not for sale / roots


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.


I'm mostly Norwegian myself, with a dash of French, German, English and Native American thrown in.
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 from.
Except when it comes to plants.
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 young.
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 a whipping.*
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 pet theories.
Still, identifying 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.
You'll inevitably 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 tribal practices.
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.