Much of Louisiana is alluvial soil, rich stuff dropped over the millennia when flood water slowed to a crawl in the spring, creating ridges, or levees, at frontlands, and backlands of low, fertile lands fringed with back swamps. No wonder drivers, bikers, canoeists/kayakers, hikers and other travelers in the Atchafalaya River Basin region so often remark about the explosion of color which accompanies the regular germination of each season’s wildflower bloom. Wildflowers are often said to be herbaceous plants with pretty blooms, but, as authority Clair Brown does, some include common plants on the lam from cultivation—such as Cherokee rose (Rosa laevigta) and clovers as well as woody species.
The Mississippi begins way up in Michigan, but by the time the stream is midway south, it’s truly the Father of Waters, roaring to the Gulf with thousands of tons of soil and millions of tons of water. Long ago the Mighty Mississippi followed the Atchafalaya River route to its delta. Then, with a multi-million ton wriggle, it slithered east. The Atchafalaya Basin’s 833,000 acres are home to some this country’s most productive habitats for fish and wildlife, herbs, plants, and arboreal life. More productive, but less well known, than the Okefenokee Swamp, Louisiana’s sprawling treasure trove has been called a “serene water world filled with wildlife,” by wildflower expert Jan Midgley.
The value of the Atchafalaya has been recognized. In 1996, Governor Mike Foster directed the State Department of Natural Resources in Louisiana to be the Lead Agency with its federal partner, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the fully integrated Atchafalaya Basin Program. An American-Indian word, “Atchafalaya” (Think of a sneeze: uh-CHA-fuh-lie-uh) means long river. Then, established in 2006 as part of the National Park System, the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area stretches across 14 parishes in south-central Louisiana. It is among the most culturally rich and ecologically varied regions in the United States, home to the widely recognized Cajun culture as well as a diverse population of European, African, and Caribbean and Native-American descent.
Flowing Plants Have Deep Roots in the Region
Flowering plants have deep roots in the region – not least because so many are perennials, that is, part have a visible element of a massive, unseen root system springing up new flowers year after year. Many of the wildflowers which ribbon the roadways with vivid chrome yellow, signal red, lush lavender, fusia, white, variegated mottlings are naturalized. Many are native. Some are recent exotics, transplanted carelessly, or escapees from commercial cultivation. Others jumped ship with ballast back in sailing days, or were stowaways in more recent excelsior and packing material.
No doubt some hitched along with glacial debris, taking root when the great ice banks receded and the air grew again balmy and wet. Regardless of the source, the Atchafalaya River basin, and the lands, fields, rights of ways, and bits-‘n-pieces of neglected land blossom with color and burst with vitality when the weather permits. Meadow or prairie like land usually has about 75% grasses (which bloom, but not in the showy way the butterfly seducers do), lending rich texture to flowering areas. Wetlands tend to create other patterns, including water garden like floating plants.
Louisiana is composed of terrace, prairie, and alluvial environments. Because the Atchafalaya, Mississippi, and Red rivers snake around the landscape in ultra-slow motion, cutting into high ground and laying out new features over eons, today’s distribution of wild plants is very complex. Dr. Clair Brown, writing in the forties, explained, “Louisiana may be looked upon as a battleground for armies of plants which have marched in, stayed awhile, and then have retreated.” Indeed, fossil remains of figs, palms, camphors, and even breadfruit have, Brown notes, been found.
Brown published his wonderful Wildflowers of Louisiana and Adjoining Statesin 1972. Remarkable natural iris fields were discovered in 1925, offering scope for several years of scientific discussion about their origins (probably they slowly proceeded advancing ice). Today, the Louisiana iris is commonplace in distribution though by no means in attractiveness. Original research speculated upon up to 90 species, now, these are generally considered to be hybrids of a handful of forms.
