Does Nature Seem Like a Foreign Language to You?

When I was 21, I spent five weeks in a little eastern German town named Wernigerode. It had only been four years since the wall came down and the people there were free to learn English, but as you can imagine, they knew little. As I knew no German, my host family and I were in a pickle. We walked around with translation dictionaries for a while, but, within a few weeks I was following conversations (to some degree,) and getting along fine. Then, on one of my last few days there, a woman ran up to me and began asking me a series of questions. I answered her and was quite astonished! It felt like I was beside myself saying, “Look at her! She’s speaking German!”

I mention this story because recently it occurred to me that nature is a foreign language to some of you. To be honest, I’m still somewhat illiterate in the language! In all seriousness though, will you consider what I’m suggesting?

Are you comfortable teaching your child about nature? When you go on a nature walk, do you know most of the plants and animals you and your children encounter? Can you use the proper scientific terms to describe the color of a flower or the parts of a bird? Do you know the common characteristics of the main plant families?

Please do not hear any judgment in my voice. I do not want you to feel bad about how much you don’t know, but I do want you to consider how that might affect you and your children as you learn about nature on walks or through books.

Here is a weed, growing among the cabbages. Do you know its name? It is called ‘The Shepherd’s Purse’ because of its curious seed-pods. These grow on stalks up the stem of the plant, below the little white flowers. If you open one of them very carefully, you will find that there is a small bag on each side, which can be pulled away from the middle, when the pod is ripe, leaving the seeds hanging on a small division.“ (Buckley, Arabella B. Plant Life in Field and Garden. Yesterday’s Classics, LLC, 2008.)

Did that sound like a foreign language to you? It very well might have. You might have found yourself just saying the words toward the end, but not even trying to visualize what the author was describing.

Let’s decode it a bit — because you are the parent and preparing for a lesson is what you do.

The Shepherd’s Purse is a member of the mustard family, Brassicaceae. Also in the mustard family are vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, collards, turnip, and Chinese cabbage. It also includes the rapeseed, common radish, and horseradish. Worldwide there are 375 genera, and about 55 of them can be found in North America. In fact, it is one of the eight most common plant families in North America, and I bet you can find at least one of the 3200 species of mustard plants in your neighborhood.

Let’s look at what every plant in the Brassicaceae family has in common.

Patterns of the Mustard Family,

On the outside of the mustard flower you will see 4 sepals, usually green. There are also 4 petals, typically arranged like either the letters ‘X’ or ‘H’. Inside the flower you will see 6 stamens: 4 tall and 2 short. You can remember that the stamens are the male part of the flower because they always “stay men”. The female part is the pistil, found at the very center of the flower.” (Elpel, Thomas J. “Brassicaceae: Plants of the Mustard Family.”,

Study the image above looking for the 4 petals and the 6 stamen. Look at the interesting seed pods on the two sides.

Also note that not all mustard flowers are yellow, as you might assume. Some are pink, purple, or white.

Now you know the mustard family’s secrets, and therefore they are not so foreign to you. In fact, you may be starting to suspect that you have walked by many mustard plants and not even noticed them.

Let’s go back to our reading from Plant Life in Field and Garden and see if we can better picture what is being explained now:

Here is a weed, growing among the cabbages. Do you know its name? It is called ‘The Shepherd’s Purse’ because of its curious seed-pods. These grow on stalks up the stem of the plant, below the little white flowers. If you open one of them very carefully, you will find that there is a small bag on each side, which can be pulled away from the middle, when the pod is ripe, leaving the seeds hanging on a small division.

I suspect it makes more sense to you now and you will be much better prepared to read chapter one of this book to your child. Thankfully, the rest of the chapter talks about things you probably already know, such as the root growing downward and the stem growing upward and the placement of the leaves on the stem.

With just a little translation this week’s lesson becomes possible, and you can be excited to share with your child one of the eight most common plant families in North America.

But will your child understand it?

Be assured that children will pick up on the language of nature faster than you will, but it might take time. I am encouraged by a story I read in The Parents’ Review. Two teachers were trying to show that Miss. Mason’s methods would work just as well in the large classes of 40 public school students as they do in home schools:

A paragraph out of Arabella Buckley’s Natural History book was slowly and distinctly read by the teacher, who was seated. She then asked if any child could narrate this, and about half a dozen put up their hands. The new method of giving a lesson was at first bewildering to the young minds that had not been trained before this to concentrate their attention on one subject or on words. … Three little girls managed to remember, bit by bit, the chief points in the paragraph. This was the first term that books had been introduced, and the teacher in her great enthusiasm for success was at times so disheartened that she could not sleep at nights … Since then, the writer has visited the school several times, but wishes to give an account of the last visit paid in January, 1916, trusting that the contrast will interest and convince the reader that a great problem is solved. The forty children looked much more alert and keen. … The teacher read, not a paragraph this time, but two long pages on a squirrel, a picture of one being on the wall. Every child put up her hand and wished to repeat it, … A child was told to come to the desk and narrate it. She did so intelligently, evidently taking the deepest interest in the lively squirrel and his doings. She left out the account of how his winter food is stored, which the others at once noticed and put up their hands. One was asked what had been omitted, and repeated it clearly and in good language.” (Petrie Steinthal, Emeline. “Two Visits to a P.N.E.U. Council School.” The Parents’ Review, vol. 27, Mar. 1916, pp. 162–163.)

Don’t lose sleep if your child doesn’t narrate well. Learning about nature and learning from books can be challenging at first, but given a bit of time, your child will show you how capable they are.

How to prepare for the lesson.

Let’s consider how you can make this lesson come to life, however. I started by looking through my local field guide of flowers. My favorite local guide is divided by families, as are many good field guides so that I can turn right to the Brassicaceae family. There are 19 mustard plants in Tenessee, so I will have to choose one to focus on. I see that Shepherd’s Purse can be found in my area and all of the eastern U.S. actually, but I’ve never noticed it before. What I have noticed, that might make a good connection for my child, is the acre of field mustard that blooms each spring just down the street.

Unfortunately, it is September now, so I can’t pick any to show her before the lesson, but I can show the picture in the field guide or a picture of a pasture of field mustard and remind her of the field down the street. I might mention that these plants grow their seeds in an unusual way, but I won’t give it away. My goal is only to connect her to the reading and cultivate some anticipation.

If we are new to using books this way, then I will likely read one paragraph at a time, asking for a short narration after each. I won’t worry if my child cannot narrate back well. We have a lot of time to master this challenging skill, and I will trust that I am laying a foundation.

Once the reading and narration are over, I will show her a picture of Shepherd’s Purse. There is a pretty drawing in the book, but I might also like to show her the photograph in my local field guide. That will encourage her that she is living among these plants and when spring comes back around she will surely find some of them.

Overall, chapter one was really less about Shepherd’s Purse and more about how the plant grows, and besides, it’s September now, and the latest you usually can find plants from the mustard family is August. Therefore, when we go outside for a nature walk, we will want to pull up another plant or weed to look at the roots and root hairs, the stock, and the stem, as was suggested in the book. We will note where the leaves attach to the plant and if they are one above the other or if they alternate. We might talk about when is the right time to fertilize the flowers by adding manure to the dirt around them.

Some final thoughts.

I began this article by asking if nature is a foreign language to you, and I suggested that it might affect you and your children as you learn about nature. We all tend to shut down when faced with things that are difficult. I hope I have shown you how to tackle the “hard part” of a lesson so you, and then your child, can get the most out of it.

I’ll leave you with one last quote from Arabella Buckley:

The main thing, however, is to lead the children to see what is around them, and to enter into the life of all living beings. In this way they will learn to look upon nature as part of the one great scheme under which we all live, doing each our own work, for the good of all, as best we may; that by our efforts we may both improve ourselves and help others, leaving the results to the Great Being in whom we live and move.” (Buckley, Arabella B. “Training of Children in Observation of Nature.” The Parents’ Review, vol. 7, 1896, p. 459.)


I highly recommend the book Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification by Thomas Elpel. It has been a huge help in making me more literate in the language of plants.

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