Sisters of St. Joseph of CarondeletJune 17, 2019

Earth Concerns News

Reflections on Plant Life at the Provincial House by Sister Jean Keating, CSJ

Plant distribution depends on three principal factors: soil, climate and intervention.



The material deposited or scraped away by the glaciers may vary greatly. Whether or not the soil is sandy, clay, acidic, etc. influences what plant life might grow successfully.



Temperature and water are two climatic conditions that obviously help to control our vegetation. Here in the great frozen northeast, the plants that are successful are the ones which can adapt to long periods during which the only available water is in a solid state.

            If you stand at the end of the boiler house at the PH and look out toward Delatour Road, the initial impression is a uniform meadow. Look carefully, however, and you will note that in some sections Pampas grass, cattails and one particularly beautiful will tree thrive. These plants prefer a wet locale. You would be well advised not to walk in that area, especially in the spring. Those same plants will not be found atop the hill in the wooded area.



Ecological succession is a term which suggests that each habitat changes over time in a predictable and orderly fashion. At each stage of change, the reigning species alters the environment, thus making it more suitable for other organisms. Finally, equilibrium is reached, and the organisms best suited to the present soil and climate prevail. They are known as the climax community.

            The climax community in the geographical local of the Provincial House is a temperate, deciduous forest; combinations of oak, hickory or beech, maple and hemlock forests.

            When the first settlers came to this area, they cleared the land of the forests and created farms. They eventually moved west leaving the land, and the trees gradually grew back. The next group, the de la Tour family, again cleared away the deciduous forest for a daily farm. When they moved, the trees slowly came back again. The next clearing was for an apple orchard. Then the CSJs came and took down the apple trees to put up the Provincial House.

            When we stopped cutting the grass close to the flood lights in front of the bell tower, grasses and flowers such as milkweeds and Queen Anne’s lace, were free to grow. As they die each year, they create more soil, and each spring provide food and perch space for the birds. The birds plant the seeds they can’t digest. Look for wild grapes and raspberry bushes crowding around the base of the light. Larger bushes and trees, such as hawthorn, sumac and birch are not moving in. They will provide the shade necessary for the maple seedlings. Look out on the Troy side of the C Wing or down along the edge of the cemetery. What is growing there now is not what was growing there twenty-five or even two years ago.

            One thing I love about the planning of the PH is that the landscapists did not rely on formal beds or exotic shrubs. We are surrounded by oak, birch, hawthorn, rhododendron, sycamore – all of the climax community that would naturally inhabit this area.


Imported and Native Seed

Not all of what we see and know of the plant life is native to the area. When the first European settlers arrived, they brought with them seeds that were mixed with their grain, as well as seeds deliberately collected to supply the reliable crops they were leaving behind as they sailed for a new world. Plantain was cultivated because its anti-inflammatory properties could be used to heal wounds; yarrow was brought because of its effect on blood clotting; the horse chestnut was carried because of its chemical composition that absorbs ultraviolet rays; the dwarf mallow was is imported for its use in the treatment of angina and abdominal inflammation. What the settlers quickly learned was that the Native Americans had plants to treat other illnesses. Solomon’s Seal was crushed by the natives to be applied to wounds and reduce the black and blue; jimson weed was smoked to relieve symptoms of asthma; touch-me-nots provided a juice that afforded protection against poison ivy.


Folklore Plants

The plant I am holding was borrowed from the courtyard. Sister Peg Keehan has been waging a battle with it for years, and she has a worthy opponent. Horsetails have been around for at least 300 million years. They contain ten percent salicylic acid (aspirin) and were used as a diuretic and a mouthwash. Their high concentration of silicon dioxide (sand) provided pioneer women with an abrasive scouring powder.

            There is folklore surrounding much of the vegetation here. Bird’s foot tree foil is one of the more than 70 names for the same lovely yellow flower whose seed pods are five brown, shriveled, tapered structures resembling an arthritic hand: hence, the names, hop-o-my-thumb or Tom-Thumbs-fingers. Crying infants could be distracted by shaking the seeds inside the pods. A little imagination likened the seed pod to a cat’s claw. From there, it was a short step to devil’s claws, and the plant had attained a fairy status and of course, great respect!

            One of the plants Sister Nora has transplanted from our woods to a garden bed was used by the native as an eye wash and as a pain reliever during childbirth. If the root is boiled and dropped into the food of the object of your affection, it is said to be a powerful love potion too. One Indian maiden, whose affections were directed to the chief’s son, followed this prescription. On her way to the son’s tent, she tripped and spilled the potion into the food of an old man who pursued her for months It is with your best interests in mind, then, that I do not disclose the name of this plant!


(March 1995)