A Colorful Lawn


(This column was first published in the May 16, 2004 issue of The Buffalo Sunday News.)


The website of the Niagara Frontier Botanical Society has a new feature. Each month another article from the early archives of its journal Clintonia is posted.


In this month's reprint, Bruce Kershner tells about that infamous 1985 court case against Stephen Kelley for planting wildflowers in his Kenmore front lawn. Kelley was originally fined over $30,000 but, in an interesting replay of the Scopes trial, his punishment was reduced to $100.


I recall that episode because, while it was playing out, my wife Doris insisted that we drive by to see what she, like Kelley's neighbors, considered "that atrocity." And indeed, the Kelley lawn did differ from those up and down the street. It looked like the kind of unkempt yard you see around houses where the owners have been gone for several months: only a few blossoms peeped out of the long grass at the Kelley home.


My predilection was, as you might expect, for Kelley, but the appearance of this supposed wildflower garden didn't offer much support for my position. I also remain convinced that Kelley could just as easily have grown his wildflowers in his backyard without raising the ire of his neighbors - and perhaps even my wife.


I find it interesting in this regard, however, to note that Laura Bush, our president's wife, is going to great pains to convert the lawn around their Texas ranch house to a prairie grassland.


It seems to me that Jack Sanders, in his delightful book, The Secrets of Wildflowers (Lyons Press), has it right: "Why is an acre of sameness, of monotonous green grass, so desirable? Wouldn't an acre of green concrete or green pebbles be easier to maintain? Or why not install Astroturf?" He points out that many gardeners "classify giant, often cumbersome, and sometimes bizarre-colored hybrids as beautiful and desirable, while they attack small, delicate blossoms the size of fingernails with costly, perhaps dangerous chemicals in order to produce the putting-green lawn."


I suggest that there is a middle road between our neighbors' putting-greens and Kelley's meadow. There are a number of wildflowers - okay, Doris, weeds - that can grow in a normal four-inch high lawn and add attractive color to it. You can choose pink, purple, yellow, blue or white.


Many plants will serve: ground ivy or gill-over-the-ground has violet flowers; so too does heal-all. Chickweed flowers are white; buttercups, celandines and, of course, dandelions, are yellow.


But Sanders nominates speedwells, members of the genus Veronica and the snapdragon family. Like other snapdragons, they share that flower form: three normal petals at the sides and top of the blossom and one pouting lower petal.


The most common of them and the one I will speak of here is quite reasonably called common speedwell, but there are many other Veronica varieties some of which have been cultivated into colorful garden flowers.


The tiny flowers of the common speedwell appear in racemes. They are blue with a hint of red. Wordsworth's poem, In Memoriam, speaks of "the little speedwell's darling blue."


There are apparently two possible sources for that name. One suggests a kind of gypsy quality with "speedwell" playing the same kind of goodbye as "god speed". Indeed, this is an Old World plant brought to this country by colonists and this nomination is supported by a local name, gypsy-weed.


But speedwell might also have been derived from its rapid curative powers. And wow, did European herbalists think that it had them! One 17th century writer claimed that it "sodereth and healeth all fresh and old wounds, clenseth the bloud from all corruption, and is good to be drunk for the kidnies, and against scurvinesse and foul spreading tetters, and consuming and fretting sores, the small pox and measels."


We may now have better curatives for that roster of ailments but I can imagine few more attractive lawns than one sprinkled with lovely blue speedwell blossoms.--Gerry Rising