The Cultivation of Memory IV
Bill Long 8/6/09
Looking at 10 Plants
The previous three essays give my "in depth" way to approach knowledge and to make sure the knowledge sinks deeply into the mind. In short, you have to learn more than you "need." Since most people would just be satisfied with "Bird of Paradise," your learning all the things about its Latin name that I related give you more than you "need." But it is precisely in going that extra distance that you begin to establish yourself as a learner, as a quester. This method will yield the most remarkable results when you return to your "world," whatever it is. One might liken it to the training regimen of a middle-distance runner. S/he might run 70 miles per week, and then do sprints and shorter runs to keep the 'fast' part available. But, in fact, one only "needs" about a mile or three miles in order to do the race. All that "extra" practice is so that the shorter race can be run with absolute skill. So it is with knowledge. You really do need to learn much more than you think you might "need," and then you discover that when you really need knowledge, it is there at your fingertips--as well as some additional knowledge which you will learn skillfully to use to your advantage.
After a person does this with 10 plants, I would have them go out and make a list of 10 more, repeating the process that they used for the first 10. But when this happens the learner is starting to take "ownership" of his/her knowledge. Not only will s/he want to follow up some of the history or other features of the plant s/he discovers (why is Dieffenbachia called "dumb cane?" for example), but s/he will begin to ask about possible relationships between plants. This will allow the possibility of introducing the concept of a "family" of plants. The "family" should only be introduced when the student is burning with enthusiam for it, for it is an abstract enough category that it can only be approached with utility by people who are enthused for plants. The most encouraging thing a student will discover is that there are only 450-460 families of flowering plants. Thus, a really strong student, and one who has ambition, will immediately say, "My, if that is all it takes to "get a handle" on all the stationary living things on the earth, count me in!" That is, wait to introduce more abstract knowledge when a student is not only ready for it but insists on it.
Moving to My List
At this point I have written nearly 3 1/2 essays and gotten to exactly one plant. How does one proceed from here, to make this kind of learning a part of life? I will close this essay by showing how one would learn the 10 plants selected and then how one would proceed beyond that.
Finding the Right Pictures
I spend a lot of time at nursuries and botanical gardens, when I can, making lists of interesting or attractive plants. But there are also "courses" online, where you can gradually be brought into plants. One such course is "Interior Plantscaping," taught at Washington State Univeristy. One of its pages gives a plant list, with pictures, of the 70 plants that students are supposed to learn for the course. Here is the page. Since I am in the process of redecorating both outside and inside my house, I went through this list with great interest so that I could see how the course's pictures matched my interests.
But I did more than that. I decided that in the course of seven days, I would "learn" ten plants a day, and thus, in a week, know these plants "cold." I don't think I would do the kind of extensive work on them that I did on the Strelitzia, for example, but I would devote considerable attention to them. So, here is my list of 10 plants for today, three of which I have bought in the last few days.
1. Sansevieria trifasciata 'Laurentii.' I bought this plant yesterday, and now I am studying it almost daily to make sure I understand it. It seems that the plant, though it has tons of fronds reaching upward, really consists of three bunches of fronds. Indeed, that is what trifasciata means. One down. The word Sansevieria takes us down very fruitful paths--the plant was named first in 1794 after the Prince of Sanseviero (1710-71), a learned Neapolitan.
2. Sansevieria trifasciata 'Hahnii." Not as excited about this one, but not hard to learn.
3. Sansevieria trifasciata. This one has no "bells and whistles," but simply consists of upright green fronds with extensive horizontal gray bands. By the way, this is known as the "snake plant," but originally it was called "mother-in-law's tongue." The professor of the class, a woman, didn't indicate the latter name of the plant. Perhaps she didn't even want her students to go down certain roads. It would have been more honest of her, however, had she given us that name--and perhaps even the origin. You never know how much value can come out of knowledge..even if you might not consider it the "best" knowledge in the world.
4. Asparagus densiflorus 'Sprengeri.' I also bought this one yesterday, in a hanging variety, and it fills a huge place in my living room. It is very dramatic as its "dense flowers" hang down toward the ground. Note that the good professor also gives us the family names of these plants, so that we can begin our long quest to know all the flowering plant families..
5. Strelitzia reginae. I think I have said enough on this one!
6. Streletzia nicholai. This is the largest Bird of Paradise, with white, rather than orange, flower. Look around for even more pictures.
7. Maranta leuconeura var. kerchoviana. This familiar "prayer plant" is striking and always welcome in a home. So much to learn, isn't there. Why called prayer plant? Why Maranta? Who is the behind the "kerchoviana?" etc.
8. Maranta leuconeura var. erythroneura. This one is called the "red nerve" plant, from the obvious spine and ribs of the flower. I find this one of the more exciting and attractive cultivars of the day.
9. Aloe barbadensis. Note the sharpness of the branches, as well as the tiny gray nubbed "pricklies" on it. So much to learn about this one, but not today...
10. Codaeium variegatum. The "croton" is a very popular houseplant, but in my experience most of them look different than this one. Most of them are like this--vari-and brightly colored, tough, pointed leaves.
No time or space for comments on names, or families for that matter. But we are making the effort to secure true, permanent and deep knowledge of things. Once that is consistently sought and gained, it stays in the memory...