Mormon tea (Ephedra viridis) has only the tiniest of leaves, useless little scales that you'd hardly recognize as leaves at all. It keeps its chlorophyll in its stems instead, which is unusual behavior in a shrub but an ingenious response to the desert, as Ephedra has no broad surfaces to be robbed of moisture by the wind and sun. Even in its first year after planting, it doesn't want much watering, and after that it's quite content with rainfall. It seems to be a unique cross—or a link—between conifers and flowering plants and is a little odd-looking. But then, the climate it's adapted to is an odd one, too. In the hottest corner of the garden between the south and west-facing walls, I don't know what would do better.
Years ago I was visiting with a friend at his house back in rural New York state. He was a grad student in Renaissance literature, and we got ourselves lost in a discussion of Shakespeare. We had come to a knotty point about Henry V when a squirrel in the garden made its way over the baffle that should have stopped it but mostly didn't, and scampered on up the bird feeder. My friend excused himself mid-sentence, opened the living room window, picked up a BB gun lying on the sill, fired a few shots at the roof of the feeder, frightened off the squirrel, put down the gun, closed the window, and resumed discussing Henry as if nothing had happened. "This," I thought, "is how eccentrics are born."*
For many people, I do think eccentricity proceeds that way: You're off on your own somewhere, in circumstances that call for an intense kind of focus, and don't stop to wonder whether your actions are quirky or strange. You just do what needs done with the resources you have, without looking up and around at the wider world, and the next thing you know, that focus, that set of responses, has turned into habit. Shakespeare and BB guns have merged into one harmonious world in your head. You've shed your leaves, the chlorophyll has moved into your stems, and the neighbors have started to look at you funny. You may have adapted well to the circumstances, but that doesn't mean you're not a little...odd.
|The micro-garden, showing two colors of orach, along with pepper cress and garlic.|
One of my current neighbors and I take turns peeking over our shared garden wall to see what the other is growing. We have completely different approaches and interests, which is half the fun, of course. He's particularly fascinated by the micro-garden, the divided, 2' x 4' raised bed where I grow vegetables. "What's that on the end?" he'll ask, and we'll start working our way around the bed. Orach, amaranth, arugula, sweet potato vine, pepper cress. "Don't you ever just grow, you know, lettuce?"
I don't—it doesn't thrive, as my non-vegetable growing neighbor hasn't had to discover. I find myself going farther afield from lettuce and spinach every year, not in the quest for something new and different, just for something that will get past its first set of true leaves before bolting. The hunt for leafy vegetables that will do well in strong southern sun a mile above sea level, with single-digit relative humidity, 25-30°F differences between day and night-time temperatures, strong winds, and plagues of leafhoppers, is unending it seems. The time between last frost and scorching heat, on the other hand, is short. Lettuce is not adapted. Anyone wanting greens would be smarter just to break off a twig of Mormon tea and start gnawing.
Failing that, however, I'm growing orach (Atriplex hortensis), as it bolts without turning bitter. Orach wouldn't be an unusual garden plant if we were in France, say, and it's not an odd plant in itself at all—it's perfectly lovely, in fact, in entirely normal ways. It keeps its chlorophyll in its leaves and everything. Its only oddity lies in being rare in a world of grocery stores, where salad means lettuce. I say all this to my neighbor.
He gives me the humoring look reserved for harmless eccentrics.
* Squirrels have a lot to answer for.