The following was first published (in a slightly different
form) in The Southern California Gardener in 1995. An abbreviated
version of "Roots" appeared in the Silver
Lake Press in November, 2002.
Norwegian myself, with a dash of French, German, English and Native American
I drink French roast
coffee made with Colombian beans, and Pu-erh tea from China brewed in
an English stoneware pot. My bubblebath is from Italy, my shirt from Afghanistan;
even the style of my bungalow, I've learned, originates in another land.
The fact is, I know my roots -- and I'm not alone. Exposed as we are,
these days, to an explosion of multicultural influences and goods, it
seems like everyone knows their past, what they've got and where it's
Except when it comes
Despite the surge of
worldwide trade in exotic plants that started in the second half of the
sixteenth century and has never let up, most of us don't have a clue about
the origins of the plants in our own backyard.
"They come from the
nursery," the wisecrackers among you say, before you add under your breath,
"Who gives a hoot?" But anyone with an open mind will be curious to see
how very applicable this knowledge can be: how knowing your roots can
transform a prosaic garden into a magnificent and productive showpiece,
save you time and money, stimulate the ol' grey matter and keep you forever
You think I'm exaggerating?
For starters, you'll
learn to avoid certain horticultural mistakes. Like hanging on to those
pathetic plants in the garden that detract from the over-all picture.
We all have one or two dreary specimens that are constantly attacked by
pests and pathogens despite coddling, forced feedings and intensive spraying
schedules. You could, of course, go through even more heroic measures
to save them, transplanting them from place to place, constructing drainage
ditches around their bases, tenting them from rain, changing their beds,
and generally just upholding the reputation that serious gardeners are
dotty, if not totally deranged.
Or, you could look
at their roots. Chances are good those plants are seriously displaced.
When I first started
gardening, I was enraptured by the delicate fairy primrose, Primula
malacoides. I planted masses in my Southern California garden and
sat back and waited for the glory. Unfortunately, the glory never came.
Slugs arrived instead, followed by regular blasts of desert wind and ninety-
degree weather in mid-winter. Despite my nightly slug raids and rallies
of that ilk, in the end I was as beaten as the seedlings themselves. Now
I know why: I was trying to fight their nature. P. malacoides comes
from a damp, fresh, temperate climate in China. It wants to be in the
mists of an English garden or at least in coastal California's fog belt.
Chez moi it was fatally homesick.
If only I'd learned
my lesson back then, I'd have saved myself and my plants more grief. Instead,
I forged ahead in my ignorance, blissfully planting yet another Asian
misfit, an almond tree. It has never born fruit -- even after I gave it
Don't count on the
nursery staff to warn you about inappropriate plants: the vested interests
of the gardening industry don't always coincide with ours. We gardeners
need to do our own research.
It's not an exact
science. Some plants have been so thoroughly civilized and hybridized
that, given chemicals, amendments and artificial irrigation, they'll perform
anywhere. Others -- even species plants -- don't seem to be chained to
their past and will excel in a "wrong" situation. That's certainly the
case with creeping fig, Ficus pumila. By the book, it should languish
in my Los Angeles neighborhood, but this horror is capable of undermining
house foundations, latching onto walls and climbing four stories or more
-- with no irrigation or fertilizer -- in its effort to mock me and my
roots is the most reliable means to a rich and satisfying garden. The
obvious choice of plants are species native to your region. Increasing
numbers of nurseries these days are offering a selection of native plants,
and native plant societies are terrific information resources. But you
can also look around the world for plants from climates similar to yours.
Once I wised up, I
planted Natal plum, Carissa grandiflora, from South Africa** instead
of a peach tree whose parents, like the primrose's, came from temperate
China; saffron crocus from the Mediterranean instead of crocus derived
from northern species; and Tohono O'odham shallots from the Sonora desert
of Arizona instead of drizzly Normandy.
These new plants that
I placed in my landscape were vigorous, dazzling, productive -- so clearly
glad with what they had, most of them thrived on pure rainwater alone.
They also required -- in my case at least -- no fertilizers, pesticides
or soil amendments, since plants that are in their element are naturally
healthy and pest-resistant.
Was it any wonder that
my interest in establishing a plant's roots soon became the Holy Grail?
If you're like me,
it'll become a passion, too. It won't be enough to know that a certain
plant comes from South Africa -- you'll only want plants from the Cape.
In Australia, you'll be drawn to the west; in Madagascar, the south, and
so on. If you live in North Dakota, you'll look to the Russian steppes.
In Portland, the north of Japan.
learn, too, that apart from cranberries, blueberries, pecans, sunflowers
and Jerusalem artichokes, none of our typical garden fruit and vegetables
originate in the United States. Yet this will be but a momentary hitch,
for you will join the Seed Savers Exchange, the non-profit organization
dedicated to preserving heirloom vegetables, and be able to grow seeds
that have successfully adapted to your region after decades, if not centuries,
of local collection and selection. And you will probably begin the ultimate:
saving seed from your own backyard, which will be specifically adapted
to your own microclimate and sprout roots that are deep and strong.
Sure, you may take
a step or two backward and fall for an inappropriate plant, but you'll
quickly return to the conclusion that -- like eating too much candy or
dating your best friend's husband -- you shouldn't always have everything
you want. And with that realization will come the peace of mind you find
when you stop fighting -- and start accepting -- the nature of your place.
There's another bonus.
Once you start tracking down information on your plants, you'll feel like
a child again: curious, hungry for knowledge, full of beans.
You'll learn Latin.
Visit botanical gardens and read the origins of plants on wee identification
plaques. Buy books, and go to the library and read in the stacks (Hortus
Third is an excellent resource; so is The American Horticultural
Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants). There's always the Internet,
too. It means a little investment in time or money, but at less cost than
a wheelbarrow full of plants from the nursery that'll never pay off.
Once on the trail,
you can ride your love of gardening into related terrains -- like geography,
geology and history, not to mention that discipline-of-the-moment: ethnobotany.
Who knows? You might stumble onto your favorite plant's roots in ancient
There'll come a day,
too, when you'll want to sniff out your roots at the source. After you've
seen the Coliseum or ogled the Kremlin, take a trip to the countryside
and see your plants in the wild. You may find you'll exchange seed with
local gardeners and farmers, even strike up international friendships.
Yes, you could avoid
the effort entirely and just look up a plant's cultural requirements before
making a purchase. Or you could take a stroll around your neighborhood
and note the plants that are vigorous. You could rely on trial and error,
too, and learn from your experience. All of these are fine, time-honored
ways to become a better gardener. But a little digging into the origins
of your plants will give you a larger perspective on gardening, and specimens
best suited to your particular spot on earth.
* Don't call the paddy wagon. Whipping is an ago-old folk remedy for encouraging
infertile trees to bear fruit.
** Natal plums make an excellent preserve, as tart and intensely- flavored
as cranberry sauce.
(c) copyright Elizabeth Stromme. All rights reserved.
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