Friday, November 27, 2009


Some years ago I was looking for a hanging plant for my big east kitchen window. I thought it ought to be pretty heat-tolerant as that spot gets pretty warm in summer. In a commercial nursery I spotted a nice fleshy plant with interesting pods along the stems. The stems dangled down a couple of feet. The nursery owner had called it a “fishhook cactus” on grounds that the pods were sort of hook shape. But a “fishhook cactus” when I googled it, turned out to be Mammillaria microcarpa, which is a small squatty, roughly boob-shaped, cactus with a wreath of lavender flowers around the top. (Funny how we are always interpreting plants in terms of animals.)

So anyway I bought it. Since then, we’ve been through a lot. Once after I’d left my house plants outside in the fall a little too long, it froze back to the soil, but soon it regrew. It was very heavy so I worried about it pulling its hook out of the ceiling and somehow, though it was in a relatively small pot and watered in very irregular fashion -- which is the way I treat my house plants and why I’m good at geraniums, who like that -- it sometimes grew to hang down five or six feet. Then I’d just lop off the stems with the scissors. If I forgot to water it for a really long time, the pods would shrivel up and maybe a few of the multiple stems would die.

Once I felt so guilty about the way I treated this plant that I went through a phase of trying to give it away. At that point it was in a pot on the bookcase in front of the window, sort of coiled up. My neighbor sniffed, “It looks like a saucepan of green worms.” She wasn’t entirely wrong. So I gave up and hung it again.

A few weeks ago I repotted it and because the new pot was bigger, heavier and had no drip pan, I put it temporarily on the window shelf with the long heavy stems spread out along the sill. Then I sort of forgot about it. (My household thrives on benign neglect, or so I assume.) Then one day I was startled to see that it had changed. Not only was it producing a kind of frondy shoots, but they were joined by stems with little flowers on top.

Clearly, by changing the relationship to gravity, I had put this plant into a new mode. It was not a hanging plant at all -- it was a trailing plant meant to lie along the ground. What a homily starter!

There used to be a minister in the New England area whose father had run a greenhouse business. This minister would bring a dogwood sapling into the pulpit every Easter so he could talk about the symbolism of the bloom. (The four petals each have a sort of little “nailhole” at the tip.) Then they’d plant the tree on the grounds. Plant symbolism is about to run rampant as we enter the season of Christmas trees, boughs of holly, and mistletoe clusters. It doesn’t occur to many that these are all the detritis of ancient northern Europe vegetable symbolism as laid out in Robert Graves“The White Goddess” and quite heretical if one is a purist. The original Birth Tree of Jesus was a palm tree.

Though it is clearly a fleshy plant, the meaning I would get out of this nameless and sometimes creepy succulent would be philosophical and abstract. I’d think about getting into the “right relationship” with abstract forces like gravity and light in order to be properly flowering. I have no idea whether a fruit or seed of some kind will result, but I’m watering it a bit more faithfully in hopes of finding out. I thought that if I blogged about it, someone out there might recognize it and give it a name.

My former student, Robey Clark, who has far exceeded my own accomplishments, had an office in Portland with some big geraniums in giant pots in an entrance atrium with a lot of sun. But they didn’t bloom. He asked me for advice. Actually, geraniums have stems very easy to break because they are meant to start over all the time. One is really supposed to make cuttings and begin new pots, which I’ve remembered to do this fall. But the other secret is that in their natural climate there are long dry spaces and then heavy rain, which is why they’re ideal for me. I never heard whether that worked for Robey: to dry them out completely, then water generously.

But it was another case of duplicating the original environment, what the plant was genetically adapted for. If something is not growing where it was planted, it may be planted in an unsympathetic place. What makes a geranium impossible to grow outside in Montana, makes it the perfect spot of blood red color in the overheated house all winter.

Once I read a wonderful story (a Western) about a woman who was widowed on the prairie, stranded without the strength or money to ranch. She had two resources, though it took her a while to figure them out. One was a couple of pots of geraniums and the other was a fecund old mother cat. Eventually she made a living selling cuttings from her plants and kittens from her cat, both much valued by lonesome wives in homesteaders’ shacks. (Where did the tomcat come from? If you’ve ever lived in a remote place with a cat that came into heat, you’ll know that tomcats can scent a “queen” the way a grizzly bear can smell carrion. They just show up.)

The “lesson” of this homily is to pay attention to the interplay between environment and individual. Sometimes it’s worth adapting the environment and sometimes it’s a good thing to just change your alignment to it. (That minister his cohort called a “floral theologian” eloped with the church secretary. I don’t know whether that worked or not.) I’m so pleased to be aligned as I am. And so are the two feline queens, who -- like my plant -- are sprawlers.

So would it be heretical to ask whether Christianity and Islam were in right relationship to their environment?

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