Where the Wild Flowers Are
Wanda Garland teaches people to see the beauty right under their feet.
By Kim Ridley
Portrait by Hannah Welling
The brushy clearing under the power lines in Waldoboro looks pretty lifeless on a cool spring morning: a drab tract of leafless bushes, cattail marsh, and patches of dried-up bracken and sweet fern. It’s certainly not the sort of place you’d expect to find any botanical treasures.
According to Wanda Garland, however, intriguing plants thrive in every corner of Maine, and there’s something to admire in every season. If you doubt this, just spend a morning with her.
A few steps into the clearing, she points out a sundew nestled in the sphagnum moss just inches from an ATV tire track. The diameter of a quarter, this tiny carnivorous plant is easy to overlook. Viewed through Garland’s hand lens, however, it resolves into a jewel-like rosette of spoon-shaped leaves studded with sparkling red hairs.
“I always tell people, ‘Look around right where you are — behind the school house, downtown, along the roadside,’ ” says Garland, a sturdy woman in her mid-sixties who usually wears her long hair in braids pinned on top of her head. “There’s a lot of beautiful stuff.”
A botanist, photographer, and long-time educator, Garland aims to encourage people of all ages to get up close and personal with Maine’s native flora. In her popular wildflower classes at Belfast Senior College and talks for Maine Audubon and other groups around the state, Garland doesn’t bore her audiences with dry lectures and dull diagrams. She enchants them.
“A lot of people who are plant snobs will only talk in Latin,” Garland says as she gets on her knees to admire a patch of mayflowers blooming in road sand along a trash-strewn ditch. “If I’m trying to teach people new things, I don’t do that.”
Instead, Garland melds science and lore with her own observations to bring each plant to life. Down the road from the may-flowers, she spots drifts of bloodroot, wildflowers that resemble white crocuses rising from large, furled leaves. To spend time with Wanda Garland in the field or the classroom is to discover the surprising diversity, history, and loveliness of Maine’s wildflowers. She gently brushes away a bit of sand to expose the plant’s thick red rhizome, noting that its sap is so potent it can trigger toxic reactions through the skin in some people.
“Native Americans used this as a dye,” she says, “and the men used it as a love charm.”
On the morning’s final stop, she stretches out on her belly to photograph luminous yellow trout lilies blooming on the banks of a brook. “I don’t know how many species Maine has, but there are a lot,” Garland says as she snaps away. “I haven’t had time to hike all the territory or be there at the right moment to photograph every flower in every stage. I’ll never run out of something to look for and enjoy.”
After the morning’s botanizing, Garland fixes chicken salad sandwiches served with high-bush cranberry jelly in her cozy, green-walled kitchen, which is warmed by an antique wood cookstove and decorated with her wildflower paintings and family photographs. She speaks in the unhurried cadences of rural Maine as she reflects on growing up on a dairy farm in Aroostook County in the 1940s and ’50s, teaching, and her latest project: creating a new kind of field guide to Maine’s native flora.
Garland grew up in a book-filled house where her parents, the first in their families to graduate from high school, read aloud to their seven children every evening and expected them to get an education inside and outside the classroom. While school took care of the basics, Garland’s parents taught their children to identify the flowers and trees growing in the woods and fields around their home. “Mom knew all the edible plants because her family gathered them, and Dad knew all the trees and flowers,” Garland says. “We were so connected. Our lives followed the flow of seasons.”
That reverence for nature has infused Garland’s forty-plus years of teaching biology and other subjects in high school, college, and adult education classrooms from Presque Isle to Brunswick. She regularly brought her advanced-placement biology classes on field trips to Mount Katahdin to study botany and wildlife until serious illness forced her to give up teaching in the late 1990s. During her recovery, she says she often sat outside on a lawn chair bundled up in blankets, or lay in a field or forest glade for hours.
“I know for myself that you can be healed of illness by sitting or sleeping on the ground,” Garland says. “And when you spend a lot of time on the ground, you’re looking at flowers.” Garland soon began photographing them and in the decade since she has taken thousands of slides of wildflowers around the state.
Some of her favorite slides appear in her classes and will illustrate her field guide in progress. Unlike the typical field guide, Garland’s book will show each plant in its habitat in all seasons and all stages of development — leaf, blossom, fruit, and seed. Although she doesn’t know when she’ll complete her magnum opus, it’s taking shape in several thick spiral-bound notebooks filled with her stunning slides and crisp, lively descriptions.
The field guide is a natural extension of Garland’s ongoing work in the classroom. “I think a lot of the struggles people have with not being happy have to do with their total disconnect from the natural world,” she says. “I want to open their eyes to see what’s right around them and appreciate the wonderful plants that occur here in Maine. I also want them to look around where they live and use Maine parks, from Baxter to the special places in their own communities.”
Garland’s passion for Maine’s native plants and her command of natural history and lore make for a magical mix in the classroom. “Wanda isn’t bored with her subject, it’s all fresh and new,” says Mary Frenning, a co-founder of the Belfast Senior College who has taken Garland’s six-week wildflower class at the college. “She’s very knowledgeable at the academic level and at the practical level, so you get the sophisticated with the homespun. She’s also a very generous, giving person and she revitalizes us.”
On the final day of Garland’s wildflower class at the senior college, her fifty or so students ooh and ah over her slides of lady’s slipper and other Maine orchids. She shows several slides of each flower from the front and the back, in various stages of growth, up close and zoomed out to reveal its habitat. Some of the orchids glow in a shaft of sunlight, others shimmer with raindrops. What makes her images extraordinary, however, is that they have the intimate quality of portraits.
“When I look at a flower, I’m so overcome with the amazing beauty and complexity of that structure,” says Garland, who has been drawing wildflowers since childhood. “The vibrant colors and shapes and textures — I try to capture all the different aspects when I photograph them.”
As Garland slowly clicks through her slides in the darkened room, she dispenses fascinating tidbits about each flower that rarely appear in field guides. She notes that the rare Calypso orchid prefers old-growth cedar swamps, while downy rattlesnake plantain grows under old hemlock trees. She observes that yellow lady’s slipper smells like butterscotch candy. “An orchid’s worst enemy is a human on the end of a shovel,” Garland says as she reminds her students never to pick or dig up native flora, particularly the fragile orchids. That’s what has contributed to the near demise of the showy lady’s slipper, a very rare variety, and Maine’s most dazzling orchid, which now grows only in Aroostook County. Garland shows several of her slides of the two-foot tall orchids with pink and white corsage-worthy blossoms. “I look at tropical orchids now and they seem so plain and simple,” she says.
The class ends, as it always does, with applause. Garland smiles at her students, looking like an Earth-mother goddess with her unbound hair rippling over a blouse the color of a blue-flag iris. “Thank you for taking my class,” she says. “Now, go out and enjoy the flowers as they happen!”