Monday, September 6, 2010


Silphium, or Compass Plant, was introduced to me by Aldo Leopold, who wrote an intriguing essay about it in his book, "A Sand County Almanac". Leopold, who wrote in the tradition of Thoreau and Muir, is considered by many to be the father of the modern environmental movement. While I don't agree with him on some things, I greatly enjoy his simple, yet evocative writing style. He uses silphium to show how much of the original prairie has been lost, along with its flora and fauna - and paints a wonderful word picture when he expresses regret that he would never see a field of silphium tickling the bellies of buffalo.

Several years ago I obtained some silphium seeds from a friend in Wisconsin and planted them near our pond - and after a season or two forgot about them. A few weeks ago I was delighted to find this five-foot high specimen reflecting the evening sun. It is a living monument to the long grass prairie where the buffalo roamed, and I feel honored to have a tenant of such distinguished lineage.

The Indians used the rosin from the stem as chewing gum. The early settlers called it the compass plant because its leaves orient themselves in a north-south plane.

I hope to use the seeds to plant more patches of silphium. Who knows, maybe someday I'll have a few buffalo to go with them.

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