Nature has always been child's play

Down in the Cunyon (the wild ground between Sherbrooke Avenue and the cul de sac of Sprinkell Avenue), the botany is shifting gears: The showiest stage of the dandelion-flowering season is winding down. The buttercup season is accelerating.

I have a childish soft spot for both of these yellow dazzlers. However much of a pest they are at home, in the laissez-faire of the cunyon these prolific weeds co-exist generously not only with each other, but with a large range of other species as well.

I say "childish soft spot," and that is the point. Some plants are so rooted in people's childhood that, however sophisticated one is supposed to become, these plants remain a happily ineradicable part of one. When you still measure a mere 2 feet above ground level, rather than your ultimate 5 or 6, plants and you are more or less on the same level. They are childhood acquaintances, closeup participants in your fantasy, play, and humor.

According to those experts on child lore, Peter and Iona Opie, every generation feels incorrectly that today's children have "stopped playing in the way we ourselves used to play." One possible reason for this reiterative belief, they suggest, is that as we grow older, we give up "haunting the places where children play" and "forget that children's amusements are not always ones that attract attention."

We played outdoor games. We were "sent out to play" (though we hardly needed compulsion). But we also – which is where buttercups, dandelions, and a host of other plants come into it – spent a lot of time wiling it away. We looked for things to do. We sat in the grass and dreamed. We imagined we were making up new amusements, even if many were traditions passed down.

Surely mothers still show their small children "how to tell the time" by blowing dandelion seed heads? Surely they hold a buttercup, brilliant and shiny like lacquer, under a child's chin? "Don't move! Let me see if you like butter!" If the subject's chin looks yellow, they like butter. If it doesn't, they don't. It's infallible.

Later you learn the boring fact that yellow-buttercup chins depend on the brightness of light, angle, and proximity. Far better is the notion that – just for a moment – your chin turns a magic yellow and you are destined, for all time, to be a butter-lover.

There are, or were, all kinds of tickly treats for children at large in wild and secret outdoor places. My wife recalls using the seed on docks as "minced beef" when playing house with her friends. Another (female) friend remembers pretending to make perfume from crushed rose petals.

Small boys used plantain to shoot at people. They were known as "soldiers" (because their brown heads look like miniature Guardsman's busbies?). You twist the fibrous stem -round itself and push up. The "busby" is meant to shoot into the air, presumably straight at your adversary. I tried it this morning. It seems I've mislaid the knack.

I also tried making a daisy chain. Remember? You split the flower stem with your fingernail and thread the next daisy's stem through it, and so on. I still have that knack, though I don't suppose there's much money in it.

Our rose-petal friend remembers also "peeling the backs off honesty" (she means the flat, translucent seed cases; they look like large coins), and collecting poppy seeds. She rolled up leaves, or put two blades of grass in an ingenious configuration, to make a whistling sound (of sorts).

In the 1870s childhood classic "Lark Rise to Candleford," by Flora Thompson, protagonist Laura recalls mushroom hunting, eating the young green shoots of hawthorn hedges, and making "pin-a-sights" out of multicolored flower petals pressed and framed between two small pieces of glass.

Richard Mabey's "Flora Britannica" (1996) mentions quite a few remembered or heard-about childhood pleasures involving plants. Among my favorites: squirt guns made of hogweed stems; pens cut from fennel stalks; catching leaves as they fell in autumn and making a wish; and a quantity of inventive things that children do with the winged seeds of sycamore trees, from helicopters to waterwheels, to "sticky noses."

Did I say "children do"? Or should I say "did"? I hope not.

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