Skip to content

Horse and botanist

Broadleaf weed with purple flowers growing among grasses

In Okla­homa, where I grew up, one of the first plants to show green in the spring was Lami­um amplex­i­caule, which we called hen­bit. This lit­tle plant is in the mint fam­i­ly, although it does­n’t smell “minty” (or even “sagey” or “orega­noesque” like oth­er mem­bers of the family).

Hen­bit and oth­er mem­bers of the genus Lami­um are also called dead-​nettles. This had always puz­zled me, because when they came up in the spring, they were one of the few plants “alive”, green and growing.

small weed growing in gravelly soil
Sting­ing nettle

One day I rode Veron­i­ca down to the grass and weeds on the slope below the are­na, where she likes to graze (until it all turns brown in the late spring). Both she and Bud­dy had encoun­tered Urtica ure­ns, the annu­al sting­ing net­tle. Both were stung on the lips, and both decid­ed they weren’t inter­est­ed in that plant any more.

Veron­i­ca reached down for a patch of what appeared to be sting­ing net­tle. I told her, “I don’t think you’re going to like that,” but as she ate it, I real­ized it was dead-​nettle, and the light bulb went on. It (and oth­er mem­bers of the genus Lami­um) super­fi­cial­ly resem­bles sting­ing net­tle, but it does­n’t sting—it’s “dead”.

Head of foxtail grass
Mouse bar­ley

Now if I had looked it up in Wikipedia, I would have learned that, but instead I learned it because a horse has a very dif­fer­ent view of plants than a per­son, even if that per­son is a botanist.

I’m a botanist. You prob­a­bly guessed that from the title and the sci­en­tif­ic names. I’ve been for­tu­nate in being paid to teach botany to col­lege stu­dents for around four decades. But I’ve nev­er stopped learn­ing, and in this as in so many oth­er areas, hors­es have been my teachers.

Bud­dy prefers mouse bar­ley (Hordeum mur­inum) over slen­der wild oat (Ave­na bar­ba­ta). Mouse bar­ley is the com­mon­est source in my region of the fox­tails that get caught in dogs’ fur, ears, and nos­trils. Bud­dy eats it before it’s ripe and break­ing apart, when the grains are sweet and soft.

Horse eating weed
Bud­dy eat­ing Ital­ian thistle

He loves Ital­ian this­tle (Car­du­us pyc­no­cephalus), which is relat­ed to arti­choke, and sow this­tle (Sonchus oler­aceus) and prick­ly let­tuce (Lac­tu­ca ser­rio­la), both let­tuce rel­a­tives. If we ignore the “beards” of the bar­ley, the spines of the this­tle, and the bit­ter milky sap of the last two, these are plants we would eat. The fla­vor palettes of a horse’s palate are dif­fer­ent from ours, but not total­ly alien.

Yellow flower head
Sow this­tle

Most botanists today don’t spend a lot of time with hors­es. But it wasn’t always so. The ear­ly botan­i­cal explo­ration of west­ern North Amer­i­ca by botanists of Euro­pean ances­try was most often car­ried out on horse­back, with pack mules. I won­der what they learned from their hors­es and mules. Was the knowl­edge that I’m now dis­cov­er­ing once com­mon­place, in a world where equines were com­mon­place? Or were the old-​time botanists as like­ly to look to their hors­es for guid­ance as I am to look to my truck? Many of their jour­nals still exist, and so per­haps we could learn, if we looked, and if they both­ered to write about it.

Group of yellow flower heads of a weed
Prick­ly lettuce

My days of botan­i­cal explo­ration are large­ly in the past. And there are real advan­tages to 4WD vehi­cles. But the view from a horse, and with the horse’s world in mind, should be part of the expe­ri­ence of every botanist.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.