You can see why, at first glance, you’d think this was a fern. It most definitely is a flowering plant instead.

But I did not know it, and relished the thought of keying it out to species, so told the landowner who hosted the recent Gardening and Wild Foods group to only tell me if he knew what it was, but “don’t tell me the name.” And horticulturist that he still is, he couldn’t help but blurt out the name. Mystery aborted. Rats!

I’m not sure I would have had enough information to go on, using Newcombe’s Wildflower Guide, which is probably where I would have started. All I had was leaf arrangement and type—whorled leaves that are densely-toothed (or serrate) but without flowers.

Sweetfern gets its name from the toothpasty sweet fragrance and its close resemblance to a whole nother bunch of green things. I swear, in four years of botanizing, I have never laid eyes on it, even though its distribution includes from northern-most Georgia up into southern Canada. It is hardly rare, except for apparently uncommon in a few states within its distribution.

And I’m willing to risk a bet: that once having seen it, having my “threshold of recognition” lowered now, I WILL see it again soon–in a place where, if I had not noticed it over the weekend, I might walk right past it. I mentioned this phenomenon to a fellow-gardener at the event on Sunday, saying that therein lies one important reason to introduce young people to the common birds, ferns, trees, salamanders and flowering plants, even if it was only a quick demo on a field trip. Once they have seen it a single time, the likelihood is they will be ready to notice it when it passes in their range later on.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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