Before You Go
Take some time to look through a good field guide and familiarize yourself with plants you are likely to encounter. We'll cover botany basics in another article, but learning how to "key out" a plant can make it easier to look up in the field guide. Still, you'd be surprised by how helpful making a regular date with your field guide over tea or coffee can be!
Time of Year
Each season has its own appeal and focus. Spring and early summer are the perfect time to see wild flowers. In summer, you can focus on learning leaf shapes and berries, while fall is a good time to study plants that bear fruit and nuts. Winter is my favorite time to study trees: by focusing on the bark, the shapes of the branches, and the dormant buds you will become even more aware of the nuances of each tree that are lost when you focus solely on the leaf shapes over the summer.
Regardless of where you go or the length of your walk, it's important to dress for the weather. So,
Think About Wearing
- A Hat- A warm one if it's cold, a ball cap or nice shady wide brim if it's hot and sunny
- Sunglasses- can be useful if it's bright out, regardless of the season.
- Long Pants- Necessity even in summer (because of poison oak, brambles, etc), unless your route is paved. Stick with light colors in summer, not blue jeans. Mosquitoes like the color blue.
- Layers- Always err on the side of dressing too warmly in the spring and fall with layers you can peel off if you start to feel hot. Even in summer, a lightweight jacket can be useful if a sudden rainstorm comes up.
Staying Safe on Your Plant Walks
Here are a few useful tips on staying safe while enjoying your plant walks, and a reminder of good walker's etiquette:
- Take a hiking buddy. if your going to get into trouble its always best to do it with an accomplice!
- Let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back- text someone who isn't walking with you, like another friend or your mom, and let them know your plans. Let them know if they haven’t heard back from you by a certain time, perhaps they should send in the calvary.
- Drink enough water- hydration is unspeakably important.
The following advice may be hackneyed, but it's true!
- Don’t take anything but pictures. Not only is picking or disturbing plants rude- leave them for others to enjoy!- it’s also illegal in most places.
- Don’t leave anything but footprints- I make a habit of picking up other peoples trash when I hike. Its a nice way to give back and show appreciation. Also, be mindful of wrappers and other bits of detritus that might escape ypur pockets! Take a reusable water bottle or canteen.
If you're going on a short jaunt around the block, you probably won't need to carry much with you. For longer plant walks, you may find some of these items useful:
- A Snack
- Notebook and Pen
- Field Guide
- Bug Spray
- Small First Aid Kit
- (And of course some sort of back pack to carry it all in)
There should be many places you can choose from when you decide on your perfect route, no matter where you live. I suggest you find someplace you won’t mind exploring once a month- so that you can see how plants change over the course of the year, so most likely you will want some place not to far, with easy access. By easy access, I mean accessible in all (or at least most ) weather. And something you won't mind hiking 12 times- so something really steep and grueling is probably out. The picture above is from Disney Trail in Dalton, Georgia. It's named after a civil war soldier, not the company- if you're curious. It has some great perks- trees along the path are marked with signs to identify their type, there are lots of great mushrooms and lichens to examine, and dramatic views even in the mist. But it's also one of the steepest, most demanding trails in the state. So unless you really like that kind of thing, it's a great example of what not to choose.
(Although, I will admit. Being able to yell "PIGNUTS!!!!!" thanks to one of the trail-side signs while throwing them at my hiking partner was immensely satisfying. Also, being made to promise to not throw pignuts on the way down made for a hilarious, although not exactly repeatable, conversation.)
Better Ideas Than Crazy, Steep, Extremely Rocky, Slippery-and-Muddy-When-it-Rains Trails:
- The local park around the corner
- Nearby state park with friendly terrain
- A stroll through your neighborhood
- Investigating your own backyard (works best if you have a larger lot or a less than landscaped type of yard).
I encourage you to make the pilgrimage to someplace less domesticated if you can. It’s fun, and worth it in terms of becoming familiar with native plants.
If you’re interested in state parks, get a guide to hiking trails in your state and pick one that’s close by and matches your level of physical fitness. Again, not a Disney.
if you live in Georgia, like me, you can even check out a Georgia State Park Pass at your local library!
I live in the NW part of the state, so I can tell you from experience that Fort Mountain is great anytime of the year. There are several trails with plenty of plants to spy, and a good mix of trails for every ability. If you go at the right time of year, you may be able to see amazing plants like Sweet Shrub (Calycanthus floridus).
Without a pass, National Recreation Areas and State Parks will typically have a parking fee of $3 to $5. So be sure to bring along a little cash. Annual passes often make sense if you really love hiking and expect to go many different places in a year. (I know this applies to Georgia, but I'm not sure about other states. Mileage may vary.)
Enjoying the Walk
Rather than examine each and every plant that you come across, just enjoy the walk and take notes on whatever catches your eye- snap a closeup with phone or camera and look up the plants later. If you choose to visit a location further afield than your neighborhood every month, make a day of it! Enjoy the chance to unwind and explore. Take a picnic and find plenty of nice spots to sit and soak up the scenery.
Becoming a better herbalist and developing your skills is a process. Enjoy the journey with friends and plants alike!
What are your favorite herbal haunts? Do you have a favorite route for plant walks or ideas for someone who's just getting started? Share with us in the comments!