Don't let daunting plant diversity scare you out of the woods

“Reading about nature is fine, but if a person walks in the woods and listens carefully, he can learn more than what is in books, for they speak with the voice of God.”

George Washington Carver was a scientist, botanist, educator and inventor who realized the importance of using your own God-given senses to learn more about the natural world. Just like the Native Americans and early settlers before him, Carver didn’t possess detailed identification guides or high-tech search engines to learn about the woods. He had only the woods and himself.

As an instructor at the Alabama Nature Center (ANC), one of my favorite activities to lead is a plant diversity hike. When you preface a hike with the statement “The South is one of the most biologically diverse regions of the country,” you have to back it up. Thankfully, the woods in this part of the world make it easy to prove that point. From laurel oaks to longleafs to buckeyes and beech trees, the South’s most stately trees welcome you to the woods with open boughs. Add wood phlox, bloodroot, black-eyed susans and jewelweed to the forest community, and you have just begun to scratch the soil’s surface potential.

How do you learn to identify all of these plants? You have to take the time to get to know them. Each of them will tell you just how they differ from the other woodland wonders if you simply listen. Some indicators are obvious—all members of the white oak family possess rounded leaf lobes. Others require more study—all members of the mint family have square stems.

Visual cues aren’t the only clues you can use. Give your nose a workout. While spring is the ideal time to sniff wild roses and aromatic magnolia blossoms, other plants have parts that are fragrant year round. When crushed, the herb heart leaf, or wild ginger, possesses pungent gingery leaves. Scratch the stem of a sassafras tree and get a lemon-like whiff.

If your nose needs a break, greet some plants the traditional way—shake hands with them. One prickly touch of a loblolly pine cone will immediately distinguish it from other pine posers. Mulberry leaves contain a strange Velcro-like surface. Always keep of an eye out for unsavory acquaintances. Poison ivy and poison oak aren’t so friendly--three leaves on a vine, leave them alone and you’ll be fine.

You could always employ the kids’ favorite method of identification—the taste test. This should be done with caution. Consult a naturalist before chowing down on everything along the trail. White oak acorns are great sources of protein and carbohydrates, while certain mosses provide good sources of vitamin C. A medley of medicinal plants also abounds in our woods. Tasty sourwood leaves relieve a sour stomach while spicebush leaves make a nice herbal tea.

Don’t let the daunting plant diversity scare you out of the woods. The best way to become a master naturalist is to spend as much time in the woods as possible. Take every opportunity you can to explore God’s creation with someone who knows more than you. Listen, look, smell, feel and taste your way through the South’s wooded wonderlands.


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