Note: This story was originally published May 16, 2013.
Like a Pied Piper, Shane Miller sets off on a 90-minute spring wildflower hike with more than 20 children and parents in tow. As an interpreter at Raccoon Creek State Park, Miller’s job is to introduce the kids and adults to the names, history and uses of the plants, while walking along a trail that dips into a wetland valley.
There are more than 700 plant species at Raccoon’s Wildflower Reserve, and on this Saturday morning, more than 60 of the spring wildflowers are in bloom.
LISTEN: “Sounds from Raccoon Creek’s Wildflower Reserve”
At one point along the trail, Miller points out a plant commonly known as cat’s toes that he calls a “Rodney Dangerfield of plants.”
“There are some plants that just do not get respect, and this is one of them,” he says. “It has these tiny, tiny little white flowers—nothing too exciting. But in pioneer times, this was a very important plant. Let’s say you were unfortunate enough to get lice—this is the plant you’d use to treat it. Also, let’s say you wanted to make a little bag of potpourri—put some leaves in it to keep the critters from chewing on your winter clothes. This is the plant you’d use.”
There are lots of “oohs” and “ahhs” from the group, which includes a Girl Scout troop led by Marcy Peterson. Peterson has also brought her two daughters along.
“I’ve already seen more than I normally see on a hike,” she says only 15 minutes into Miller’s tour.
Along the way are also tiny bluets. Miller says that at one time these were used for a pale blue cosmetic facial rouge. And there’s what Miller describes as a “strange-looking pinecone.” It’s a squaw root—and although it’s now late in spring wildflower season, he says that this plant’s white blossoms have yet to emerge.
Another plant that Miller points out is in a patch of what he calls “a whole bunch of green umbrellas.” Miller challenges his charges to find the flowers blooming under some of the wide-brimmed plants.
“They’re called May apples because they get a fruit that looks like an apple in May—easy to remember.”
Miller says one of the wildflowers with the most interesting behavior is the Jack-in-the-pulpit, with a vaselike bud and a kind of hood on top.
“It is able to go from Jack-in-the-pulpit to Jill-in-the-pulpit and sometimes back and forth several times,” Miller says. “What this plant is able to do is it’s able to change itself into a boy. It requires a lot less energy to produce pollen because pollen is just tiny little dust. It takes a lot more energy to make those little red berries.”
Why would a plant do something so confusing? It all comes down to survival. For example, if the plant is growing in a very stressful area—it may have bad sunlight, not enough moisture—it can’t produce enough food.
It’s just one of many quirky wildflower facts this group of visitors will take home with them.