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I think I know our Arkansas native flora pretty well, but last week I stumbled across
two plants that were new to me. Well, not completely new, but sometimes I ignore plants
that I don’t already know and that are not interesting enough to arouse my curiosity.
But just lately I’ve learned how easy it is to identify unknown plants with an app
on my cell phone.
We baby boomers grew up during those post-war years when Ike’s freeways expanded like
malignant cancer, television sets started receiving color signals, our homes became
air-conditioned and the American love affair with the car reached its zenith. Seemingly
there was no reason to go outside. City planners started laying out subdivisions without
sidewalks, seemingly hoodwinked into believing we would forever be huddled inside
in cool, darkened rooms watching the boob tube. Then came computers and our mushroom-like
fate seemed sealed. Sure, there were exceptions to this model, but the momentum of
mass culture was driving the bus in the wrong direction.
But thankfully that was not the end of the story. A backlash developed and one of
those single letter generations – I can never keep them straight – said “enough already”
and by 1990 cities were building elaborate trail systems. Dan Coody, Mayor of Fayetteville
from 1992 to 2000, was the man leading the charge for the Fayetteville trail system.
He told me once that when the trail system proposal was first put forward, one of
the city council members remarked; “Why spend the money on bike trails? Only kids
During this period there was a general rediscovery of nature and our connection to
the Earth. Children of my generation – many of whom grew up on vegetables raised in
a home garden – never had gardens of our own, but suddenly our children were digging
up the front yard and planting raised vegetable gardens. Bike riding became big business
and in a few years, everyone was doing it.
This cultural shift from couch potato to nature lover is not complete, but it’s a
start. COVID, as much as it disrupted our lives, may have helped change things too.
Restaurants suddenly discovered that customers could be served out of doors, and that
they actually liked it. Hopefully this trend will continue, and we’ll see other businesses
– are you listening, motel owners? – make it easier to enjoy outdoor spaces.
This brings me back to my new wildflower finds. The most interesting was Elephantopus carolinianus, Elephant’s Foot, an herbaceous perennial in the daisy family with blue or white
flowers in a head that is about the size of a dime. Unlike most members of the daisy
family, elephant’s foot has only one ray floret per head, but individual flower heads
crowd together, creating a little button-like inflorescence which is pretty but not
especially daisy-like in appearance. The common name for the genus name reflects the
large size of the basal leaves.
I took a photo of the plant but in the old days I might (or might not) have gotten
around to seeking out a proper identification for the plant. But, thanks to one of
those I-phone updates that happened about a year ago, I now have an “I” icon that
shows up whenever I snap a picture. Standing on the trail looking at the plant, I
punched the button, followed the prompt and up popped the name and a brief description.
Not only was it a new plant, it was also a new genus I’d never heard of, with worldwide
distribution in Asia, Africa, South America and the southeastern United States. How
could I have missed this plant?
Well, there are ticks. In the pre-paved trail days going into the woods in the summer
and fall took more courage than I possessed. I hate ticks, so my knowledge of the
late summer flora has been sketchy.
Cell phone apps give anyone who wishes to know an easy way to learn about the natural
world. There are many good apps available that identify the stars in the night sky,
the birdcalls you hear made by birds you rarely see, insects that surround us, and
every aspect of the natural world. The best of these apps use machine learning technology
so that the more people use it, the smarter the program becomes. So, we live in a
magical time where more information is available to us on the fly than at any time
in our history. We should all go forth and become more familiar with the natural world
that surrounds us.
Gerald Klingaman is a retired Arkansas Extension Horticulturist and retired Operations
Director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. After more than two decades of penning the popular Plant of the Week column, he’s taking a new direction, offering views on nature as he pokes about the
state and nation. Views and opinions reflect those of the author and are not those
of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. If you have questions
or comments for Dr. Klingaman about these articles contact him at email@example.com.