Saturday, June 27, 2009

Bonfire of the Weeds

After a few days of rain, heat, sunshine and more rain, our established plants are being pushed and shoved and molested by some cowardly and evil bastard weeds who show up only when conditions suit them. Like any authoritarian regime, I manufacture some animosity toward the weeds to justify their wholesale and violent destruction.

Meanwhile the Iranian government has ordered international journalists to stay in their offices and not cover the election story. Government goons are shutting down web sites, email and twitter, and they are seizing satellite dishes from roof tops to prevent international news from entering the country. This morning eight employees of the British embassy in Tehran were arrested. Yesterday a government official claimed that the CIA was actually responsible for the death of Neda, the now-famous woman who was shot and killed during the demonstrations.

So now my brain phone is ringing and ringing, and I know who it is: the president, wanting my advice again. Unfortunately, I'm so busy with stuff right now... And these weeds have got me so short-tempered that I'm afraid my advice would not carry a very useful measure of constraint. It's easy to play God in the back yard, harder to keep things in perspective.

I remember in high school someone came up with the idea of having a pep rally in the parking lot and building a big bonfire. The original plan was to dress up a dummy as a player for the opposing team and toss the dummy into the fire, but at the last minute our principal thought that such a thing might be ill-advised, considering we were a Catholic school and centuries out of practice. Even without the ritual sacrifice, the fire reached high into the night sky, feeding the heavens with chants of death for the poor suckers down the road. Where did that come from?

Here's my orchid in full bloom--a bit of a disappointment, color-wise, but I can't exactly say why. If you click on the picture you will get a larger version, and you can see a smiley face right in the middle, a crazed cartoon bee holding a bucket to collect the corpses of unsuspecting insects.

The next installment of Hopelessly Devoted comes from Japan. Future note to self (if I am reading this in 20 or 30 years): People didn't always love Americans, but they loved the music.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Beautyberry Bush

A friend of ours brought us a new plant, a beautyberry bush (Callicarpa ?) that I planted next to the upper pond on Sunday and it already has doubled in size, a good sign that it's in the right place. These evergreen bushes have nice berries (not sure what color yet) that can be used to make wine, and the plant repels mosquitoes, so it was a very thoughtful gift. Mosquitoes don't seem to like me (maybe because I eat so much garlic?), but they really enjoy biting on Cheryl, whose many charms and attractions are evident without my unworthy attempt to describe them.

To change the subject completely, a news story yesterday reminded me of an incident from junior high, when an older guy put me in a head lock in front of several classmates, none of whom seemed very concerned that my dignity was draining out from my head and onto the floor. I'm sure no one in the world remembers the incident except me. The guy said he would let me go only after I quacked like a duck. And so, unable to struggle free, I said quack, quack and he let me go.

But yesterday I learned that the Iranian regime, the guys who stole the recent election there, have trotted some of these demonstrators in front of the TV cameras to make confessions--how they were sorry, how they were influenced by the U.S. to betray their county, and so on, all obvious lies--forced confessions made by brave people to save themselves or to save their children from being picked up and tortured. These people had no choice other than to humiliate themselves, and yet, to the end of their lives, after the political events in Iran play out, after their friends console them, they will still remember their time in front of the camera and the meaningless quack, quack they said in 2009, that is, if they are not executed soon.

Last night Cheryl and I started watching Persepolis, an animated film made by an Iranian, and I've never seen anything like it--a very compelling story about a girl and the events in Iran since the days of the Shah and about how the extreme faction of Muslims gained control of the country in a series of events that could also happen in the U.S. if we do not keep an eye on religious nuts and the dumb thugs (those guys from junior high) that become their enforcers.

On a lighter note, the leatherleaf fern (I believe that's what it is) in the upper pond finally reached critical mass, like it does every summer, and toppled over from the weight of its leaves. I have big rocks in the bottom of the pot, but they can't keep it upright. Here is Willow, taking charge of the project even though she dislikes yard work. To fix this, I'll need to lug the thing up out of the water (it must weight 80 pounds) and trim it back severely. Nothing in the yard grows with more intensity than this fern. In a couple of weeks I'll start a new project in the house--probably paneling the guest room with pine.

