"As a child, Elpel spent much of his time near Virginia City with his grandmother, who was knowledgeable about plants and their uses, the outdoors, and self-sufficiency. Citing her influence, Elpel said that plants and plant identification became his passion, and he spent much of his youth studying and practicing these skills outdoors. Knowing plants was one of a range of skills that were foundational to his broader interests in outdoor survival, sustainability and self-sufficiency. As he grew into adulthood, he thoughtfully constructed a life in which he could engage in these activities by sharing them with others."
Botany and Wildflowers Noble Pastime of the Country Gentleman
President Thomas Jefferson considered botany a noble pastime for the country gentleman. He described botany as "among the most useful of the sciences," and frequently went on botanical rambles, studying and collecting plants with potentially edible, medicinal, utilitarian, and ornamental qualities.
Thomas Jefferson was also visionary. He witnessed the birthing of America, when our nation was still a fledgling country clinging to the east coast, yet he foresaw a day when the United States might stretch from coast to coast. Jefferson doubled the size of the country with the Louisiana Purchase and organized the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore up the Missouri River in search of a navigable route to the Pacific Coast. He sent Lewis to train with leading botanists of his time to prepare him to collect specimens on the expedition.
Although the American continent was largely a vast wilderness in Jefferson's time, he recognized that resources are finite, and that it was important to steward what we had. His farm at Monticello was much like an agricultural experiment station, as he explored novel ways to build soil and grow abundant crops.
I've always identified with President Jefferson, due partly to the common first name, and the fact that my middle initial is "J," from Justin. I was occasionally referred to by the nickname, Thomas Jefferson Elpel. More than that, I identified with Jefferson because of our similar interests. As a child, living in what later became the Silicon Valley, I had my own little garden and conducted agricultural experiments, planting various crops, and sometimes transplanting feral plants from vacant lots in town. My parents were a big influence in that regard. Mom and Dad had a big vegetable garden, a blackberry patch, and a number of apricot trees. We harvested great quantities of apricots, and my parents canned dozens of quarts of apricots and apricot jam. Dad built a huge drying rack to dry hundreds of apricots at a time. He also had a big compost bin and recycled organic matter from the yard to build new soil. Dad also taught me my first edible "wild" plant, a mustard weed growing in the neighbor's yard.
My interest in wild plants blossomed under the tutelage of my Grandmother, Josie Jewett. We spent our summers in Montana with Grandma when I was a child, then moved to Montana after my father died when I was twelve years old. Grandma went on walks through the fields and meadows every day, often collecting herbs for tea, such as blue violets, yarrow, peppermint, and red clover tops. She made herbal tea every day, and I grew up drinking her tea. We collected wildflowers we did not know, and brought them back to her house to identify in her color picture guides. This interest in wild plants and their uses eventually led to the writing of my book Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification and the children's version of it, Shanleya's Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids Ages 9 to 99.
Related plants have similar characteristics, and they often have similar uses. Rather than learning new plants one-at-a-time, it is possible to learn them by the hundreds, based on plant family patterns. Focusing on those patterns of similarity has made Botany in a Day a powerful tool for plant identification and a best-selling plant book, with more than 100,000 copies sold so far.
My newest plant book, Foraging the Mountain West dives more deeply into edible plants, providing detailed information on harvesting and processing wild foods found from neighborhood weed patches to mountain meadows. The book also emphasizes patterns, such as showing how to recognize any of the 55 species of gooseberries and currants in North America or the 200 species in the world without having to identify each one individually.
Botany remains a favorite pastime for me today, and I carry a camera all summer long, snapping pictures of wildflowers wherever I go, many of which are featured in my Plant Families Gallery. There is nothing I love more than to take off on a walkabout to explore the unknown, rambling through the countryside and botanizing all along the way. I am always excited to learn a new plant, or to discover some new edible, medicinal, or utilitarian application for some other plant that I've known for many years.
In recent years I've had the opportunity to travel more internationally. Everywhere I go I bring a copy of Botany in a Day to see how well it works and make notes and adjustments as necessary. It is truly amazing how effective the patterns method is for identifying plants and their potential uses. Traveling in Sweden, for example, the plants were very similar to those at home in Montana. The European quaking aspen (Populus tremula) is nearly identical to our American aspen (P. tremuloides), except that the European species has wavy leaf margins while the American species doesn't. Knowledge of North American species enabled me to recognize related plants in Europe, foraging on new wild plants and berries there with confidence.
I also had the privilege of touring the Carl Linnaeus Museum and Garden in Uppsala, Sweden - the botanical equivalent of making a pilgrimage to Mecca. Carl Linnaeus created the genus-species nomenclature system that forms the basis of systematic botany. My book Botany in a Day couldn't exist without the work Linnaeus did in the 1700s. The picture shown here of me with my book was taken at the Linnaeus Museum and Garden.
Although Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification focuses on plants of the frost belt of North America, it is around the world for plant identification, and much to my own surprise, it works amazingly well in places as far off as New Zealand. I spent five weeks touring there with my son and afterwards wrote a six-part article with 130 photos about Botanizing New Zealand, detailing my experiences identifying native and non-native flora of the country.
I would probably spend much more time botanizing than I do, but like President Jefferson, I've been blessed - or cursed - with the ability to see the world as it might be decades or centuries into the future. From the local issues of urban sprawl, to the larger issues of desertification and sustainability, I feel compelled to do what I can to make a difference in the world. Coincidentally, I live close to the Jefferson River, named by Lewis and Clark in honor of their president. It is not only one of my favorite haunts, it has also become a personal passion of mine, and I founded the Jefferson River Canoe Trail to work on the conservation and recreation issues that face the Jefferson.
I wanted to take the time to thank you for your prompt and courteous service. I received Shenlaya's Quest + card game through your website (relatively quickly). I originally learned about them by purchasing Botany in a Day through Amazon.
I read through them both and reviewed the cards (I also saw a FREE video utilizing your cards on Youtube which compelled me to invest in them as a learning tool - that video needs to go viral).
I knew NOTHING about plants before I found you. I must say, I feel very confident I will be capable of learning my plants now. I can't wait till Spring! I already know so much!
I've read your books with enthusiasm and I must say you are perhaps one of the greatest teachers I have run across in my lifetime (I am age 36) - time will prove whether or not such is the case, but I have great faith in what I have read so far (call it a sense you gain with some worldly-wisdom). I've tried to "get" plants for my entire life, but until you, they were all just "green things". I already see the difference betwen Dicots and Monocots and I am starting to see the plant families. Your learning tools are like a miracle for someone like me who learns by doing, which means patterns-patterns-patterns! Thank you so much!
I intend to make myself some flash cards for key points to remember concerning what I learned in your books (perhaps a product you should consider), several charts for plant parts, and even coloring pages to help me "get the patterns in mind". I might even make myself some puzzles or models such as illustrated in your children's book Shenlaya's Quest! I'll do anything to learn!
I am very excited about the world you opened up to me without fear (just the use of adult common sense and caution). You are a godsend! Keep up the great work and the excellent teaching. I will let you know, in the coming months, how I fair.
You really gave me some hope for finally learning the plants around me which are in the world I love so much.
Port Trevorton, Pennsylvania
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