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.



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.

The wildflowers of downtown Providence, Rhode Island

wildflowers of downtown providence jpg

A local photographer has taken some lovely photos of plants and flowers that occupy the property formerly occupied by I-195 in Providence (which, for the past two years or so, has been a vast green space in the very middle of the city).

I walk through that green space every day. I rejoice in it. I love my friend Oma’s comment recently: “Here in England it’s not so important to drive as over there [in the USA]. In your neighbourhood it looks similar. As long as you can get to the shops, you can walk along the sidewalks and look at the flowers or the weeds.”

Notice what she said: “the flowers or the weeds.”

She and I feel the same way: weeds are lovely too. She sent me a lovely book about weeds a while back, and it was after my own heart.

Here are some of my own photos of weeds / wildflowers in the neighborhood. They’re not as good as they might be, but oh well, I’m a terrible photographer, who cares?:


CHICORY (Cichorium intybus). Beautiful blue/purple flowers. This is a picture of a lovely stand of them very near the Point Street Bridge. The roots are roasted and ground and mixed with coffee; I’ve had coffee with chicory, and it’s delicious.

butter and eggs

BUTTER AND EGGS (Linaria vulgaris). A beautiful roadside wildflower. Not useful for anything else that I know of. Also called “toadflax.” I like the name “butter and eggs” better.


MILKWEED (Asclepias sp.). I mistakenly told a coworker recently that this was “Joe Pye Weed,” which is horribly wrong. The flowers are very fragrant, and the plants are attractive, and the seeds are big cloudy masses of fluff.

rabbits foot clover

RABBIT’S FOOT CLOVER (Trifolium arvense). I only identified this one a few weeks ago. It’s obviously a clover, but fuzzier, and very cute. This one was huge until it was cut down by the city, but it began to come back within days. You can’t kill clover.

birdsfoot trefoil

BIRDSFOOT TREFOIL (Lotus corniculatus). Obviously a legume, with beautiful yellow pea-like blossoms. The whole field was golden with these, until they were cut down. They too came back within days.

japanese knotweed

JAPANESE KNOTWEED (Fallopia japonica). A terrible invasive species from Asia. But it has lovely foliage and nice flowers.

nightshadenightshade berries

DEADLY NIGHTSHADE (Atropa belladonna). A relative of the tomato. Look at this pretty little lady, with pretty purple blossoms! But she’s terribly poisonous. Notice the cute little green mini-tomato berries; they’ll be a delicious-looking red later in the season. Just don’t eat them, okay?

queen annes lace

QUEEN ANNE’S LACE (Daucus carota). The wild carrot. This is a sweet little flower that also grew very healthily where I was born, back in southwest Washington. This is a very small specimen, but nice; I’m always glad to see it.

These are all just as beautiful as any garden flowers. More so, really, because they don’t rely on gardeners to take care of them.

They take care of themselves.

The tree of heaven

I have written enough about carnivorous plants and poisonous plants. Let’s talk about something more pleasant.

I see the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) every summer day in the streets and alleys of Providence. It’s everywhere in the eastern United States, and thrives in cities. It is a weed, believe it or not; it grows wherever it can – up through cracks in the pavement, if that’s all it can find. It can grow six feet a year. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the old book/movie “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” but the title tree is A. altissima; it keeps bursting through the street, and no one can stop it.

I’ve never noticed (maybe I haven’t gotten close enough), but apparently it smells bad. T. S. Eliot, in the “Four Quartets,” refers to “the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard.” The Chinese word for the tree, chouchun, means literally “stink tree.”

Ah well, we can’t all smell like lilac or lavender, can we?

Ailanthus can reach tremendous heights, or it can be a shrub. It loves sunlight, but can tolerate shade when it has to. It likes rich soil best, but tolerates nasty environments too, and can grow in soil with the acidity of tomato juice. (Such a lot of things I learn from Wikipedia!)

The Chinese use it medicinally, to treat mental illness; the shaved root is mixed with boys’ urine and fermented soybeans, allowed to sit for a while, then strained. The bark contains an acknowledged antimalarial substance.