On a yet lighter note, here's another in a series of "hopelessly devoted" videos from around the world.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Mango

After our mango tree lost all of its flowers to a freeze last January, I cut the branches back and the tree flowered a second time (by lucky chance), giving us about seven mangoes that are nearly ripe now.

The Mango seems decidedly foreign, with its tropical leaves that come in first a copper color before turning green. We certainly didn't have trees like this where I grew up in Arkansas or where I lived in Arizona. When viewed from a distance, the U.S. seems segmented like a typical arboretum, with the tropical trees located next to the cactus room, which is followed by the orchid room and so on, producing such a great variety of plants and music and food and opinion and culture and people that the concept of we might be an illusion for all practical purpose.

But get a mango tree out in the open and surround it with other plants and it fits in nicely. Diversity and contrast produce balance and beauty, disrupting our tendency to extend the concept of us-ness to the extreme, something of the sort found in some political thought and in people who claim, for example, that they know what it means to be an American (and that they are it).

I do not doubt this mango's intent--it will overshadow and consume some of my favorite plants if I don't keep it trimmed back. Left to it own intent, the mango would surround itself with other mangos and block out the sun completely.

Some of us (like me), left to our own intent, are not very social, preferring to stay home and work in the garden and pursue our narrow self-interest, but we remain interested in big picture and how we fit in it, hoping that the future will fit within our sense of balance.

I've always liked this song.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Night-blooming Cereus

We have three quite different plants called night-blooming cereus in the yard, and all they really have in common is the shape and color and behavior of their flowers. One look at the flower (which looks like the one in Little Shop of Horrors) and you might speculate (and as I intend to prove below) that it is actually an alien of some sort, body-snatching life forms on earth at random and then blooming only at night as a way to communicate with each other in their long-term plan to body-snatch humans and dogs.

The first of these plants is the one that is most-commonly referred to as night-blooming cereus (the word cereus means candle in Latin). This is Selenicereus grandiflorus, also known as queen of the night, large-flowered cactus, sweet-scented cactus and vanilla cactus. For most of the year this plant is no more than a green stick climbing up our punk tree. But in the spring the stick makes a valiant effort and produces a flowery appendage much larger than expected (though I am reluctant to point this out), a flower that surely has a mind of its own.

The second of these night-blooming cereus(s) has been growing in our side yard for years. This one is commonly known as a hedge cactus (Cereus peruvianus), probably 30 feet tall, and its flowers are pollinated by bats (which are the slaves and minions of these alien, body-snatcher flowers). Like the others, this plant is restructuring itself to feed off of human and dog blood.

The third plant belongs to a different species altogether (Epiphyllum oxypetalum) but is still often referred to as a cereus. Its common names are Dutchman's pipe cactus and orchid cactus . The body-snatching process went awry on this one, and the sensuous flower grows directly from the side of the leaf, clear proof of alien origin. How else can you explain such a thing?

In India this third plant is known as bakawali, which (as you surely remember) was the name of a Bengali fairy (or extraterrestrial) who centuries ago won the heart of Prince Tajulmulk, a love story that has served as the basis for more than a few movies from the '30s and '40s. In reality, the Bakawali flower and the fairy were one and the same, though we can only speculate about how this romance actually came to flower. Here's the G rated version, with maidens preparing Bakawali for the prince (oh, the horror).

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Vanda

You might expect someone to wait until after an orchid blooms to take a picture, but this one is a special case--the first orchid I ever bought. It's been subject to a variety of torture at my hands. Too much water, not enough, too much sun, not enough, here, there, until after a year or so I gave up and placed it under a fire bush plant where its free-hanging roots could touch the ground. And then I pretty much forgot about it. Now, after another year or two free from my toxic interference, it has decided to bloom.

From what I can tell, this is a type of Vanda orchid, an epiphyte with roots that seem dead but that quickly turn green when dunked in water. Of course the flowers will help to nail down the genus and species, but I was so happy to see these buds that, after consulting our Thai friend, Dar, I moved the orchid to hang here under the balcony on the back porch and I took these unimpressive pictures. Consider them a study in anticipation.

