September 9, 2023
Started today in a blind panic. No rationality, no reasoning. Nothing. Just pure terror. Woke up. Looked outside and panicked. Without any thought, I ran like a maniac downstairs screaming. Then I ran back upstairs screaming even more maniacally. Along the way, I banged my head on the wall, pulled out my hair, and stubbed a toe.
Because my day started in blind panic, so did Michele’s. 100% freaked, she followed me downstairs and then back up, desparately asking, “What is it? What’s wrong?”
Eventually, I composed myself enough to plead, “Look outside!”
She did, and said, “What? I don’t see anything.”
Still on edge, this tipped the balance and I was off again on another mad roundtrip, down the stairs and back up, Michele in tow.
“Scott!” she hollered, “What do you see outside? What is it?”
I’m sure I looked at her like she was crazy. More or less the same look she was giving me. I said, “Don’t you see it? Look! Everything is wet! Something out there is getting everything wet!”
“It’s just rain,” she said. “Just rain. It’s fine.”
Rain, I thought. The word had a vague familiarity to it. Yes, it began to come back. Yes. Yes. Indeed. I remembered rain. That’s what used to happen before it no longer did. Months ago. Fating me to endless days of dragging hoses. Dragging them while suffering. Suffering with crippling sciatica.
So, okay. Maybe my morning didn’t go down just exactly like that. I might have exaggerated a few things. But the point is, that sort of sums up the last few months of my life—no rain, unbearable pain from sciatica, and a terrible memory that seems to be getting worse. I swear, I burn just as much energy organizing my life to account for things I know I will forget as I do trying to remember things I did forget. I’m telling you, this is no way to live. Especially when you compound it with pain and drought.
A big part of your latest letter ventured into thoughts about Umbellifers, prompted, it seems, by the most recent of your many trips to the UK. Ye ole’ Apiaceae Family. I didn’t realize how unfamiliar I was with it until you brought it up. And it’s not like I forgot what I knew, as I typically do. I simply never knew enough to even forget. So, here. Here is everything I ever knew about the Apiaceae up until I read your letter: It’s a huge family of plants that mostly all look alike. They are often tall and usually somewhat weedy-looking. Weedy, but with a pinch of charm and often a generous scoop of delicate. But, like a female Russian assasin wearing a teddy, they’re lethally delicate. This lethality, and the fact that they all look alike, means they are probably the leading cause of death among people who forage for food in wild places and in alleys. It’s way too easy to mistake one of the family’s many killers for one of a consumable few. And, finally, they are, universally, a favorite plants of pollinators, and, because of that, they most definitely will have a bright, bright future as garden plants.
Actually, I’m almost proud of myself for knowing even that much, but, literally, every plant you mentioned in your letter? News to me. Yep! With tropicals to the left, and now Apiaceae to the right, you’ve got me in a pincer move. And you’ve always acted like I was the better plant person in this friendship. Why this ruse for so long? What is your game, woman?
But, alas, dammit, you’ve spurred me into wanting to learn more and maybe even try a few. All I’ve ever grown of the fabled Apiaceae was some purple fennel and a few withering plants of dill. I’m sure I’ve got room somewhere to dabble with some Anthriscus and Ferula (and, boy, don’t those words just roll off the tongue!). I can probably find a spot in my wild and wooly front yard, which is totally unprotected from deer, and which–I don’t know why–is way, way less conventional than my backyard. Thank God I’m not repressed by some God-forsaken homeowner’s association.
Anyway, while you’ve apparently been coveting the seldom used and hard to find, I have been kindling a whole new respect for the common. Common as dirt. You can imagine the courage it took for me to say such a thing, seeing as I have a widely held reputation as a plant geek. People look up to me, you know. But, well, gosh darnit, I just had to because it’s true. I can’t carry the hypocracy any longer. So here it is. I’m going to say it. Yep, the hostas and garden phlox in my backyard have been killing it this year!
The “F” word. Stretched out. Bellowed out the back window. The “F”word echoing back off the hills.
My relationship with hostas goes back a long ways and is very complex. One of the favorite things I ever wrote was a hate piece on hostas, which was prompted by the most tedious tour of a hosta breeder’s garden imaginable. And tedious, I suspect, is imaginable to a lot of people. Even people who haven’t been in a hosta breeder’s garden. Even people who don’t even know what a hosta is. If that wasn’t enough, and it was, that experience was followed by this experience: I went on a Hosta Society garden tour. Every one of those gardens, literally–if you excepted the trees–were solid monocultures of hostas. Hostas and more hostas. Whole acreages of hostas. If there was a hellebore or a brunnera or a polygonatum to be seen… Well, let’s just say there never was. It was all hostas all the time everywhere.
Anyway, despite having suffered so, my collection of hostas is significant, mostly because a friend of mine from work back in the 1980s was getting a divorce and she and her mother dug as many of her beloved hosta collection as she could under the cover of darkness the night before the house was to become her soon-to-be ex-husband’s. I was a budding gardener and, if for that reason alone, a better recipient of those hostas than he was. At least as far as she knew. For the three big bags of hosta roots, which were dug in the middle of summer, well they rolled around in the back of my truck for at least three days in the hot sun before I got around to planting them. Somehow, all of them lived (I think), and, over the years, they’ve grown enough and have been divided enough that I now have nice big clumps and drifts of them. The best of the lot are the fragrant types, typified mainly by ‘Royal Standard’ and ‘Fragrant Bouquet,” which I might have actually bought somewhere in the more recent past, and they have performed incredibly well this hot, hard summer. They look fabulous and their blooms have delightfully perfumed the night air. A species hosta I grew from the NARGS seedlist also caught my attention this year. It might be Hosta rectifolia or a hyrbrid with rectifolia in it. Whatever it is, this is the first year it has had real presence in the garden. A big, drapy, bloomy thing, which would be even better if I’d stop running into it with my lawn mower.
While these hostas are blooming in the darker spaces, the phlox are rocking the sun. And have been for seemingly months. Many years ago I planted several different selections of P. paniculata. At that time, they would have been new varieties, different colors and sizes and offering mildew resistance. I remember planting ‘Jeana,’ ‘Laura,’ ‘Nicky,’ ‘David,’ ‘Shortwood.’ and others. Only ‘Jeana’ is still herself. The others have all enjoyed each other’s presence just a little too much and now what I have are their offspring. Still a mix of colors but definitely skewing back towards the specie’s natural pink. Some are taller, some are shorter. All have great stature and mildew-free foliage. Hate to jinx myself, but I have never had a problem with mildew on any of my phlox. Just lucky in phlox, I guess.
While I’m glad my hostas and phlox are exceeding the expectations one would normally associate with their commonness, and while I have found myself easing back again into rare plant mode, the Tetrapanax papyrifera you suggested is a no-go. I’ve never had much interest in coddling any plant through winter, let alone one that could impale my leg and/or stop me from breathing. I’m just stubborn that way. Especially when I know of plenty of perfectly hardy plants that can do me harm with equal or better proficiency.
Does this make me a plebian? A luddite? I don’t know, I’m just impressed I remembered those words. Especially now that I’m one very strong margarita in. And I truly am enjoying my plain old hostas, phlox, and a handful of other things. And they look really nice at the base of my Corylus fargesii.
Running up on another string of talks, which are going to eat up a bunch of my upcoming weekends. I’m especially looking forward to a trip to the Philly area. Hope to visit some friends and see some things. Maybe more on that in the next letter.
PS-Did you see what I did with the last sentence in the second to last paragraph? I juxtaposed the common plants I’ve been extolling with a super rare plant. Pretty clever maybe.
Another PS-Do you agree that someone else’s pain is really hard to imagine and therefore empathize with? It feels like other people never fully understand how painful my pain is when I try to tell them about it. And, likewise, I have to admit I’m not much good at fully embracing the experience when other people are explaining to me about their pain. In fact, I usually find an excuse to leave. Just thinking this for the first time. Maybe I’ll have more to say about it next letter.