gunnera new

A friend recently posted a picture on Facebook of her Washington-state yard. Like most Washington-state yards at this time of year, it was mostly under two inches of water. Off to one side, however, was the most spectacularly huge-leaved plant:


gunnera manicata

I mistook it for a Philodendron selloum, which was unlikely, even in warm wet Washington, but my friend quickly corrected me. It is, in fact, a Gunnera manicata.

Gunnera’s glory is its foliage. The leaves, as you can see, are comically gigantic. It’s sometimes called “wild rhubarb,” as the leaves very much resemble those of rhubarb, and some gardeners call it “dinosaur plant,” for obvious reasons. Can’t you just picture a brontosaurus peacefully chomping on it?


The more I studied the picture, the more I knew I’d seen it before. I went through some old photos and found it in Adare, a picturesque Irish village Partner and I visited in 2007; it was growing at the boggy end of a public park, and its leaves were so spectacular that I had to take a picture of it. I discovered online that it’s a moderately common garden plant in Ireland; locals sometimes pick the leaves and use them as umbrellas.


gunnera ireland 2007

Gardens should always be a mix of old and new, common and unexpected, big and small. We love to see a hundred daffodils in bloom, but we need the darkness of tall ominous pine trees behind them to make them shine. We cherish our one-blossom-at-a-time borders, but we need something big and splashy to give them drama.


Gunnera, with its rich green tablecloth-sized leaves, will give your garden all the drama it needs.


Just don’t blame me if you start attracting dinosaurs.




Providence is full of ivy. Brown University is Ivy League, after all, and there’s English ivy (Hedera helix) growing all over the place. A friend of mine, freshly arrived in Providence from Montana, plucked some ivy leaves off the wall and mailed them to her family and friends in Billings, to underline the reality of where she was.

Ivy wants to go up, away from the ground, against gravity. There’s a nearby building with two ivy tendrils curling up its walls like arms outspread. And up up up they go!

I always think of my mother when I see ivy. When my father built our new house in the early 1960s, my mother decided that she liked ivy, and planted shoots of it all along the north side of the house and along the roadside.

Those shoots were stubborn. They didn’t die, but they didn’t grow. A few leaves stuck out of the ground, year after year. And then, after five years or so –

They exploded.

The entire north side of the house was engulfed with ivy. And do you know what ivy does to the side of a house, especially one with wooden shingles? It chews it up, om nom nom. If you try to pull the ivy down, you rip away half of the wooden shingles at the same time, and you reveal the dark mottling that the ivy has produced on its way up the wall.

Mom got her wish, and how! But she wasn’t happy that her plan had gone beyond expectations. She managed to get most of it off the shingles, and she repainted, but she couldn’t get the ivy off the brickwork. This picture, taken in May 1971, shows the ivy covering the exposed brickwork:


Moms house

It looks nice, doesn’t it? Nice rhododendrons in front of the house, and a nice ivy-covered chimney.

But Mom was watching that ivy every moment, to make sure it didn’t leap onto the wooden shingles again.

Ivy is aggressive.

And now, a song:


stinkhorn 1

Now and then, growing out of the mulch in front of my office building, there’s an outcropping of the most amazing mushrooms:


stinkhorn 2

“What in the hell are they?” Apollonia squealed when I pointed the latest batch, which (as you can see) are especially evil and healthy-looking. “They smell rotten. Can’t you smell them?”



“Not a thing,” I said. (To be fair, I have a terrible sense of smell.) “And they’re beautiful. What colors!”



I looked them up later. They are stinkhorns. (I always thought “stinkhorn” was Apollonia’s maiden name.) They stake out lawns and driveways, and keep coming back forever once they’ve established themselves. They are Phallaceae, and if you look at the above picture, the name will probably make sense to you. There are many horrifying variants, but ours are Mutinus caninus, the “dog stinkhorn,” and maybe the “dog” part will make sense to you too if you look at the picture again. Stinkhorns are gooey and disgusting on purpose. They attract bugs with their smell and nasty texture, and the flies and ants carry the spores around. They start as an egglike growth like a puffball, and then – in just a few hours – they manifest their adult form. Here’s a time-lapse film of twenty hours in the life of a dog stinkhorn:





Nature is trying to send us a message through organisms like these.



But what’s the message, do you suppose?


Green thumb

green thumb

All kinds of weird talents run in my family. My aunt Louise channels entities who tell her about life on other planets and who have shown her the history of Atlantis. Mom could tell when I was sick, without even seeing me: I’d come home from school feeling ill, and she’d already have the bed turned down for me.

But I never had the green thumb.

Mom and my sister Darlene had the green thumb. They could take a leaf – one leaf! – from a plant (usually stolen, from a doctor’s office or a restaurant) – and put it in a pot of unpromising soil, and it would grow. And in no time they’d have a whole garden full of – whatever.

