I was out watering some of my seed beds this morning, eager to see new emerging seedlings. Next to a bear grass plant I planted last spring, I noticed a small emerging plant with interesting scalloped leaves. I took out my phone and took a picture of it with my Picture This app, which I use frequently to identify plants. And up came the reply – Whispering Bells.
Picture This states that this native California plant is the only plant in its genus, can also be found in neighboring western states, and grows in dry areas and areas recently burned by fire. The name comes from the way the flowers make a little rattle when moved by the breeze.
Have you ever heard of this plant? Have I? No. And yet it just arrives, unannounced, to make it’s home in my garden, traveling here in some mysterious way, charming me and filling me with awe. Wanderers welcome here.
So many times we see plants we didn’t plant in our garden and we pull them out, assuming they are “weeds.” We give almost any plant that name if it didn’t come from the garden store. But by doing so, we keep at bay the very fecundity and diversity that could bring us new ways of living, new foods and medicines, new beauty and new harmony with our planet. So treat each new visitor with curiosity and a kind hello.
It’s possible that I will discover Whispering Bells to be a problem if I let it spread. It could multiply and spread faster than is easy for me to deal with. But I am not scared of it – Picture This alerts me if something is a noxious weed that could spell trouble. I will watch it grow, observe it’s habits, learn more about it, and find out what I can about it’s place in the community of plants that is beginning to arrive here in my garden. If I don’t find a use for it, perhaps a bee will, or a wasp that will control a pest that attacks my apple trees, or a nearby plant will benefit from it’s presence. That is the way the world works – the community of plants and animals and fungi around us becomes healthier and more stable with more members. This is despite the strong and in some ways excessive caution that we have been taught about invasive species, which paradoxically has led us to pull out anything that hasn’t come from the plant nursery. After all, Whispering Bells is clearly a native, unlike my tomato plants.
Nearby, a dandelion is growing nearly three inches wide – big for this season when windy sunny days toggle frequently back to winter storms. I once thought them weeds, but today, I have plans for them, and even affection and respect. They will offer early salad greens, and then I will go about the garden, digging up the roots and setting them out to dry in the sun. They will make a bitter tea that can aide digestion, help cure irritable bowel syndrome, and promote healthy gut microflora. I like bitter teas, as I like black coffee. I also appreciate how the dandelion will break up my soil, and bring up nutrients (especially calcium) that I can make available to other plants by chopping or pulling the dandelions and leaving them as mulch on the surface. Finally, I can use dandelions as a highly nutritious snack for my chickens. Perhaps someday the Whispering Bells and I will also have a relationship.
In part because of all the carbon I am sequestering in my soil, the biodiversity of my garden is beginning to explode. The number of plant, insect, fungal and animal species that will arrive here on their own or will be planted here by me in the next few years will be astounding. I think of all the Mars exploration enthusiasts I know among my students and friends, and while I get the fascination, I sometimes wonder that a barren rock is so fascinating when compared to what we have here – if just one microorganism showed up at a study site on Mars it would be the story of the century! But here on Earth I have diverse and highly evolved micro and macro species arriving on my site all the time. Watching a barren, gravel-covered plot become a food forest in a few years is a spectacle of the best kind. A spectacle that depends in part on what we often call weeds. So thank you Whispering Bells, and all your wandering kin. In my garden, wanderers welcome