The Orchid Thief is not a great book but it paints a good picture of obsessive behavior, of orchid festivals and conventions and nutty people who dedicate their lives to this plant. Crazy, except I probably can't go more than 30 minutes without looking out the back door to see if a flower has popped out (not that my life is so uneventful).

Also, this week we are watching a tiny female pug for a friend who's been in and out of the hospital (I hope she's better soon). Here's a shot of the two ponds, Cheryl taking a picture, the black pug sniffing and snorting and Willow hiding behind a cactus. Pugs were my mom's favorite dog, and it's nice to have her here, if only to imagine how happy my mom would be if she were also here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Social Ism

So that I stay on message, here is a flowering pipe vine (Aristolochia elegans) from the back yard. Pretty impressive for such a tiny plant--the stem is about the size of capellini pasta and the leaves are heart shaped. I suppose you might say this looks like a big Sherlock Holmes pipe...

What's really on my mind is the call I got last night from Barack and how we had a good laugh, talking about things silly and serious, and the subject of socialism came up. A few right-wing nut jobs recently have called for a boycott of GM, calling it Government Motors and arguing that it should fail because, they say, socialism cannot be allowed to succeed. America, they say, is a country based on self-reliance, a place where individuals exist and the collective should not.

The problem with individuals is that most of them are not you. For instance, suppose you want to hire 24-hour security for your house and find that it is too expensive. You and your neighbors could get together and hire some security for the neighborhood, because you know how generous and reasonable your neighbors are.

But instead of waiting for these meetings to conclude, the government has decided that you and your neighbors can call 911 any time and you will pay taxes for it whether you like it or not because, as you must admit, your neighbors are idiots and are complete unreasonable and incapable of compromise, so you will never decide this on your own. Likewise, you and your neighbors can cancel your meetings about a fire department, the armed forces, the courts, schools, jails, social services, public transportation, medicare, animal services, medicaid, libraries, water, food inspectors, sewer, and so on.

How about a paved road to connect your neighborhood to other neighborhoods? Again, your neighbors would like to discuss this with you. Some of them don't even drive, they say, wagging a finger at you. And not just the roads, but what about sidewalks and curbs and drains and street lights and bridges and dams and parks?

How about if your farm is in trouble? (No, not you, small family farmer guy, you are SOL.) I'm talking about the collective of corporate farmers who get government subsidies to grow wheat, corn and soybeans and to produce milk, meat and cheese. We need this stuff, right? And you business collectives--steel, copper and so on--who get subsidies to stay in business. Not to mention you big shot corporations who can manage to get tax shelters because you can afford to buy influence and move jobs overseas, a purely socialist approach to advance your notion of capitalism.

Obviously the system could be improved, but let's be honest--this is a socialist country.

So now some of the neighbors have had a meeting and have decided that they won't buy GM products, for fear of socialism, though to be honest some are still sore about Obama and wouldn't be saying this if Bush or McCain or Sarah Palin were president. I missed the meeting (too bad).

Here's a good one.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Un-Gilding the Lily

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue...

Few if any plants have a more cool image than the sacred Indian lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), a symbol for purity and beauty in eastern cultures, woven deeply into centuries of art and literature.

It's no wonder, considering my nature, that when I was told by the previous owners of this house that we had a lotus in our koi pond, I was quick to believe it and to repeat the fantasy to everyone, and I have been slow to finally take the time to verify the plant for myself.

The plant in our pond (pictured above) is actually a Fragrant Water Lily (Nymphaea odorata), or so I've been told by my CIA friend who knows about these things. And though the true lotus was once considered a Nymphaea, and though the Nymphaea have commonly been called lotuses, the distinction must be acknowledged. Our lily is no lotus.

The true lotus has a seed pod like this, perfect for Vishnu or some other Hindu big shot to sit upon and look serene. My lily flower has no such pod. The lotus leaves hang in air above the water while mine float on top like all Nymphaea lilies. These are obvious differences, but I never really wanted to know them, preferring instead to believe it perfectly reasonable that we would have a sacred Indian lotus in our back yard, something to tell our guests in an attempt to impress them. Such is the nature of self-deception and pride.

