What Doesn't Belong — and Why?

In any wild place, plants, herbs and trees tell a story.

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This old rose is all that's left of a lobster farmer's home on these windswept bluffs. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / DIY Network)

What doesn't belong and why? This is a visual game I play whenever I drive or hike our nation's wildlands. It is a challenge that comes with the knowledge of locally native plants whether you hike in New York or New Mexico. The visual identification of the plants that belong is the key to finding the plants that don't.

Driving the back roads of the old mining districts of the California Mother Lode, you'll find nothing but dark woods. Oak, pine and fir logged 150 years ago has reforested that west slope at about 2,500 feet in elevation. It is a plant community as specific as it is diverse.

On a road less traveled I spotted something out of place. Bright yellow flashes appeared high up in dense stands of evergreens. It would certainly not be fall color in July. I pulled over and went back to investigate. It didn't belong and I wanted to know why.

A farmhouse has long yielded to pasture, leaving only one plum tree behind as the only evidence of its existence. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / DIY Network)
A large rambling white rose has naturalized in what was once a miner's dooryard. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / DIY Network)

They were pears hanging ripe in a gnarled old tree on the verge of being engulfed by the forest. It may have sprung from a seed-filled core tossed out of a car window decades ago. But I knew that was not the case because beyond it were more pear trees. Bent and nearly obscured by a sea of adolescent pines, their scarcity of fruit proved they were losing the battle to survive.

Someone lived here long ago on the banks of a stream that kept these pears alive long after abandonment. Water was inextricably linked to homesite survival and placer mining. It passed under the road into a vast open patch of weeds on the opposite side. Further investigation proved it was solid mint, thriving rich and fragrant in the warm air.

Neither pear trees nor mint is native to the Sierras. Both were plants of pioneers who carried them west to eke out an existence on the hardscrabble soils of the Mother Lode. They panned this icy creek and others for the precious yellow metal. There were surely the remnants of a miner's cabin somewhere among the tangle of poison oak and wild honeysuckle. I would not risk an itchy rash to find it. Instead I picked the pears to bring home to my canning kettle. A chunk of mint dug out of that soggy soil soon spread all along the north side of my house.

What doesn't belong and why is the essence of botanical archeology. A sharp eye brings us and our children back to the history of our region through plants. There are two valuable lessons in this old site — the decline of ill-adapted pears, and the roaring success of the mint.

Prodigious pine and fir seedlings spring up as they always do wherever the ground is disturbed or cleared. They are the true colonizers, fast growing and highly competitive. They will soon become a dense copse, blocking the sun essential to pear tree photosynthesis. They would weaken further until fire blight finishes them off.

But the mint is another story entirely. It found the ideal marshy site where its success fends off all native plant competitors lest they claim space and water. Though mint seems so innocuous, it is also a powerful colonizer. Pieces of root and stem will be carried by stream water to the next widening of the creek where a low marshy place will invite it to stay. Those sensitive wetland natives that existed there before will be pressured by the mint, which will ultimately take over. This plant is an invasive survivor.

As parents, this visual challenge of asking "What doesn't belong and why?" teaches children to see better. Take a moment to investigate these living legacies. By your interest, kids may learn to touch the past and the environment in a tactile lesson that transforms family hikes into historic expeditions.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. For more information, visit www.moplants.com or www.DIYNetwork.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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