Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Primrose Path

or What Happens Next

"Barberry, the Three-Toed Elephant" is a tale about youth, difference, and acceptance—not to mention a wise, understanding Mama Elephant—created by my mother (hi, Mom!).  She told this story as a serial tale, unfolding it over several evenings, lo these many years ago when my sister and I were young.  Mom would start spinning the new day's installment, and my sister and I would listen eagerly.  At some point one of us would say something like, "But what about the lion, isn't there a lion?" or "Couldn't they have hot fudge sundaes for lunch instead?"  Mom would blink for a minute, not having expected lions or quite such a drastic change in the jungle lunch menu.  Then she'd say, in a mysterious voice that let you know she'd planned for this all along and had a real treat in store, "We'll get to that a little later."  And at some point within the next two sentences to 24 hours, a lion and some hot-fudge sundaes would show up.

It was interactive story-telling at its best—not like those so-called interactive novels where you choose alternate possibilities from a pre-set range of options that lead to already-written results.  Those are just entertaining multiple-choice tests.  Mom, on the other hand, was ready to swing at whatever curveball we threw her.  We were all agog to find out what happened next, because none of us, not even the teller of the tale, knew quite what to expect.

I've begun to conclude that that's really my approach to gardening—that gardening is an interactive story, and I am one of a co-op of story-tellers, agog to find out what happens.  It would be more satisfying in some ways to be a visual-artist type gardener, creating a series of shifting, seasonal tableaux; or an exterior decorator, coming up with a pleasing arrangement of living furniture.  I envy both of those, I really do—the results are so consistently beautiful, so worthy of photographing and sharing with the world.

Instead...well, let's just say that there's a reason I usually only show close-ups of my garden—i.e., the larger picture often looks kind of silly.*  The reason the larger picture looks silly is that I often swing at curveballs and miss.  But sometimes the garden throws tempting things your way, and you can't just stand back and let the umpire call the pitch.  Gosh darn it, you're here to play ball!

So there is a bare patch under one of the bird feeders, because I wanted to know what all those madly sprouting millet and sunflower seeds would do if given a chance.  (Now I know:  they will grow enthusiastically until the June heat hits and then fizzle completely.)  Random sandcherry seedlings are sprouting under the bushes, because I wondered what would happen if I let last year's cherries lie.  (They grow.  And grow!  Will they become a thicket in time?  Let's find out!)  I have pots and pots of feverfew, because I wondered what would happen if I let last year's flowers set seed.  (They grow beautifully, but in inconvenient places, which can fortunately be changed.)  The pineleaf penstemon patch is currently a sprangly mess, because I want to know what will happen if I let the flower spikes do their thing, whatever that is.  (I will let you know when I find out.)  (If it's interesting.)  (And how can it not be??)

Really, there are only two options in this story line:  the plants live, or they die.  Both stories are incredibly compelling.  Wondering which will happen is the first step down the primrose path to chaos, to haphazard untidiness—or, in its own small way, to adventure, to the great (or even lesser, if there is such a thing) unknown.

When an unidentified plant began forming a lovely basal rosette at the trunk of one of my desert olives last year, I left it, on the theory that if it thrives out here (and isn't a goathead [a hateful plant whose Latin name I love:  Tribulus terrestris] or a tumbleweed), it deserves some encouragement, if not outright applause.  The rosette survived our freak winter cold and, come April, began to spring up, snaking its way alongside the tree trunk(s) until it is now taller than I am.  For the last few weeks it has been poking stems beyond the tree branches into the sunshine, and apparently blooming its heart out—overnight.  When I go inside for the evening at bedtime it is still in bud; by 6:00 in the morning the flowers are already beginning to close.

Sadly, I can't get a much broader perspective without climbing
over the wall into my neighbor's garden...

I suspect that it's a Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis), but it sure isn't common around here.  I've never seen one before and have no idea where this one might have come from.  Frankly, it looks kind of goose-ish, stretching out long stalks from inside the tree.  But as it begins to set seed, I'm planning to let things run their course.   I'm walking that primrose path into the unknown.

Because I just can't stand not knowing:  what happens next?**

* To use the word "larger" about a 14' x 14' primary planting area is a little ridiculous to begin with, but you get the general idea.
** Of course, I could ask the question, "What would happen next if I did everything by the book and didn't take a lot of fools' risks?"  But I won't.


  1. Choreographed tableaux and furniture - that is blah. Interactive story gardening is intriguing ...

  2. Looks like an evening primrose to me. The seeds remain viable for decades, so it could have sat around somewhere for a long, long time, just waiting for the moment it could become the hot fudge sundae of your garden story...

  3. I've never seen tall lanky primroses like yours before. I love how yellow takes on different casts, sometimes, a little more golden.

  4. Stacy, I love this philosophy of gardening. I have evening primroses pop up periodically in the gravel outside my basement door. (They're easier to identify here because the flowers often stay open until late morning or even early afternoon in my cool Maine climate.) The one that grew there last year would have been about 9' tall if it hadn't been knocked over by heavy rain at some point and was growing horizontally instead. -Jean

  5. Diana, at heart I fully agree with you, but sometimes it would be nice to sit on the patio and look at something all-out attractive... Perhaps the idea is just to become a better story-teller with plants.

    Jill, I had no idea primrose seeds could stay viable for such a long time. I've done a fair amount of soil disturbing the last few years, so maybe that gave this particular seed its chance. I understand a little better now how my Mom must have felt with her children's random ideas coming at her...

    GirlSprout, the height took me completely by surprise--the primroses I've seen have always been short, maybe a foot tall, like your macrocarpas. Jean at Jean's Garden had a lovely post on yellows last week.

    Jean, I'm kind of torn on that philosophy at the moment. I can't see it changing, and it's satisfying to my sense of curiosity, but in a small garden there's just not much room for error (after error). I just wish I could get one bed to come together for a couple of years at a stretch!

    9' tall--that's astonishing! What a lovely surprise to find outside a basement door, too--the kind of area that generally needs a little cheering and brightening.

  6. I think ... your mother sowed one of her story-telling seeds into you!

  7. Sounds like you are experimenting. Letting live and let live. It is fun to see what grows from bird seed. I did this year, but they did not whither and die. I had to pull them out when they started getting too big. If I try to grow sunflower it dies. It the birds drop it, it flourished, go figure.