The Plants Around Us

*About a 7-minute read*

My name is Sean, and I hail from a Northern Colorado prairie city with a Rocky Mountain vista. This area is situated between two rivers on some of the most fertile ground in the United States. Corn (Zea mays L.), soybean (Glycine max L.), forage plants and grass sod are some of our most productive crops. Fields of green crops stretch from horizon to horizon during the summer and blankets of snow cover the winter crops and fallow winter fields. We have been designated a Tree City, yet most of the trees like the cottonwood (genus Populus) and ash (genus Fraxinus) arrived with the first settlers back in the 1800s. The wagon trains and irrigation projects over the years have helped these invasive plants find a new home.

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Western View of the Platte River and non-native Populus trees

As a child, I never took an interest in the crops around me except when it was time to play corn stalk hide-n-seek, pluck wild sunflowers (Helianthus maximilianii) or lie on untouched Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis L.). I graduated from high school in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Since I was eighteen, I have attempted many endeavors to find my place in this world. 14 years ago I fractured my spine after falling from a thirty-foot balcony. I was able to fully recover thanks to modern and herbal medicines, most notably Cannabis sativa. When I was nineteen, I attempted and failed my first year of college. I then ventured out into the world, struggling until about twenty-five years of age when I was ready to return to college. I became fascinated with hydroponics, genetics, organic and sustainable farming, ethnobotany as well as renewable energy technologies. I continually gain the skills necessary to grow any food, for anyone, anywhere in the world. I wish to take my interests and help feed the people of the world. I also desire to further my knowledge about the micro and macro world of plants. I believe there is much to learn from our plant cousins.

Colorado is a combination of mountains and prairies. A place where grasslands meet deciduous and coniferous forests. The four seasons dictate the life cycles of almost all plants. There are renegades among the genus Pinus, which reign in Colorado. This genus has learned how to survive the coldest and darkest of days. Pinus is just at home in a person’s yard as it is in the wilderness of the rocky montane. While these trees seem to dominate the landscape, many other plants among them are just as prevalent during the months. Aspen (Populus tremuloides) is the most common deciduous tree in Colorado. The Aspen (as seen above) is known as the largest terrestrial organism on earth because they grow as clonal colonies. The fall leaf-color changing from green to gold, to reds and oranges among the evergreens is a spectacle observed by people from around the world.

My family has been in Colorado since I was born. My father is a Veterinarian, my mother is a nurse, my stepdad is a truck driver/carpenter, and my brother was a paramedic and a professional shooter. We have traveled all over the state, visiting the many different biomes Colorado has to offer. I spent many years exploring the forests as a child. We would fish, backpack, camp, shoot, hunt and play (ski, snowmobile, hike, etc…) in the area appropriate for the activity.

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Pinus dominate the winter landscape

We can count on a few signals from the plants themselves throughout the year. Spring always arrives when the first buds emerge on trees and weeds begin to sprout. Lawns turn green and landscapers don their gloves and machines. In my area, the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale F.H.) lets me know that the soil is ready for life to start anew. Summer is hot, perfect for Zea mays. Fall is welcome when the leaves degrade their chlorophyll and abscise from trees. The first freeze of the year tells us that winter has arrived. Only the strong and clever make it through the winter.

The Colorado seasons are unlike those I experienced in Hawai’i. The plant signals that identify the seasons in Colorado led me to wonder what does my family know about the plants around them. Strictly speaking about the plant in their immediate lives, and not those visited in the forests or prairies.


A series of interviews were conducted over the phone while I was at university in Hawaii to ascertain the answers to my questions. These interviews were conducted by talking story with my Mom, Dad and brother, Kyle. I first mentioned my project months before, so that when I spoke to them at later dates, they were able to give thoughtful answers.

My first interview was conducted with my brother and father. The four-hour time difference limited the time we could be on the phone because it was approaching midnight in Colorado. We spoke for a few minutes before I asked my dad: “What are some of the names of the plant growing inside your house?” He almost immediately rambled off a list of his houseplants. I asked him to slow down and was able to recite each plant. Since he was able to tell me without much trouble, I also asked him why he chose these plants and “Who taught you about plants?” This question immediately got him thinking of his late mother, my grandma Liz.