I had the black thumb – the opposite of the green thumb – for many years. I’d buy a potted plant, and it would keel over within days. I’d plant seeds, and nothing would happen. If I repotted something, it died within weeks.

Except that, over the past few years, something has happened. Evidently the stars have realigned. Now I can make things grow!

Example: I put a potted Pereskia aculeata (“Barbados gooseberry”) in my office window a few years ago. Within months it was climbing up the Venetian blinds. It has now made its way all the way to the ceiling (well over ten feet), and is thriving. Regardez:

pereskia fullsize

Example: I took a few Sansevieria leaves out of the garbage-can at work, and a few stems of Epiphyllium that someone threw away, and potted them. The Sansevieria grew at approximately sixty m.p.h., and is huge now. The Epiphyllium is thriving, and I even gave some to Partner’s sister. This is the Sansevieria:

sansevieria fullsize

Final example: a departing staff member gave me his dying Dracaena. It looked moribund when I took it in. I repotted it, and gave it some nourishing plant-food and a little water. It returned from the dead within days. It’s thriving now.

Finally: I’m making amends for all of the plants I’ve killed over the years.



I wrote recently about hostas, those garden-foliage favorites with dull purple flowers, and how dull they are.



Cannas are the opposite of hostas. They are the opposite of dull and ordinary. They are exciting and unusual.



I first saw them growing alongside my grandmother’s house in Selleck, Washington, back in the 1960s. I found them unbelievable: five-foot stalks with blazing crimson flowers, and gorgeous dark-green foliage.



They are huge and dramatic, and what’s the matter with a little drama in the summertime? They also seem to grow easily; I see them in sidewalk pots all over the city of Providence.



They always make me smile when I see them. Here, in Providence’s Wayland Square, merchants put them in pots, and they thrive.



They are the torches of summertime.



Rejoice in them.




In Tove Jansson’s Moomin books (which you should read, if you haven’t), there’s a character – a Hemulen, if that means anything to you – who collects stamps. He finally collects all of the stamps in the entire world. He despairs, because now his life has no purpose anymore. But then he realizes: he can start collecting plants instead! His life has meaning again!

I love plants. I don’t have a garden, which means I subsist on a few houseplants and a few office-grown things (which I’m very proud of, as they’ve grown extraordinarily). So, when I walk back and forth to work, I examine the gardens and yards and fields I pass by, and I identify the plants I know, and I puzzle over the ones I don’t know.

The one above, for example. What is it? Yellow vetch? Alfalfa?

Nope. I finally identified it. It’s Lotus corniculatus: bird’s-foot trefoil.

I walk by a field full of it every morning on my way to work. First I noticed them out of the corner of my eye, thinking I knew what they were. Then I took a closer look, and realized I wasn’t so sure.

I checked the leaves the other day, and now I’m sure. It’s L. corniculatus, all right.

Any day upon which I identify a strange plant is a good day. It gives my life a tiny bit of added meaning.

I think I must be a Hemulen.

The monkey-puzzle tree

monkey puzzle

When I was a kid, I rode the bus to school. I spent forty-five minutes on the bus every morning and every afternoon. I was the first kid on the bus in the morning, and the last kid off, because I lived farthest away from the school.

The bus route was very scenic, actually. It was mostly deep forest where I lived, alternating with pastures and farmland.

The halfway mark between home and school was a kind of double-turn in the road: if you were driving east from Battle Ground, you took a sharp right, then a sharp left. I don’t know why. Property lines?

It had a double name. The sharp right was “Johnson’s Corner”; the sharp left was “Gravel Point.” (Who knows about these things?) This is what it looks like on the map:

gravel point johnsons corner

There was a big white house at Johnson’s Corner, or at least it seemed big to me as a kid. I passed it twice a day on the bus, so I should have a vivid memory of it. But – you know? – I just remember a big white house.

But I remember the monkey-puzzle tree.

It was huge – taller than the house, I think. It was the only monkey-puzzle tree in the whole area. Did the owners (whether or not they were named Johnson) plant it? Or was it already there? At any rate, it was awfully big when I was a kid.

There was an article in a recent Financial Times about the monkey-puzzle. It’s Araucaria araucana, from Chile / Argentina. I had no idea! I assumed it was a foreign import, but not from so far away!

But no wonder it grew so well, and felt so much at home, in warm wet Washington state. Its home country was volcanic and warm, like the coastal Pacific Northwest.

The monkey-puzzle tree at Johnson’s Corner was beautiful and strange. It always fascinated me.

And it whispered to me that the world was a big place, and that there was more to life than what I saw around me.

Smart tree. It was right.

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