Though not a lotus, our white and fragrant water lily has a flower that is incredibly beautiful. It's native to Florida and perfectly happy in the small corner of our upper pond. The fish can keep cool under its broad and thick leaves, another advantage during the hot summer. So while it is not a celebrated plant, while it is not a spiritual icon, I like it very much. In fact, I like it more now that I did before, and I intend to apologize to it today for ever wanting it to be more than it is. Well, maybe I will just give its leaves a nice cleaning.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Sweet Viburnum

On Sunday I planted several new viburnums along the back fence, anticipating that someday (soon, I hope) these will rise up and create an even better sense of isolation for the back yard, not that we ever even see another human being from back there. The sweet viburnum (playfully classified as Viburnum odoratissimum) grows to 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide (less so for our unfortunate neighbors to the north--not that size is an issue), thick and fragrant and dense and perfect to block out all traces of the un-backyard.

Putting in new plants is an emotional process for me, as reluctant as I am to admit it. (Honestly, would you force me to say that I'm a wonderful person?) You start out with a plant, take it to the site of its new home, put it to the side, and then begin digging, which in this case was tough because the ground is cross-hatched with one-inch thick roots in all directions, letting me know that the neighborhood does not exactly welcome additional water-suckers.

The viburnum is not concerned, not complaining, not scolding me for picking a questionable spot; it is just waiting, maybe like a kid waiting to enter a college dorm room for the first time but thinking only about beer or boys or girls, not about the significance of the event itself, which for the viburnum is permanent--there's no going back to the store. It's show time.

For the next few weeks, the viburnum will be vulnerable and will depend on me for water. If things work out, the plants will become independent just as I get tired of fussing over them.

Meanwhile, Willow, who has no interest in botany or landscaping, is prone to displays of ennui, probably for attention since we are likely to say Oh Willow, why are you looking so sad, after which she will jump up and run around and lick us. I suppose she knows that we never tire of fussing over her.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Corn Plant (Dragon's Blood)

The corn plant (Dracaena fragrans) in our side yard is in bloom just outside my office balcony--this one is nearly 20 feet tall. Most people buy this plant to grow indoors after being assured by the Home Depot lady that it cannot be killed, only to discover, several weeks later, that the plant is suicidal and singing songs from that Momma Mia movie over and over (only slowly and with a blank stare).

In the nursery (like the picture to the right) the corn plant looks more dead than alive, like some reject from an artificial plant assembly line, little more than a stick chopped off at the top with a flurry of big leaves. Move it to the outside, though, and plant it in partial shade (then leave it alone), and it transforms into a thing of beauty

The genus name Dracaena is the key--these are an exotic group of plants that includes the dragon's blood tree (or Dracula's blood tree, according to the original accounts) discovered on the Canary islands in the 15th century by horrified explorers who described a tree dripping with blood, which is actually a red resin that drips from the tree and that later served as the magical ingredient for varnish used by the early Italian violin makers. Dragon's blood made its way into the Americas as an ink used in voodoo rituals for writing portents, seals and curses onto paper that is then folded away in a dark place.

The Latin Dracaena literally means "she-dragon" and references to dragon's blood can be found in popular literature, including this exchange in a Harry Potter novel, propping up the fabricated rumor that Dracaena resin might be a sort of cure-all (though the blood below is oddly described as greenish):

“You’re not going to eat that, are you, Hagrid?” said Ron, leaning in for a closer look. “It looks poisonous.”
“It’s s’posed ter look like that, it’s dragon meat,” Hagrid said, “An’ I didn’ get it ter eat.”
He picked up the steak and slapped it over the left side of his face. Greenish blood trickled down into his beard as he gave a soft moan of satisfaction.
“Tha’s better. It helps with the stingin’, yeh know.”

But don't be fooled. These blood references all trace back to the vampires and their big-fanged dogs that were once feared and known by the name dragon before they were, as the result of an ancient curse, transformed into trees on the island of Socotra.