If you’re reading this, odds are you know a butterfly garden has been a passion project of mine for several years now. It has gone well, and increasingly so each season. I have obsessed over every plant (or other feature) included, constantly asking questions like “can I get away with this non-native?” and “Do I have room for more of this, or do I need to diversify?” Each species has been meticulously chosen and cared for. I have stood among the blooms in midsummer, certain in my hubris that everything was proceeding as I had foreseen.
Then one day this summer I discovered it wasn’t. Hadn’t. Didn’t – whatever.
In one small spot beside the garden bench grow several plants with feathery leaves and clusters of white flowers. They have spread well and stayed green through the last two winters. I grew them from seeds marked “pearly everlasting.” When I bought these seeds, I searched by the scientific name Anaphalis margaritacea, because a common name is notoriously slippery thing. I marked the pots as pearly everlasting, treated the plants as pearly everlasting for garden planning and plant maintenance purposes, referred to them as pearly everlasting in this blog, offered pearly everlasting seeds to fellow gardeners, identified wild specimens of this plant as pearly everlasting… you can see where this is going.
Is there a worse feeling then finding out you have been confidently, defiantly wrong about a verifiable fact, and acted to perpetuate that wrongness? I’m sure there is, but this sensation always guts me when it happens. I try very hard to either be correct or admit uncertainty. It’s humbling when I am reminded that sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way.
So how did I come to discover this error? There is a second flower that has been on my to-plant list for the past couple years: common yarrow (Achillea millefolium). This spring, a couple of different factors led me to realize I already have this plant! First, I was scrolling through some local observations on iNaturalist. I came across a plant with the suggested ID “yarrow.” I thought “gee, that really looks a lot like pearly everlasting.” I was tempted to suggest this, but a quick Something image search of the scientific name made me hesitate. I left this incident believing these two plants look awfully similar. They don’t, if I’m being honest. A few days later I was researching yarrow in preparation for adding it to my garden. This finally brought me to reality. Every photo of the white-flowered variety looked exactly like my familiar plants. This time I decided to also image search pearly everlasting and compare. Nooooooooooooope!
Thinking back, it’s stunning just how much information a pre-conceived notion can brush aside. Those seeds were labelled “Pearly Everlasting – Anaphalis margaritacea,” and plants grew from them. From that starting point, my brain steeled itself against assault from any evidence to the contrary. I remember thinking the seedlings didn’t look quite like what I’d expected, and ignoring that. I remember thinking the flowers didn’t look quite right when they bloomed, and dismissing that. I remember seeing yarrow plants for sale and wondering why they looked so much like my “pearly everlasting.” I remember squinting at photos of pearly everlasting in field guides and gardening books until they looked close enough to satisfy me.
What the hell, human brain? The tricks our brains can play on us in confirming our own biases are well-known, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of catching them in the act. It invites one to surrender to radical skepticism and cease trying. That’s not particularly productive, though. Instead I will try to re-instill some basic lessons of identifying organisms.
- Consider as many field marks or features as are discernible.
- Do not reject any details, whether or not they conform to expectations.
- Do not make assumptions about field marks or features you can’t see.
- Seek additional opinions if there is any doubt – and preferably if there is no doubt.
- Using dichotomous keys never hurts, even if it is especially tedious for familiar species.
I could keep going, but it boils down to keeping an open mind and replacing assumption with observation. I suppose I could call it a scientific approach. I don’t think matching observations to existing literature is properly “science.” However, the process (question, research, hypothesize, test, analyze/conclude, communicate) can and should loosely be followed. It is also not bad advice to be skeptical of one’s own conclusions.
I did end up purchasing some colorful varieties of yarrow to complement the white-flowered crop. Now I find myself in need of a plant I thought I’d had almost from the beginning. I did name my blog “Wildly Mistaken” for a reason, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it when I find out I am exactly that.