"Weeds, weeds, weeds", people say, and then with an air of disgust they give them a kick, but as we draw nearer to these weeds, they become to us the very words of God.
It's really quite shocking (and embarrassing!) how many wonderful plants I've been totally ignorant of, or simply dismissed as "weeds" all my life! It's strange, since I've been gardening seriously for 9 years now and have always spent a lot of time outdoors, yet I feel like I must not have been fully awake all that time!
The little Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) is yet another new acquaintance I made this summer. I first noticed this "humble pasture and woodland friend" blooming along the roadsides in early August, but didn't get a chance to see it up close until I discovered a patch of it all the way on the other side of the field where I've been exploring all summer. I still didn't know what it was at the time and, in my ignorance, thought it must be some kind of wild Strawflower I'd never heard of before!
Pearly Everlasting is a native of North America and parts of Asia but has also naturalized in Europe, perhaps as a garden escape. It seems that it was a popular garden plant in England. In his book The English Flower Garden (1883), William Robinson calls it "one of the oldest and commonest plants in our gardens", and Mrs. Grieve also cultivated it in her own garden at Whin's Cottage. Curiously enough though, it doesn't seem to have been common in American gardens. Maybe it was just too common and was disregarded as a weed!
The young leaves of Pearly Everlasting are said to be edible when cooked, and the American Indians used it for a wide variety of ailments. They smoked the plant for lung ailments and also used it as a poultice for bruises and sprains.
As its name suggests, it is an excellent flower for drying and was commonly used for winter decorations and, according to Catherine Parr Strickland Traill in Studies of Plant Life in Canada (1885), the Canadian backwoods settlers even used it in place of feathers to stuff pillows and mattresses! The flowers last so long that they have become a symbol of Immortality, and the plant has several other suggestive names including Live-ever, Life-everlasting, and Immortelle. It was traditionally used to decorate the graves of departed loved ones.
There is a beautiful story about Pearly Everlasting in Floral Fancies and Morals from Flowers (1843) which I couldn't resist sharing...
"Summer had departed—the sun of flowers was set, and the stars of the vegetable world, the Asters, the Dahlias, the Chrysanthemums, and the Michaelmas Daisies, had risen to supply its place. Amidst these bright constellations, and almost eclipsed by their rich and glowing rays, appeared an unpretending flower of pearly whiteness. Her gaudy companions did not even deign to notice her, till a marvelous rumour got afloat concerning the unobtrusive stranger. By busy Bee, or chattering Bird, it had been whispered in some 'Cowslip's ear,' that the silvery fair one was gifted with a nature altogether differing from the generality of her fleeting race; that instead of, like them, being placed on this pleasant earth only to blossom out their little month, or week, or day, or hour, her life would be extended to what, by comparison, seemed eternity; that the biting frosts, before which even their longest survivors were to shrink and blacken in death, would leave her bloom uninjured, and her brightness undiminished; and that even from mankind she had hence received the appellations of Ever-lasting, and Live-for-ever. Rumours such as these were, of course, sufficient to render the harmless Everlasting an object of envy and dislike, mingled with a sort of superstitious fear, as of something supernatural. Little, however, did she heed the suspicious glances of her companions; and even when one, bolder than the rest, ventured to taunt her, she would gently reply, with conscious superiority—'Take heed but to fulfill your own destinies, and leave me to accomplish mine.'
Ere long, the showy crowd in which she lived (but not as one of them), began rapidly to diminish—some ending their brief career in the common course of nature, others suddenly cut off by the hand of man, or the icy fingers of the frost; expiring in the cold darkness of night, or in the suffocating glare of a floral show or ball-room; and when November came, the silvery Everlasting was alone.
When January followed, the Winter Aconite, seated on her emerald throne, was seen raising her golden crown above the surrounding snow. Not even the snow's own flower had ventured to pierce its fleecy shroud, and the Aconite expected to find herself, as usual, sole sovereign of the dreary scene, when, to her surprise, she beheld a rival in the Everlasting, already by her side. 'What dost thou here?' said the haughty Aconite. 'How great is thy hardihood in thus braving the icy blasts which not a flower, save myself, ever dared to face with impunity. But thou wilt speedily suffer for thy boldness, even as I have beheld others, when tempted into premature expansion by a fictitious spring. Already do thy blossoms look parched and whitened by the wind, and soon they will fall withered from thy stalk.' 'I fear no such fate,' returned the Everlasting; 'for though, to all appearance, living, I am insensible alike to nipping frost and cutting wind. Whilst thou wert yet beneath the earth, I was companion of many a gaudy flower long since perished. I beheld both the beginning and the end of their brief careers, as I shall, perhaps, of thine.' The Aconite smiled in contemptuous incredulity, and the next day absolutely laughed in scorn at the pretensions of the Everlasting, on beholding her suddenly plucked off by a human hand. 'Ah! ah!' cried she, 'where is now thy boasted longevity? and which of us two, prithee, is likely to be the survivor?' So, in her ignorance, spoke the foolish Aconite, not knowing that, even in death and separation from earth, the precious attribute of immortality—of unfadingness—was yet preserved by the Everlasting. And why was the fadeless flower gathered? Was it to adorn a winter bow-pot? or were those pearly blossoms intended to gem the hair of some blooming maiden? No; they were meant to fulfill a more tender, and yet a more exalted purpose; they were plucked to adorn the grave of a beloved child, whose mother's hopes, once manifold, were now comprised in one—the glorious hope of immortality. To symbolize that blessed expectation, she had hung the white Everlasting above the mouldering remains of her darling, whose innocent spirit was, she well knew, destined to live for ever."
Another old name for this plant is Moonshine, "because at night, in the thicket, the silvery gloss of its long, narrow, smooth-edged, grayish-green leaf looks like a ray of moonlight". It must be a beautiful sight, but I will have to wait until it is established in my garden to see it, as the field where they grow seems full of howling coyotes at night!
It is certainly worthy of a place in the flower garden, yet I think I will still like it best growing in its natural habitat, where it possesses "a charm as undefinable as that which abides in the New England pastures".
I am a passionate gardener and seed-saver, who also enjoys playing the violin and accordion, running, spending time with my 4 golden retrievers, keeping chickens, photography, and reading.