“We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, with plant species disappearing at alarming rates. We need botanists! We need young people to embrace the wonders of plant life and to be ambassadors for the ancient beings that make life possible on this planet we call home.”
— Susan Leopold
Inspired by the Flora of Virginia Project, author and ethnobotanist Susan Leopold wrote Isabella’s Peppermint Flowers, a book introducing children to the plants of Virginia and the botanical history of this state.
The book is written as a conversation between a mother and her daughters, Isabella and Flora. Their engaging conversation occurs during their walk through the woods to see spring beauties, the plant whose flowers look like peppermints.
During their walk in the woods, Isabella and Flora learn the scientific name of their favorite plant (Claytonia virginica) and learn about the botanical history of their area. The girls’ mother tells them the story of botanist John Clayton (1694-1773) who wrote Flora Virginica in the 1700s. She also tells her daughters how Clayton’s relationship with English naturalist Mark Catesby (1682-1749), Dutch botanist John Frederick Gronovius (1686-1762) and Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1710) contributed to his landmark flora.
Isabella’s Peppermint Flowers distinguishes itself from other children’s books because Leopold’s story goes beyond bringing attention to a single plant. Leopold explores the insects pollinating Claytonia virginica and includes information about the plant’s corms and the eliasomes attached to the plant’s seeds. She then patiently describes the many ways this small plant contributes to the ecosystem in which it grows. Isabella’s Peppermint Flowers is a delightful story presenting ecological lessons easy for young naturalists to understand.
Today we have the opportunity to learn from Susan Leopold. You are invited to join the conversation. To do so, please enter your questions or comments in the Comment Box below.
A Conversation with Susan Leopold
ArtPlantae: Susan, I really enjoyed your book. It think it’s a wonderful story and I especially like the big picture it presents. Your story encompasses many aspects of botany (i.e., plant morphology, pollination ecology, field botany and the history of botany). Why did you choose this approach for a children’s book?
Susan Leopold: I wanted to write a children’s book to celebrate the fact that Virginia was releasing its flora. When I was in school, there was no “Flora of Virginia”. I also wanted to tell the story of John Clayton and I thought it would be a great way to do this instead of talking only about spring beauties. My background is in ethnobotany and I wanted to include a historical perspective instead of telling the story of one plant. The more interdisciplinary we can make ecology and botany, the better. I wanted the book to be more than a fun story; I wanted it to be challenging and educational. We need to take the time to explain the interconnected relationship between plants and their environment. I did a lot of writing to make the story clear. I am happy with it. I had a lot of support from the Virginia Native Plant Society. They helped place the book in classrooms and libraries.
AP: Was this book written as a stand-alone fundraising tool for the Flora project or as a complement to the traveling exhibition “Flora of Virginia”?
SL: My intention was to offer a children’s component to the release of the Flora. I am concerned about connecting with younger audiences. The book is my contribution to a larger vision. The book took 6-7 years to produce, with various degrees of momentum. The book does raise some money for the Flora project. Proceeds from the sale of the book are donated to the project. The book is sold at FloraForKids.org and in the bookstore of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas.
I wrote several versions of this story. The first version was written strictly from Isabella’s perspective. I might release this as an interactive story on the website “Flora for Kids”. I have considered writing an e-book, but I want people to understand the power of holding a book in their hand.
With regard to the traveling exhibition “Flora of Virginia”, illustrations by Nicky Staunton, the book’s illustrator, are included in the exhibition.
AP: Tell us about the “Flora for Kids” website.
SL: Right now I am using the site to sell the book. It will become a site for resources in botany education and will be developed as a regional site. I hope it inspires people to create a resource about plants in their own region.
AP: You are the Executive Director of United Plant Savers. What does United Plant Savers do?
SL: United Plant Savers (UpS) was founded 21 years ago by herbalist Rosemary Gladstar because she and others were concerned about the harvesting of native plants for medicinal purposes. The focus of UpS is “Conservation through Cultivation”. We encourage the cultivation of medicinal herbals instead of the harvesting of native plants. We teach people how to use forests and land in a sustainable way. Many of our members are not herbalists themselves, but have an interest in plant conservation. Some also have medicinal plants on their property they want to protect.
AP: Readers of this website are distributed throughout the US. How can readers connect with United Plant Savers in their state? My impression is that visiting a UpS botanical sanctuary would be the best way to do this. What do you recommend?
SL: Readers can learn more about what we do by searching for a sanctuary in their state. We have 100 sanctuary members, however not all of them want to be listed on the website. Each sanctuary is managed by private land owners.
Readers in Ohio can visit the Goldenseal Sanctuary, the first botanical sanctuary established by United Plant Savers. It is located in Rutland, OH. We have cabins there and lead programs.
UpS manages a small grants program designed to help individuals and groups create an educational garden. Funds can be used to establish a school garden or a community garden. There is no limit on size or plant palette. Sanctuary members can also apply for a small grant if they want to create an educational garden within their sanctuary. The application process is ongoing and small grants are awarded once per year. Interested parties can visit the Awards and Grants page for more information.
AP: Susan, thank you for taking the time to introduce us to your children’s book and to United Plant Savers.
Readers, to learn more about UpS, I recommend watching the video on the homepage for Goldenseal Sanctuary.
Do you have a question for Susan? Please enter it in the Comment Box below.
About Susan Leopold
Susan is an ethnobotanist who has worked with indigenous peoples in Peru and Costa Rica for over 20 years. In addition to serving as the Executive Director of United Pant Savers, she serves on the boards of Botanical Dimensions and the Center for Sustainable Economy.