Dad knew the common names of almost all of them and even some scientific names. In his house, he has Ivy (Hedera helix L.), Philodendron L., “rubber tree,” Aloe L., clover, tomato (Solanum lycopersicum), habanero (Capsicum chinense) and some succulents. It was tricky to figure out exactly which species of houseplants my dad was growing. I guess the clover is among the genus Trifolium L. The succulents and the “rubber tree” are unknown to me. The succulents resemble Aloe. I believe the “rubber tree” is more a description of the texture of the tree rather than the actual plant. I have grown up around these plants in my home but always took them for granted. This led me to believe my dad has quite the green thumb. He chose these plants because they do well inside and require minimal maintenance. Over the years I hardly noticed the once a week watering. He provides them with an appropriate pot and FoxFarm potting soil. He got his green thumb from his mother. I learned that the Philodendron is actually a cutting from a Philodendron that my grandma started over 60 years ago! He attributes his love for plants to his mother. She has always had plants in the house since he was little. A room at my grandmothers was called a sunroom and had plants until the day she passed. The plants either made their way to other family members or were killed.

My brother was a new homeowner at the time and recently put in a garden. This led me to inquire about his relationship with his backyard plot. I asked my brother “What are your favorite plants to use in your garden? Why?” Most people can tell you what they planted but I wanted to know what he had observed about plant life cycles. The life cycle of a plant is not fully appreciated by most.

He told me what he had planted in his garden and which plants were not growing well. His favorite plants were peppers. Most particularly, bell, chile, habanero, and jalapeno (Capsicum annuum L., Capsicum chinense L., and Capsicum frutescens L., respectively) grow really well in the Greeley summer. Leafy vegetables like lettuce (Lactuca sativa L.), spinach (Spinacia oleracea L.), and broccoli (Brassica oleracea L.) only grow well during the early and late seasons. Our conversation concluded with a lengthy discussion about his neighbors who are avid gardeners.

I learned that my brother’s peppers grew well from sprout until the fruiting. The Capsicums like the warm, drier climate found in Colorado and they do not need much water.  According to my brother, you must “wait for the plant to wilt a little bit before you water”. Greeley is one of the most humid cities in Colorado and this humidity causes the night and day temperatures to fluctuate very little which is beneficial to peppers. They do not tolerate large changes in temperature. He also told me that the flowers seem to develop fruit before the flower fully opens. I learned that he had recognized a self-pollinating plant without knowing the actual term.

I conducted an interview with my Mom when I called her on her birthday. We exchanged pleasantries for several minutes before I asked her the same gardening question that I asked my brother Kyle as well as, “Where do we get the materials we use to build our homes?” and “why do you think we don’t use other types of plants” I asked her these questions because her husband is a skilled carpenter. I figured she would have a lot to say.

I initially thought that my mother would know the least about plants of all my family members. I was mistaken. She was quite knowledgeable about the plants she likes to grow in her garden. She told me that her favorite garden plants are blue lake green beans (Phaseolus vulgaris L.), because they are perfect for canning, and tomatoes because she makes her own salsa. She told me that the green beans don’t taste as “woody” as some other types after canning. They are also less “stringy” than beans she has grown in the past. She has had very little success with tomatoes in her garden. I asked her why this was and she didn’t know. After hearing how she set-up her garden I learned that she has been planting the beans in the sunniest spot in the garden and the tomatoes in the shadiest, wettest part of her garden.

Mom told me that the most common type of material used for construction is pine. She couldn’t tell me exactly what kind of pine. After some research, I was able to determine that the most common types used are white pine (Pinus strobus L.), fir (Abies L.), cedar (many types including, but not limited to: Calocedrus Kurz., Cedrela odorata L., Cryptomeria L.) and redwood (Sequoia Endl). Pine and fir are usually pressure treated with chemicals that help prevent rot and insect infestations. Cedar and redwood are naturally rot and insect resistant. Heartwood and sapwood are both used for cedar and redwood. However, only the heartwood is rot and insect resistant. This means that the heartwood would be the most desirable for builders. This also would indicate that as a highly chosen material, it must be more scarce. Conversely, the sapwood of cedar and redwood have to be pressure treated to become insect and rot resistant like the heartwood counterpart.


