I’d say that a majority of the plants in our back yard have some kind of flavor. Not everything. I say not everything because I have a few favorites that don’t quite fit into a category, but are nonetheless valuable resources for botanical information that indirectly affect the food we produce.
The author’s garden is more mischievous than it looks.
Every few years we are visited by a new plant, and though we are uncertain as to where it comes from, we can probably be sure that a roosting bird from far away has dropped the seed. In about 2004 just such an event took place when a tiny thistle rosette, about two inches across, dark glossy green, prickers, appeared in the back of our garden. It hid under a patch of lamium as I checked out the bed on a spring morning. At the same time I was thinking of planting a big thistle nearby so that I was alert to the possibility before me. Was it a thistle? I cleared away the encroaching lamium and exposed the whole plant. Throughout the summer I tended it, made sure it was watered and that it was safe from ambitious neighbors and noticed only that although it had failed to grow during the summer, still it remained green into December and first snow.
Years passed, it began to grow and then in 2008 it developed large lobed leaves and sent up a five foot stalk of what to me were alien flowers, but, in the event were simple white petaled, two-lipped flowers, which, when peeled apart, revealed exactly the same arrangement of reproductive organs as the pink snapdragon growing just a few steps away. Exactly the same, except that the one produced a flower suitable to the outlines of an English country garden, and the other, only its own kind, a dark purple outer shell, white petals lining it, covered by the second shell, all of it protected by viscious thorns that made it difficult to cut loose.
The plant has three stalks now. Its botanical name is acanthus, native to southern Europe, and an inspiration in classical art and architecture. When I put a blossom on my bed table the other night, small ants wandered away from their pollinating work, put at a loss, it seemed, by the wooden table top where they meandered without curiosity about the rest of the world until I squashed them with my thumb and threw the petals away.
I want so much to take this stuff and put it in the language of the fairy tale. The non-scientist in me is willing to assemble the information, but hesitant about forming into a concept or a version or some way of thinking that might explain it all. What terrible fear caused my acanthus to erect such a formidable barrier to invasion that only the tiniest ants could be called on to pollinate it. Now I can hear the voices objecting. What do you mean, fear. Plants aren’t afraid; They don’t know anything. They don’t feel anything. They aren’t smart like you and me. But then think of Narcissus gazing into the pool at his beautiful self. I guess we all know how that ended. Perhaps it worries about being so close to the vegetable garden. I know one thing it worries about. It worries about whether it will produce seeds for next year. That is its biggest worry and one that its vegetable friends have solved. Instead of worrying so much about whether they are protected against all harm, they open themselves up to a world ready and eager to eat them up and strew seeds from here to there and back again. Because to tell you the truth, sex rules the world. That’s what I’m getting at, what I understand. Without sex we’d all be parameciums without a thought or care in anything that could even loosely be defined as a world.
It’s all a battle for pollinators. We are as particular as my acanthus to find the best, and we need to reward those we choose with, in our case, something good to eat. So I go out into the vegetable garden to cut the broccoli raab. We’ll have it sauteed tonight along with cold roast chicken, beet and goat cheese salad, watermelon salsa. And what about the broccoli raab? Why, it doesn’t know it’s being robbed. I’m feeling a bit guilty about this, because I choose it for dinner, choose it before its blossoms opened. It is growing magnificently in the middle of some squashes and cucumber on a fence. Perhaps it feels its reward in being chosen, but I don’t know. I want it out of the way of the squashes and vice versa.
The squashes are all blooming. There are many more male blossoms than female. Once again it is so much the way of the world. So many male blossoms, enough to pick, and to stuff and saute for lunch, so many fewer female blossoms trying to take care of themselves the best way they know how, until the tiny squash just under the large yellow blossom that has produced it becomes a big squash and we have that steamed for dinner.
All this convoluted romance guarantees a perpetual St. Valentine’s Day which in its turn guarantees better carrots, better children, better schools and understandings, chickens and bears, better everything in fact. We just can’t be there for thousands of years to watch the progress, but when we pick up that heavy, mortgage lifter tomato, when we heft it and smooth its skin with a tender hand we can say, This is good. Really good.
Post and photo by Dorothy Bloom, who chronicles her garden and the various activities at 19 Woodside Ave., Oneonta, New York, on Bloomsblog.