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Wild About Utah: Cattails and teasel

Common teasel in a field
Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

For many, this is the season transition between summer and back to school. This month, along with the generous gifts of caramel apples, whiteboard markers, and number 2 pencils, a child handed me a green notebook and a request. One of the greatest compliments a teacher could possibly receive, in my opinion, from a student having never been on any of my class lists, is an invitation to make a writing dialogue journal, a pen pal exchange with no grades or due dates attached. Today her entry concludes with, “Also I drew a picture of you and me in pencil.” I withdraw from the notebook’s back flap a flattering illustration of flowers, smiles, and sun rays, grab my colored pencils and head outside to write.

Terry Tempest Williams honors a similar marshy invitation, begging us to enter the wonders of the wetlands, in her book “Between Cattails” with exquisite Peter Parnall illustrations. Amid snails and scuds, damselflies and waterlilies, red-winged blackbirds and mosquito tumblers, I am drawn to the familiar cattails. Having just spent some lazy summer days reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants,” I now know that one can appreciate a cattail for its cucumber-tasting pith and protein-packed pollen, its gel that can soothe sunburns, and its fluff that can be used as tinder to light a fire or as soft yet absorbent layers in bedding. She taught me that “one of the words for cattail in the Potawatomi language …. means ‘we wrap the baby in it.’” When she takes students outside, she lets the plants teach them.

Cattail and teasel in a field
Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

Many children I teach can identify cattails, but as I take my Josie journal out to the marsh to compose my writing response, I find another familiar plant that I cannot name. Quickly I realize that it has pale purple flowers; I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in any color other than brown. Once again I find how unaware I have been, and a simple plant guide check reveals the name Dipsacus fullonum, or common teasel.

Drawing of two people standing outdoors with cattails and teasel
Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Permission from Josie Dorsch and her parent Breanna Studenka

It is an invasive tall plant with a spiky thistle-like flower head and more spiky spears growing up around it. Small dense flowers, from 250 to over a thousand of them, each blossom for only one day. I had only ever noticed it after its biennial life cycle: flowering, dying, then persisting as a dried stem and flower head the next season. Dipsacus comes from a Greek word meaning “thirst,” referring to the leaf cups at the stalk that collect rainwater and catch insects. Sometimes listed as noxious species, this non-native plant was brought from Europe and valued for teasing wool. Today I see bees are drawn to them, and next year finches and other seed-loving birds will visit.

Turning her drawing into my nature journal for this day’s outing, I add my plant perspective. I add some silver to the brown in my teasel-y hair and purple flowers to her shirt. She wrote that “writing makes me feel in my element” and when I take writing outside and really take time to notice the details, I couldn’t agree more.

I’m Shannon Rhodes, and I am wild about Utah.


Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer with permission from Josie Dorsch and her parent Breanna Studenka
Audio: Courtesy & © Friend Weller, Kevin Colver
Text: Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes