Plants of Glory

Every gardener has a heroic plant story ~ a tale of some green trooper that survived humble beginnings or ill treatment to become a prized specimen in the garden. They are our unlikely survivors ~ plants that should have been killed by winter weather, unexpected storms, simple neglect or downright abuse, but instead rally and rebound in the face of adversity. In their weathering of obstacles they somehow become more than mere landscape ornaments. Their endurance and perseverance lends them a well-deserved veteran-like status, a decorated soldier that has been to war and won.

I have a certain fondness for these fighters, the bold and brazen plants who have grappled with the odds and overcome them. A certain respect must be given to the lone bulb that blooms out of hundreds that have long-since died out, a choice peony which returns year after year without any fertilization, or the patch of thyme that withstands foot traffic, drought, and an out-of-control lawn mower.

Each year I grant one plant in my garden an imaginary award for “Best Comeback” ~ given out to the individual who has shown a remarkable turnaround in growth and appearance, or has simply put on a grand show without any sort of special treatment. These become the unexpected joys of the garden, and such pleasant surprises are one of the main draws of gardening, one that keeps me coming back for more. This vague hope in the back of my mind is what propels my hands into the soil, my feet down upon a shovel, and my heart hardening at the loss of a delicate delphinium stalk. No matter how traumatic a plant’s passing is, I am reminded by the sight of past leafy generals to keep pressing onward.

One of these is a clump of golden bearded iris that once again bloomed its head off this past year. I purchased the original plant (and a daylily) at a supermarket during my early gardening days. The following year the daylily flowered and multiplied, but the bearded iris did nothing but send up a few small silver-tinged swords. Undaunted, I moved it to a sunnier, drier location, exposing its small rhizomes and sprinkling some bone meal around it, sure of my reward the next year.

Alas, during the next year the plant seemed no happier, the same measly fan of leaves erect but without flower buds. When it came time to re-arrange the bed, I found myself at a loss for space, and so discarded the poorly-performing iris over the bank behind the house, its root-ball rolling to a stop near the bottom of a pile of grass clippings. Sure of its eventual demise, I forgot about the plant until the next summer.

At that time I was puttering around the backyard when something dramatic caught my eye: the architectural spears of a bearded iris, bravely poking through the rubbish behind the house. Without mulch or winter protection or even proper planting, the iris had fought back hard and won, determined to survive, no matter what the location. Such strength won me over, and I returned it to the bed. The next year it became the prize perennial, three spires of beautiful golden blooms burgeoning skyward without staking.

A similar tale of survival is told by the less traumatic journey of a Variegated Solomon’s seal. Planted lovingly in the woodland garden in a rich mixture of loamy, humus-rich soil, certainly the plant would reward me with grand arching sprays of fragrant bell-like flowers and sumptuous foliage. In its partially-shaded location, it was to be the focal point of the woodland garden, but that first year it steadfastly refused to rise to the occasion, content to remain hidden behind the evergreen foliage of a Christmas fern. I watered it generously, hoping to anchor it with deep strong roots from which more than one variegated frond would rise next year. And the next year all I got was the same little frond, with a total of two miniscule flowers.

Newly-impervious to rushing things, I kept it where it was, having gained a modicum of patience since the bearded iris resurrection. Another year passed, and then another, and still the Solomon’s seal refused to yield more than one spindly stalk. Having learned to deal with such disappointments, I simply changed the focus of the woodland garden, relegating the Solomon’s seal to the background, where I promptly forgot about it for a while. At one point I almost pulled it up, wondering how it came to be there in the first place.

Somehow it sensed its brush with death, for the next year (its fifth in the garden) it sent up five majestic stalks ~ each tall and proud and bearing rows of sweetly-smelling flowers, undulating in the wind, and the variegated foliage brightening its dim corner in all its glory. Of course it stole the show that year, much to the chagrin of the foxgloves I had planted during its slow-growing seasons. It is now a gorgeously grand stand, fighting off encroaching lily-of-the-valley with seemingly no effort.

Such comebacks are not limited to the wilderness of the outdoors. Many a gardener houses a number of chlorophyllous troops indoors ~ a scarred cactus that has lasted through three moves, a ponytail palm that almost succumbed to the family cat, or a dusty orchid that suddenly decides to send up an obscenely beautiful magenta bloom in the midst of an extra-punishing winter.

I know two such houseplants ~ a pair of simple spider plants whose brilliance does not in the least betray the punishment they received during an upstate New York winter. Their owner had gone to Florida for a week, leaving the house under the care of a neglectful friend, who had visited only once, and then briefly enough not to notice the twenty-eight degree temperature of the interior. The furnace had shut down, and for at least two days the house was as cold as the outside air of February. All the plants inside turned brown and wilted, before giving up completely.

Convinced that they were beyond repair, the disheartened owner hastily shoved the two spider plants into the basement, forgetting about them for a few months. When spring arrived, the two pots miraculously sported new growth, despite a complete absence of water and light. He brought them out and began to water and feed them, gently nursing them back from beyond the grave. Once restored to light and warmth and water again, the two plants sprang up, stronger than before, finally extending and lowering their little plantlets and tiny white flowers. To this day they thrive, at last at ease with the presence of an emergency thermostat that prevents the house from going below a certain temperature.

Such is the story of many well-worn friends. There is a reverence that these plants delicately demand, a respect which must begrudgingly be given in light of their resolve and determination to survive. They are the champions of the gardening world ~ our tried and true fighters. That which was once the barely-alive underdog seems to shine that much brighter in its unexpected latent glory. Gardening is quite often a bloody battle, and this is a salute to our valiant heroes.

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