What’s in a Name: from Lace to Rags to Big Trees
Occasionally my wife reminds me that before we met I thought that Queen Anne’s Lace was ragweed. I could not identify actual ragweed. Some years ago I discovered that my father similarly misidentified Queen Anne’s Lace proving once again that old adage about the acorn falling in close proximity to the Oak tree.
And while in nature Queen Anne’s Lace and ragweed are unrelated, I can understand how a non-botanical, practical person like my dad (or me) could make such a mistake. Queen Anne’s Lace is named for its distinctive, umbrell shaped (kind of like an umbrella) white flowers that are actually an agglomeration of little white flowers that radiate upward and outward giving the overall bloom an airy quality reminiscent of lace. Lace to the poet, it might be more of a rag to one who must deal with the plant on a typically sunny, hot, humid summer day. On such a day, particularly if one molests this rough stemmed invader of disturbed ground, a strong aromatic, not totally pleasant scent (sweeter than wintergreen with a rough edge) envelops one, stimulating at minimum a tingling feeling in the nose. It would be easy to associate this feeling with ragweed whose pollen we are told is a major component of grief for many allergy sufferers. Of course the release of pollen at a particular time of the year is totally unrelated (a sexual thing) to an important defense characteristic that makes Queen Anne’s Lace nearly invulnerable to browsers.
I start to think about all of this as I painstakingly paint the simulated muntin bars in the nine light window of a door in the Big Barn listening to the banter between a middle age couple and my wife as they discuss the couples’ need for some trees. It turns out that they have long confused two major species of trees—Oaks and Maples. Before Nancy sets them straight they believed that Oaks were Maples and that Maples were Oaks. As I listen to these two seemingly intelligent and very pleasant adults, I contemplate their confusion with some amazement. I hear Nancy refer to some Swamp White Oaks, “these will get acorns, in fact you can see some immature acorns ripening …”
Then I hear the male say like one is who is trying to reinforce a newly learned fact, “Acorns—Oaks, Oaks—Acorns.” Then like one who is really beginning to get it he asks, “So it’s maples that get spinners?” referring to the seeds which many Maples develop that come with a little wing that causes the seeds to fly to earth like micro helicopters. Nancy answers yes. “I like the spinners,” he says. He and his wife speculate that it is probably “the child in him,” and they both laughingly agree that fortunately that feature is at the core of his personality.
All those years I heard about ragweed pollen counts and actually experienced plenty of allergy symptoms, I could never exactly understand how physically the plant that I now know is a Queen Anne’s Lace could have been the source of all that pollen, but I guess I never explored that incongruity. When I actually learned what plant really was ragweed, it produced one of those “aha” moments. I could see right away that this plant might be capable of releasing loads of pollen in a bit of breeze, and given its invasive nature and amazing vitality in most years, I finally understood my nemesis. This hasn’t changed my life in any material way, but at least it allows me the satisfaction of understanding, and that gives me another tiny connection with reality. Ignorance may be blissful but given the choice I will take understanding with its potential for continuing revelation.
The couple seem pleased enough with their new understanding and with the trees that we have available. They select two Maples (with spinners), an Oak (with acorns), and an Ornamental Pear. Well after the couple has left I am still painting and thinking about trees and plants and how they are identified. I guess one can appreciate a tree or any plant without knowing its name or much about it. But the name sure makes it easier to file little bits of information and to catalog observations in various times of the year and through a plant’s life. It also makes it a lot easier to talk about with other people, especially if they too are acquainted with the name.