The northwest corner of Louisiana is called tertiary uplands, but the balance of the state is terrace or alluvial. Flowering plants are more or less at home, depending on preferred habitat, across this range. Indeed, this is one reason the activity of mankind has been so important. Not only have folks imported plants, human activity changed the landscape, including the distribution of water, and thus changed the local habitat. To the “natural” divisions of prairie terrace, wetland, and coastal lowland might be added suggested cultural divisions of the Atchafalaya Basin. Significantly, when Kelso Walker published his lavish Jewels in the Landscape: A Celebration of Louisiana’s Wildflowers, he opted to organize its contents by color, eschewing environmental factors entirely in service of human desire and delight. The big book begins with a flowering Cypress vine, “That’s the reddest flower in Louisiana” the artist told award-winning Advocate journalist Danny Heitman, and continues through the colors of the rainbow.
Four Cultural RegionsF
The Atchafalaya Basin may be divided into four cultural regions: the Upper Atchafalaya, with Concordia, Avoyelles, and Point Coupee Parishes, Between Two Rivers, which includes East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, and Iberville Parishes, Bayou Teche Corridor, with St. Landry, Lafayette—Hub City of Cajun Country—St. Martin, and Iberia Parishes, and fourth, the Coastal Zone, including St. Mary, Assumption, and Terrebonne Parishes. Spanish, French, German, then Anglo, Chinese, and more recently Viet Namise immigrants met and mingled native groups, both those in residence and nomadic or seasonal groups. All altered the fauna face of South Louisiana by harvesting or planting, destroying or importing, suppressing or encouraging plant life for a range of uses, from the beautiful blue dye of indigo to chicory additive for coffee.
A Gorgeous Apothecary
Native Americans used the hardy Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus) to make tea. They’d boil up either the root, or the whole plant known for producing numerous long-blooming flowers with blue, violet, or white rays to treat eye problems, kidney stones, raspy cough, and headache. Francis Galton, better known as a science pioneer, suggests in his 19thcentury explorer’s how-too manual that fleabane is a much-desired product if you spend weeks in the same set of clothes. Indeed, dried pulverized fleabane was once a significant export product. The list of attractive, aromatic, and useful blooming plants goes on and on.
If You’d Like to Try: Pressing Flowers
Because flowers allow the propagation of future generations of the plants, be sure to select commonplace blooms. Avoid rare or unusual examples. Pick ones which are fresh and well formed, and press them as soon are you can.
Commercial presses, traditional and new “microwave” versions are available at nature or craft shops and other outlets. However, it’s even possible and practical to press your finds between a stack of heavy phone books. As the term implies, pressing renders the colorful flower flat and dry. You can use the pressed flowers in cards or collages, or mount them in albums or put in personal journals.
- Collect appropriate blooms; make sure they are clean and undistorted.
- Sandwich the flowers between blotting paper, and then sandwich this between sheets of newspaper. Be careful that flower parts do not overlap. Use more layers of paper with more succulent plants.
- Microwave presses should be “treated” for a sequence of short drying periods in the machine. Don’t brown, and don’t overcook. Traditional presses (which are usually pairs of blocks held tightly together with wingnutted bolts) or stacks of heavy telephone books call for several weeks of slow drying.
- If drying over several weeks, check the paper and replace if necessary after the first week. Gently lift flower parts away from the paper.
- Most flowers dry in 3 weeks or so, though allowing an additional week is a useful guarantee. Properly dried, the flowers should be dry, the paper should be dry, and the plant matter should be flat and firm, paper like but more likely more fragile.
If You’d Like to Try: Pressed Flower Crafts
With the aid of common materials and tools, such as white blue, scissors and tweezers, card stock or laminating sheets, wax paper, and a tiny, pointed brush, and the pressed flowers collected on your travel, you can create beautiful memorabilia and attractive cards. Several steps are involved.
- Decide which pressed flowers, or dried petals of large flowers, you will be using in the project. As a traveler, you can incorporate other flat material, such as admission stubs and bits of playbills.
- Assemble the materials you need to create the card, bookmark, or collage. Gently trial positions the pressed flowers on the stock, using tweezers if necessary, selecting the best arrangement of the parts.
- Once satisfied with the design, carefully glue all parts of the plant you are using to the backing stock. Cover with a piece of wax paper after removing unnecessary or excess glue.
- Carefully press the result flat, covered by the wax paper, under heavy books—for example heavy phone books—or in a traditional flower press, until dry.
While note cards may seem most obvious, also think about creating post cards for friends, invitations for parties, place mats, book marks, decoupage projects, as well as additions to your scrap book or journal.