When I envision "workhorses" they're not usually pink and fluffy. The other night I watched the first episode of All Creatures Great and Small, where James Herriot tends to a draft horse—a literal work horse, the real McCoy, with its bell-shaped hooves and gentle-giant demeanor. A metaphorical workhorse ought to be like that, too: sturdy, imperturbable, gifted with immense stamina, willing to do your heavy lifting in exchange for a little hay and a pat on the nose.
Not pink, with little frothy things sticking out all over.
Along the side of my townhouse is a long, skinny planting area where Jupiter's beard (Centranthus ruber) cuts quite a dash with the Russian sage. I water it once, deeply, in spring; during our rare rainstorms it gets the runoff from the canales. Other than that, it fends for itself. It starts blooming in May and some years keeps going until Christmas or later. In winter its foliage turns a beautiful red.
Plants that flower for months on end also tend to do lots of this, of course:
For the first time since early June (don't hate me—it's a tiny, heavily mulched, dry climate garden during a drought year) I have weeding to do, and almost all of it is Jupiter's beard. I usually leave some of the seedlings where they are. This one, for example, showed up last year just outside the kitchen door against the north side of the house and has been blooming enthusiastically all summer:
I have never given it a lick of attention. It has never once been watered, and our official rainfall total for the year so far is 1.91 inches. Every morning I accidentally step on it in fuzzy slippers; early this summer the aphids played Dracula with it. Now, with the sun moving farther south, the main stems are having to sprawl horizontally to get the blossoms into the sunlight. The centranthus hasn't minded any of that. It just blooms, blooms, blooms. And a cheerful sight it is, greeting you the minute you step out the door, inviting you into its world of vibrant color.
|You can mouse over the image to see the original photo. Not that the original|
is so different or interesting, but I've just learned how to do this little bit of
bloggy schtick and am kind of jumping up and down about it.
I was thinking about a conversation a friend had with his father a few years ago. The father had grown up on a farm during the Depression and didn't see the point of keeping pets if they weren't working animals. A cat ought to be a mouser; a dog should hunt or guard. Otherwise, they were a waste of food. My friend, on the other hand, held that "companion animals" do different but no less important work.
Luther T. Dog was their case in point. Luther was a beagle and coon hound mix, hard wired by both sets of ancestors to lie around on a sunny porch (or comfy sofa) all day and then, when something interesting-smelling came along, to chase it up a tree and bark at it. (Surely this is the pinnacle of dogdom.) His "work" was to nose out small game, and if only I had kept up my end of the bargain and hunted it down, he would have been happy to work all day. I never did, but we enjoyed many an off-leash ramble through the woods in southwestern New York, Luther chasing things up trees and barking, me calling him back to what we thought of as heel.
Enjoyed. I write that word and shake my head at its inadequacy. Luther and joy went together like...like coffee and mugs; it's hard to envision one without the other. He was joy, joy in a fur coat, more than any dog I've ever known. I can't think of anyone who liked dogs at all that wasn't touched—soothed, gladdened, even inspired—by his unclouded delight in each new moment, in each new experience (unless tile floors or houseflies were involved, of course). Trust me, that dog helped with a lot of heavy lifting at need.
"You're useless," my friend's father told Luther, right before scratching him under the chin and giving his chest an affectionate rub and getting his own face licked and slipping a little food under the dinner table. My friend winked at me and rested his case.
Some plants earn their keep in the garden by doing obvious work: anchoring a bed, bearing fruit, balancing a color scheme, or any number of other practical tasks. Others operate on more subtle levels—soothing, gladdening, inspiring. They'll help you through a rough patch just by blooming, by growing in good, honest dirt. They'll embody your joy in their translucent colors, they'll lift your spirits in wonder at each tiny, perfect detail.
|It's as if the seeds bud and flower, too.|
For me those "companion" plants change from day to day, mostly depending on which one I'm paying the most attention to at the time. Today it happens to be Jupiter's beard, admirable on so many levels. Sturdy, imperturbable, gifted with stamina, willing to help with all kinds of heavy lifting—that sounds like a pink and fluffy workhorse to me.
Go on, give it a pat on the nose.