|'Kerala Red' Amaranth|
The south winds are the worst. The garden is fairly well protected from our prevailing northwesterlies, but there isn't much shelter for it to the south. Last Thursday night a windstorm came through, the kind that bends the upper branches of the trees at right angles and has all your perennials leaning to starboard for a day or so. It was a night of sudden thuds and thumps, of wondering idly whose patio furniture was going to be where by morning.
The raised microgarden took a hit, more than the plants at ground level. I had just planted carrot seeds—lightweight, insubstantial, surface-sown carrot seeds—and have no idea whose yard they're gracing now. Judging by where they've begun to sprout, the arugula seeds drifted up against the amaranth on the microgarden's north end before finding safe harbor; perhaps the carrots have done the same. The tomatillo plants, which are just now setting on nicely, were pushed over into the amaranth, too, and some are still leaning heavily against it. Without its support, they might have blown over altogether. I've almost begun to think of amaranth as my right-hand man in the garden—I don't know what I would do without it.
Not that it fared particularly well. Wind is its Achilles heel, and its oldest, windward leaves are looking extra shreddy and battered now. It's been having its own private little autumn for about six weeks anyway; it has flowered and set seed and is nearing the end of its life span. Despite all that, despite age and weather, it's still sitting tall in the saddle, its stems like laser beams keeping the north end of the patio alight, its younger, leeward leaves luminescent in the sun. It's still feeding the goldfinches (and I do wish they'd let me get a photograph). When I pulled the spent summer veggies last week, two mantises emerged from the amaranth's shelter to protest, one of them pawing at the air with a front leg, for all the world like a dog, if a dog were green and angular and thought mostly "Oy!"
I begin to understand why the Aztecs gave amaranth a central role in their most important ceremonies, why Montezuma demanded it as tribute, why the Spanish banned the growing or eating of it after the conquest: it's so useful, and on so many levels, that you begin to revere it. It gives shelter to beneficial insects, feeds the birds, offers support to weaker plants, thrives in the heat of summer. I'm impressed and never even got around to eating it this year, which was, after all, the whole point of planting it. Had I spent the summer tossing together quick sautés of the leaves like I usually do (olive oil and onion, a little lemon and chipotle chile powder), I might feel impelled to salute.
"Tall in the saddle" is the way you sit when you've done yourself proud. Online definitions vary, but they all hover in the vicinity of staunch, resolute, and heroic.
I don't really think that amaranth is heroic, you know. It's a plant, growing the way its genes have told it to. But some plants need care and fussing and nurturing before they'll reward you with a bloom or a fruit; some cheerfully do what you ask and no more. Some, though, astonish you by doing more than you ever expected when you planted them, thinking one-dimensionally about summer greens. From seeds as tiny as grains of sand they become worlds unto themselves, worlds of shelter and nourishment and strength, useful to the lives that depend on them even when they're ready to hand the baton to next summer's seeds, to fade back into the soil.
They do themselves proud.