I learned that my family is quite aware of the plants around their home. They seem to understand that we use plants in our everyday lives. They also seem to understand more about plants than they thought they did. I also learned the scientific names of many plants that we use and eat every day. I never took an interest such as this into plants until my later years, and I am glad this project was undertaken.

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Wiliwilinui Ridge – Honolulu in the distance

Exposure to the Hawaiian’s relationship with their landscape increased my awareness for the plants that were around me when I grew up. I rarely thought about how vast of a resource my local flora offered but I was able to relate to the transported landscape that is in my hometown.  Even though the Hawaiian landscape is entirely different than Colorado, I have learned to apply my botanical knowledge to the different environments that I encounter. 

© Sean Short 2018


References:

Abbott, Isabella Aiona. Lā’au Hawai’i: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants. [Honolulu, Hawaii]: Bishop Museum, 1992. Print.

Barden, John A., R. Gordon Halfacre, and David J. Parrish. Plant Science. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987. Print.

Hubbard, Stacie. Phone interview. 2 & 28 Oct. 2011.

Purseglove, J. W. Tropical Crops. Vol. 1. London: Longman, 1974. Print. Dicotyledons.

Resh, Howard. Hydroponics Food Production: a Definitive Guidebook of Soilless Food-growing Methods: for the Profesional and Commercial Grower and Advanced Home Hydroponics Gardener. 6th ed. Santa Barbara, CA: Woodbridge Pub., 2001. Print

Short, Kyle. Phone interview. 16 Sept. 2011

Short, William. Phone interview. 16 Sept. 2011

Short, William. Phone interview. 30 Oct. 2011

Welcome to the PLANTS Database | USDA PLANTS. 14 Sept. 2018. Web. 14 Sept. 2018. https://plants.usda.gov/

6 thoughts on “The Plants Around Us

  1. Nice descriptions with the Latin names. I taught myself about the native plants of California, both the common and Latin names. After I was rather obsessed with my studies, I then took my young nieces, my sister then late my wife into the mountains of the Sierra Nevada,California and regaled them with Botany, Geology and History of the area. You never know what effect teaching others about what you have learned yourself will do for them later on in their lives, but I remember a lot of what i learned those almost 30 year’s ago now due to my interest in the natural life and how things work. A very nice article indeed. Thanks for sharing it!

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  2. Well done article on a subject dear to my heart. I love how you wove your family history into the plant stories. Just like your father, I learned gardening from my parents who always planted tomatoes and green beans. My Mom kept African violets in the house and I keep some myself as a sweet reminder. I’ve found that special plants connect us to what is good in our past and help us keep those precious memories alive.

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  3. I love this post!!
    For houseplants I grow African violets, avocado trees, lemon tree, aloe, jade, mint, thyme, parsley, tomatoes, and cannabis, a cactus that I don’t know the name of and another tree-like plant that was given as a gift that I also don’t know it’s name. This year I am growing outside cucumbers, acorn squash, zucchini, butternut squash, rhubarb, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, tomatoes, beets, and of course more cannabis. In terms of wild harvesting, I like to gather fireweed, dandelion, horsetail for salads and additions to meals. Grass is a good snack. Just harvested lingonberries and moss berries, wild strawberry, raspberries and rhubarb that I made into jams & jellies. The wild rose hips aren’t ready yet. The blueberries just didn’t thrive this year so I haven’t got any of substance yet. All that without going into the trees and their various uses and of course, beauty.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! I love that you can name them all off like that. I really hope the growing season has gone well for you. We have had a lot of hail storms come through and destroy entire gardens in seconds. My town was littereally covered in green leaves because the hail knocked off most of the trees leaves! Then..it happened two more times. Talk about bad luck. Now, the cold has come in so some crops are going to suffer. Oh Colorado, how I love it here!

      Liked by 1 person

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