Windsor Terrace is subdued in the early summer afternoons after rain, when the clouds move along the sky in steady herds. I make it a point to become familiar with the plants that grow in any given region. But after ten years in this city, I found a flower I had never seen before. The shape of the petals caught my eye because there were only three, rounded against each other like a purple cup. The leaves looked like reeds that were long and collapsed over themselves like lax reins towards the ground.
To find their name I snapped a picture and googled “purple flowers in june nyc” and the answer came up almost immediately: Spiderwort. There are several plants with the “wort” suffix that I know of: St. John’s wort, mugwort, lungwort, bloodwort, and apparently the list goes on, down the page it went. The “wort” suffix comes from the Old English “wyrt,” a version of the contemporary “root” which connotes medicinal qualities. “Wort” plants are often considered to be under the umbrella of “weed,” their status hovering only slightly above common weeds, lifted only due to healthful properties. The suffix forms a hierarchy of plantlife, but the implication is inherently untrue. The common dandelion holds multiple health properties, as well as Queen Anne’s lace, jewelweed, and clover.
Around June 21st small purple flowers with explosive anthers extend out of meadows like a wiry unkempt beard from the centers. Like most weeds, spiderwort grows in open spaces, cultivated land, and meadows. It enjoys sun or partial shade in dried to well draining damp soil. It is resilient and stubborn. Its appearance is as wrangled and energetic as weeds come and fosters its name because it looks like a sitting spider with its long stems and leaves, and tiny buds like spider bodies.
Spiderwort is native to eastern Canada. Along the map it bleeds down the US eastern seaboard and east side of the Midwest into the Alabama region. They grow up to three feet tall on spindly stems. Their tiny blossoms open during the day and close at night. What I saw to be their cup-like form was a morning version of their flower as, throughout the day the petals invert before closing again in the night. The entire plant can be eaten, root to flower and is said to have health benefits including a neurological calming, stomach digestive. With the hums of strange serendipity, it also increases breast milk, which is what my friend who lives at the foot of the brownstone where I found these plants was hoping for (the scientific term for this is Galactagogue [like galactic]).
Tisane is usually a $4 drink at a fancy coffee shop. But in fact they have potentially powerful medicinal properties. These plants grow, for the most part, nameless in our midst. And, surely, why would any layman know much about them? In science classes we learned about chemical properties and chlorophyllic systems, but no properties of specific plants. So when we walked outside we viewed the plants as aesthetic or a nuisance, moving them into what would be an “art” or landscape. The separation of classes propagated a separation of life.
The concept of what is natural is always entwined with human movement and production. Specifically humans with money and power (hence the concept of the anthropocene). Embedded in forests of upstate New York are patches of apple trees that were once planted as orchards long forgotten. Unlike what I thought before, the trees don’t appear in clusters in that way naturally, but were planted side by side with hands or the blades of humans. What is native to this land has been so altered that even if it could be replenished, no one would know how the land looked before settlement. And the uprooting would unearth swaths of vegetation and annihilate thousands of species. Reparations for all that has been taken from the individuals who were taken to this land are left unpaid and the whole place is a burial ground. All of this is true, and the fact that I am talking about humans and plants and the environment is intentional and connected. In the forests of the moment I believe there are opportunities for a new nature. We can’t deny the past that has led to the story of the world now. But we can pay attention to the seasons.
I propose an integration, finding answers through the emerald spring leaves. Perhaps in addition to the dried ones left at the bottom of a teacup. Sometimes it feels like there should be a reason or a direction, the lack of which rattles me until I come out one morning or in the shower, or with a tarot card in my hand saying, “is this a sign?” And of course it is. And so flowers appear at my feet like whispers from the world. Whether it be the color, the shape, the property. It’s simply the season for spiderwort.
What I find interesting now is the concept of cleanliness. Having grown up in the country and nurturing my obsession with the properties of the plants that grew there, I moved to the city fully aware that the plants here were not to be eaten. This is obvious, I know. But I’m stating it in radical optimism, with the intention that cities can be redefined and reworked so that plants can be picked and eaten by people who live here. That while the land is mixed with native, invasive, and non-invasive non-native species, not to mention the physical structures that separate the land apart, there is a sense of being. An embodiment that needs to occur.
While outdoor living for plants, animals and people can’t be easy, I argue that, instead of just having encyclopedic knowledge of the plants, and the outdoor as a scientific or aesthetic place that is catalogued and monitored, and inside spaces are for emotions, relaxation, and play, it will be important to disintegrate the separation between indoor and outdoor. To locate yourself in the city, to embody the self as if it were a plant on the land. And, while on the beloved sidewalk, consider the animals, trees, and plants that grow in the cement cracks and learn about their qualities, watch their growth patterns in the seasons within the seasons. Each phase has a story to tell.