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The Self-Taught Gardener: Flower power

Flowers from the composite family, actually hundreds of flowers held tightly together to look like one, gave me a vision of how we can all come together to provide the world with a little color and beauty.

A recent brief stop in Madison, Wisconsin, for lunch found Fred and me taking a walk through the politically correct East Side, an area historically known for its counterculture politics as well as for its great food co-op and vegetarian restaurants. (I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison decades ago and was quickly caught up then in the political activity or the day – fighting apartheid by trying to get the state to divest itself of its investments in South Africa. Like any liberal-minded economics student, I believed that disinvestment could inspire change. And I still do.) But on this recent trip down memory lane, I saw something more, and if I were to draw a picture of this part of Madison now, it would be a composite portrait that blended the absolute values of my youth with a wizened acceptance of what the world is and the role we all play in it. Throughout our walk along Jenifer and Spaight Streets, Fred and I came across a number of spots where he wanted to stop (he is a beagle after all), and an equal number of spots where I wanted to stop and admire the flowers.

One of the places on the East Side of Madison, Wisconsin, where I wanted to stop and admire the flowers.

Early fall is a time when one group of flowers – those that make up the composite family — seems to take center stage. Asters, chrysanthemums, coneflowers, Japanese anemones, and sunflowers come into bloom, and their colorful, petallacious flowers mark for me our entrance into late summer and early fall. These “flowers” are actually a collection of many miniscule florets into one inflorescence. What looks like a single flower is actually hundreds of flowers held tightly together. The exterior florets are known as ray petals.

Sunflowers, such as this perennial form, are also members of the composite family. Each seed in the center of their inflorescence is the result of an individual act of pollination.

This structure might explain their flower power. They, like the hundreds of us who, thirty years ago, slept in the Capitol building for a month as part of our protest, realized that coming together to attract attention to your cause (ours apartheid, theirs providing nectar for fall pollinators) can really help get the job done. The ray petals, which help draw bees and other insects to these composite flowers, would have no raison d’etre were it not for the other flowers which are often labeled insignificant, a term I have always struggled with. (I prefer the term inconspicuous, which is how I viewed myself as I slept on the cold marble floor of the Capitol while louder members of our caucus pontificated on our cause.)

Asters look great in wilder plantings where they call to mind meadows and woodland edges.

Mysteriously the most visible aspects of these “flowers,” the ray flowers, are usually sterile, a point worth noting as we watch our politicians and leaders swaggering and bandying about for attention. It is the inconspicuous flowers that they surround which produce seeds and offspring as well as the nutrition these plants share with the ecosystem at large. But in their defense, perhaps the ray flowers have a role to perform as well, because they draw us in to look – and listen — more closely. As Fred and I continued our canvassing of the neighborhood, it was the asters that came to the fore for me. They ranged from simple, self-seeding forms of one particular native species that seemed able to put up white daisy-like flowers wherever their seeds found a place to germinate, to purple and pink varieties that seemed to be populating front yards as often as signs we saw that said BLACK LIVES MATTER. There was no doubt in either case that a collective effort and message was at hand.

Asters are equally at home when combined with conifers, vegetables and herbs.

As we continued through the neighborhood, we came upon some gardens that were rough and wild and seemed to have a natural call of the wild about them, and others where compositions of conifers, brassicas, herbs and composites took on a more civilized tone. I was overcome by a vision of how plants, and people, of various types, can work together throughout the seasons. As we walked behind the Willy Street Co-op and I saw a butterfly hovering over a sitting area filled with goldenrod, asters and sunflowers, I was filled with hope for how the world could come together. This moment called to mind a younger, more optimistic version of myself. And then, on my way out of town, when I saw a more formal planting of asters and fall- blooming grasses on the UW campus, I had a vision of how we can all come together to provide the world with a little color and beauty, in whatever setting we choose to plant ourselves, throughout our lives.

This planting on the UW campus, shows us how a plant can find itself in a more managed place and still show off its beauty and sense of purpose.


A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.


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