One Man's Weeds

Danny 'Wildflower' Saffer, 77, scans the sidewalks, pokes around parks and roots behind restaurants, plucking rare and beautiful blossoms from the botanical trash heap

June 09, 1999|By CARL SCHOETTLER | CARL SCHOETTLER,SUN STAFF

We're trekking through the asphalt inner city with Danny Saffer, searching cracks in the sidewalk for wildflowers, plucking blooms from roadside trash, finding rare weeds in the gutter and along the tracks at the Streetcar Museum.

Lanky, loose-limbed and exceedingly energetic at 77, "Wildflower" Saffer ambles along scanning the ground like a man looking for lost $100 bills. A self-taught botanist, Saffer's ability to ferret out unusual plants is praised by Jean Worthley, one of Maryland's pre-eminent naturalists. He finds a new treasure every couple of feet. He's got a poem for every plant and a story for every ramble.

The red buckeye, a small tree with attractive flowers, inspires this verse:

"Oft on a botanical lark,

I roam through Robert E. Lee Park

But its sylvan look is deceitful

For you'll find more dogs than people."

He declaims a couplet about himself:

"This old naturalist gone to seed,

Collected and mounted a million weeds."

He confesses he may actually have mounted only a hundred thousand or so: "I'm prone to exaggeration, like Barnum, I suppose, on this million business."

Pretty nearly all of them seem to be piled up in his house on Chase Street, a heroically cluttered museum of pressed wildflowers and weeds.

"I have probably been collecting plants at least 30 years," he says. "But actively mounting specimens on aluminum foil is fairly recent."

He started mounting on aluminum foil because he likes the way it looks and because people said it couldn't be done.

"This one I mounted this morning at 5 o'clock and it's still damp. Gill-over-the-ground, or ground ivy. It make two great teas: a hot tea for bronchial ills and a cold tea to give you a great appetite. And it's usually very aromatic. I love it.

"It's a rather pretty flower, purple with maroon markings, very, very abundant this year. It's a weed of damp areas."

A printer for about 30 years -- from the end of World War II when he was in the Army in England ("I loved it") until he retired in 1983 -- Saffer was known as one of the best and most exacting proofreaders in Baltimore.

"Proofreading was my great love," he says. "I just loved it, particularly when I was asked to read naturalists' work and stuff that somebody had messed up on because they didn't know the plants, or anything."

He still reads without glasses and he spots the most minute wildflower or weed the way he used to pick up misplaced commas.

He spots the salt-marsh sand spurrey, a tiny pink and white flower no bigger than a shirt button, along the Jones Falls, a quarter-mile north of the Streetcar Museum, in a place where it had no right to be.

"Shouldn't even be growing here," he says. "Belongs in salt marshes. Any botanist will tell you, you'll never find them in Baltimore. But you go in the field and you find they grow wherever they please."

He printed his early poems and handbills and a lovely pamphlet called "Treasures of the Trail," with dried flowers tipped in, on a couple of old presses in the basement. He's had one of them since he was 18 in Emmitsburg where he grew up. But he rarely uses them these days. It takes too long for the ink to dry. Like everybody else he gets most things Xeroxed.

He types the originals of his labels and verse and aphorisms and homemade stamps and free-lance currencies, notably a $3 bill payable at the Bank of Saffermania, on a typewriter that last had a ribbon in 1947. He types directly onto carbon paper.

"Works fine," he says.

He used to collect stamps and had some 60,000 varieties worldwide, but he gave it up.

"Too many break-ins," he explains. "I don't want anything valuable. I never heard of anyone's weed collection being stolen."

On his way

He sets forth on his plant-gathering expeditions afoot. He's never owned or even driven a car. But he rode a horse on his weed and wildflower tours, until a couple of years ago. In fact, he's had six horses over the years. He used to take horseback vacations out west and even in Mexico.

Nowadays he depends on the kindness of friends for rides out to fields and forests beyond the reach of public transportation. He travels now and again with a photographer and part-time minister named Dave Pyle.

"My friend Dave

Is a workaholic slave

He's always in a tizzy

When he meets St. Peter at the gold gate

He'll say I hate to make you wait

But I'm just too damn busy."

But around Baltimore on his solitary walks, Saffer favors the Light Rail, which he often travels to Robert E. Lee Park.

"To collect Virginia creeper,

I ride the trolley because it's cheaper.

Do I hear derisive laughter

Directed at Save-A-Nickel Saffer?"

But he likes both ends of the Light Rail system. At the south end he sometimes heads out to Nursery Road, where he finds semi-aquatic plants along the Patapsco River, such as giant chickweed, forget-me-nots and "in early summer, lots of great stuff."

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