Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Will to Thrive

In Which We Admire a Lady

I have been thinking about role models lately—those whom I admire, honor, and do my best to emulate; and do you know, it's astonishing how few of them are plants.   People, absolutely—I can think of plenty of people before whose large-heartedness, strength, courage, and grace I have been happy to bow.   Animals, yes—Luther T. Dog had a streak of joy running through him the likes of which I have never seen before or since, and he was an endlessly good sport to boot.   If I had those two traits of his in that measure, I would call my life a success.

But plants?   I can't remember a single occasion when I have found myself saying, "If I study hard enough, eat all my vegetables, and think good thoughts, maybe someday I too can be like this bit of greenery."   That is, until now.   I planted a Lady Banks rose this year, and I am in awe.

Lady Banks is a climbing rose native to China that is evergreen, almost thornless, and tolerant of drought.   It blooms only once each year, with lightly fragrant pale yellow (or white) roses, but that single blooming is so abundant, so profligate, that it lingers in memory for months.   And it is as tough as nails.

I had had a Lady Banks rose growing in a pot for two full years before planting it this spring—and I don't mean a large, spacious, room-to-grow-in sort of pot, but just the flimsy black plastic jobby from the nursery.   I'd purchased the rose with an idea in mind of where to plant it, but it didn't really work out in the garden.   Stymied, I resorted to hoping that a brilliant plan and about 15 feet of new gardening space would miraculously come to me.   (They didn't.)   It wasn't until I dug out three elder berry bushes late last winter that a good spot for the rose became apparent.

Meanwhile, Lady Banks had rather a rough time over the course of those two years.   I'd done what I could to shield the roots in their sun-intensifying black pot from the full blast of summer by hiding it in the middle of some perennials (catmint and Lady Banks work well together, in case you were wondering), and that seemed to help, but I was never sure quite how much to water it in the winter (which, being interpreted, means that I usually forgot about it altogether), and I often found myself pruning off dead growth (erm, a lot of dead growth).   By the time I was finally ready to put the rose in the ground this spring, literally two-thirds of its roots had been eaten away, possibly by roly-polies, judging from the number of them squirming around in the sudden sunshine.   What soil was left had been reduced to some odd-textured, sandy pellet-y stuff.   In fact, there was so little soil left that a black widow spider had taken up residence in the bottom, empty two-thirds of the pot.

Yet even with all those strikes against it, the rose is doing beautifully.   To have so few roots left and survive transplant shock, let alone summer heat and drought, is impressive enough, but it has survived—survived, settled in, and grown.   It is still a small plant but now thickly leaved and lush;  it recently sent up a new cane about eight feet tall.   This is a plant that wants to thrive, even though I had given it every reason to die.

Why?   Why is it that some plants, whether entire species or single examples, are so eager to take hold, given the least bit of encouragement—or none at all?   Why do others, in the same conditions, sulk or pine or fade away or even, as far as I can tell, spontaneously combust?   Why do some plants—some people—thrive, positively reveling in growth, while others merely live?   I out and out admire the Lady Banks rose—not for its beauty or blooms or shape or texture or usefulness or any of the other things I usually admire about a plant.   No, I admire the plant itself, for its sheer stubborn will to thrive, for the way it buckled down and hung on when its very roots were being eaten out from under it, and then leapt enthusiastically into life the first opportunity it had.

It does occur to me that the other plants I've known with the same indomitable spirit have been, not to put too fine a point on it, noxious weeds—you know, bindweed, goat's heads, poison ivy... And the example of the Tombstone Rose does provide rather a cautionary tale for someone with a small urban lot.   But pruning shears are my friends, and, on the off-chance that this particular plant should reach world record proportions several decades from now, by then it will be someone else's problem.   In the meantime, I am off to study hard, eat lots of vegetables, and think good thoughts.

Because Lady Banks is my idea of a lady.


  1. I wonder if that was the swags of tiny buttery yellow roses I was admiring on Wednesday?

  2. I wouldn't be surprised—they're fairly early bloomers as roses go, and swags, tiny, and buttery yellow sounds just like them. I'd think they would love a climate like yours.

  3. I asked myself some of those very questions this summer. I cannot garden at all and don't know what three-fourths of the plants in my yard are because the previous owners of my house were the ones who installed them. Yet, after 50 inches of snow over the winter with temperatures of 30 below zero, I still got day lilies, roses, hosta flowers, lilacs and many mystery flowers this summer. Go figure.