Spark Plant

I’m still backpacking with my students in the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but some guest writers are stepping up in my absence. Today, blogger Erin Gettler shares the story of her “spark plant.” Read on to learn how she coined this phrase.

Growing up in a suburb of Northern Illinois, I somehow got the idea that plants only bloomed ecstatically in gardens. Tame plants, I reasoned, are coddled more than wild ones, so they flower in abundance. I only rarely ventured into the woods as a kid, so my theory wasn’t refuted until recently. Now I live on the east end of Long Island, where a wide variety of ecosystems are preserved and open for exploration. And what I’ve learned about woodland plants in the past few years has revised what I thought I knew.

There’s always a “first.” Birders call it a “spark bird,” and I guess we could also coin “spark plant,” to describe the initial instance that grabs your attention for life. In my case, it was a brittle, draggled evergreen shrub that resembled the rhododendron bush in a relative’s front yard. I first visited this wild mystery plant in March, and the narrow, leathery leaves were among the few green things relieving the dull landscape. The buds swelled noticeably from visit to visit, March to May, in tandem with the rhododendron buds in the yard. When the rhododendrons finally bloomed, I made a beeline to the woods to see if the mystery plant had bloomed as well.

It had, but it wasn’t a rhododendron.


My mystery plant turned out to be Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia), a tough shrub belonging to the same family (Ericaceae) as the rhododendron, as well as the blueberries that thrived in those woods. Mountain Laurel is easy to admire when it’s in bloom: blankets of rosy-white flowers transform the dingy green bushes into cloudy puffs floating in the woods. Dark pink anthers lodge in tiny pockets in the white petals. The stamens are spring loaded, and bounce up when you touch them, which I did over and over again for the fun of it. And then I stood back and breathed the whole thing in.

Since that first time, I’ve made a pilgrimage back to the park whenever late May swings around. With repeated trips into the woods, I’ve plotted other blooms on my annual calendar. The first week of April I go hunting for Trailing Arbutus. Mid-April is for blueberries, early May for Shadbush, then the Mountain Laurel. June brings back the Swamp Azaleas, and so on through the summer. It doesn’t get old, and each individual plant grows more familiar to me. It’s like I’m visiting friends.

What are the blooms that draw you out into the woods, fields and swamps where you live?

Erin Gettler takes pictures and writes about the natural world on the east end of Long Island, New York. She hopes to know something about everything someday, but she still has a long way to go. She blogs about these pursuits at The Familiar Wilderness.