Most importantly of all: I like the tree of heaven. A few blocks from here, there used to be a vacant lot full of ailanthus, at least twenty feet high, in full sunlight. I loved them, though I knew they were squatters and that their time was probably short. Sure enough, they were cut down to make way for a Starbucks.

Starbucks coffee cannot be used to combat malaria, or mental illness, not even if you mix it with boys’ urine and fermented soybeans.

I would like my grove of ailanthus back.

Gardening blogs

Oma, one of my favorite WordPress bloggers, recently presented me with the “Beautiful Blogger Award.” It’s one of those blog-specific awards that encourages you to pass the award along to blogs you read and admire, so that your own readers can read them and try them out.


Today I’d like to give you three blogs, all of which are favorites of mine, and all of which are about gardening, one way or another.


(Why gardening? Because I love it, and I have nowhere to garden. I had a little plot in the local community garden for a couple of years, but the snobbery became so intense that I had to drop it. Now I live vicariously through other people’s gardens. Like these.)


First of all: Oma’s own blog, “Cottage Life in England.” Oma lives in a completely enchanting cottage in Luton, and takes wonderful photos of everything – her garden, her house, food, her grandson – and is very good at documenting everything. She and I write about some of the same things: getting older, food, plants – and write little notes back and forth sometimes. (We’re kindred souls, in that both of us generally know the scientific names of the plants we’re discussing.) She also writes very well. I recommend her highly.


Second: “The Soulsby Farm.” This is a couple in Ohio who run a real honest-to-God farm, and take photos, and document their experiences. They’re a lot of fun, and very down-to-earth. They write about things that are of interest to all gardeners: insect control, weed control, fertilizer. They recently ran an Ugly Tomato contest. I like them; I always get a smile out of their posts, and sometimes I actually learn something. Again: high recommendation.


Third: “Tangly Cottage Journal.” These are professional gardeners blogging from the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington state, where my parents used to take us for summer vacations. I love the area – it’s wild and very beautiful. This blog will give you a very precise image of the area, and the vegetation (which is all over the map – it rains constantly, and is very warm), and the challenges of creating a garden in a place where Nature wants to do everything at once. These are professional gardeners, so they hold everyone and everything to high standards. I love them, and I love their posts, and their photos.


If you love flowers and gardens and good writing, follow all three of these, please.


If you don’t: what’s wrong with you?

Deadly nightshade

I realized recently that I’ve written about a lot of nefarious plants: Darlingtonia (AKA the cobra lily) and pokeweed.



I guess I sort of love the deadly plants. There are the poisonous ones, like poke, and the meat-eating ones, like Darlingtonia. They don’t pull any punches. They don’t like us members of the animal kingdom – or, rather, they like us fine, so long as we’re for breakfast.



A few years ago, before the I-195 bridge through Providence was uprooted, there were some beautiful Datura plants under the overpass. Datura (also called Jimson weed) is reputedly hallucinogenic, and even deadly. (In the Delibes opera “Lakme,” the title character commits suicide by drinking nectar from a Datura flower.)



Then there’s deadly nightshade.



We are having a lovely crop of it around town this year. See the above photo? That’s in a parking lot about two blocks from my office. Nightshade (AKA Atropa belladonna) is completely deadly; the families of the early Roman emperors were decimated by people (like Livia, the wife of Augustus) who knew how to use Atropa correctly.



It’s a lovely plant, as you can see above, and looks completely harmless. It’s a member of the same family as the tomato, and (as you might imagine) it took a while for the tomato to become accepted in Europe and America, because in those days, everyone knew what happened when you ate those little appetizing-looking red fruits.



Also, it has its everyday uses. If you use the extract (called “atropine”) as eyedrops, it gives you lovely big dark pupils. This accounts for its other name: belladonna, “beautiful woman.”



Also, atropine reduces your vulnerability to radiation. If you know a nuclear strike is impending, take a big dose of atropine and get in a bathtub full of water; you’ll greatly reduce your danger of radiation poisoning.



Unless, of course, the nuclear strike doesn’t happen. In which case you will die of atropine poisoning.



But life isn’t perfect, is it?

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