I am in love with her. I confess; I have stocked her, bagged her and brought her home. I have pealed her, devoured her, and I will again. I can’t stop. I’m addicted. I love solanum tuberosum. I love her hot and mashed, with a pool of butter or gravy on top and salted — suck, smack and bam, mouthfuls of comfort and love.
And this is only the beginning of my confession. I am permanently, incurably smitten by the whole kingdom, Plantae — lovely. It’s not just the veggies, though I love my vegetables, the spicy lentil soup last night, the firm, moist slices of avocado with my mushroomed, onioned and green peppered eggs for breakfast yesterday. I love the whole of this kingdom, the trees, bushes, grasses, herbs, ferns, vines, mosses and green algae. Amazing! I love them all so much that I go out, on the hunt, and find them and bring as many of them home with me as I can, and I lovingly nurture each ones idiosyncratic beauty in my cupboards and in my backyard gardens.
This week, driving up East H Street away from my house, I couldn’t help but notice the liquid ambers in the center divide. I almost drove off the road ogling them. It’s December and fallish in San Diego and the ambers are red hot and fiery yellow and orange — wicked pretty, like Maine earlier in the year, but less so.
I fell in love with plants early. I’m sure it was the mashed peas, the yellow squash and the cereal my mom spooned into me. Or perhaps it was the lovely, dolled up tiger lilies in the front yard, or the curvy iris she planted at the top of the drive, big purple-golden and voluptuous blooms.
When I was big enough to get out on my own, into the woods, I was seduced by the Podophyllum peltatum with their long skinny legs, their deeply cut lobes, their single secund white flowers, their reaching rhizomes and their shapely umbrellas. I found them in the open mesic woodlands of Benton County, Missouri where we lived. I discovered them as clonal, encamped green canopies, gathered like beach umbrellas on a hot day at La Jolla Shores. I wacked them with a stick, knocking down whole forests of them for fun. It was fun, the harvest, or the battle, which is similar, I guess, but now I regret it. The mayapple is a larval host plant for the Variegated Fritillary. What dismay when the fritillaries came back! I repent, and now I plant passion vines in my yard to try to make it up to them.
One other special plant I remember from the primordial woods of my childhood is the lovely Morchella. When I first saw her in the woods, moist and supple among the dying elms, I was undone. I took her home, washed her, laid her down in egg and flour, fried her up and ripped her apart with my teeth. “Yum!” I went looking for more, and that was a good deal of the fun, the hunt, almost as good as looking for arrowheads, but tastier when found. I remember going out in the spring, after a rain, and looking around rotting logs, in soft, moist, rich soil, safe spots in the shade, eyes scanning, then suddenly the find, and another and, “There is another one!” Love it.
Some authors suggest that the genus only contains as few as 3 to 6 species, while others think there are up to 50 species. Phylogenetic analysis based on both RFLP and restriction enzyme analysis of the 28S ribosomal RNA gene support the former hypothesis, that the genus comprises only a few species with considerable phenotypic variation. The morels deserve the attention of the botanist as well as the gastronome. I’m good with the attention given to these lovely beings, and the findings. It has also been discovered that morels contain small amounts of hydrazine toxins, and have been thought to be a bit intoxicating, another reason to hunt and devour them.I’ve eaten too many. I’m irreparably intoxicated.
After I got married to a human, I confess that I went after the plants with even more passion. I got books, plant identification books, dessert plant books, marine plant books, mountain plant books, and I went out with literature in one hand and my wife in the other to find more lovelies. There was Claytonia perfoliata, a California trailing spring beauty. Their cotyledons are bright green, succulent, long, narrow bowls filled with tiny white and pink flowers. Like the morels, they love cool, damp places, under trees, along logs. Their common name is Miner’s lettuce and refers to their use by California gold rush miners to prevent scurvy. I like it when a plant has a known history like that, that ties me to the plant hunters of the past.
This fall, I visited the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, a walled, “secret” garden founded by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London in 1673 so its apprentices might study the medicinal qualities of plants. A worshipful society — I’m a part of that, in awe of God’s plant work. It was cold the day I visited the garden, and much of it was in winter mode, but the long history of the place was in full parade. Dr. Hans Sloane had a hand here too, purchasing about 4 acres and leasing it to the Society of Apothecaries for £5 a year in perpetuity. Some of the plants that have taken sanctuary here, such as Rosmarinus officinale and Jasminum officinale, have been in cultivation in this spot for several centuries. Official plants; I’m impressed. I went inside, where they were serving food, and ordered a veggie lasagna. It was hot, and vegetablish and delicious, a perfect feast at the Physic Garden.
The World Health Organization estimates that 75 to 80% of the world’s population still uses plant medicines. It has been estimated that 70 percent of all new drugs introduced in the United States in the past 25 years have been derived from natural products. Plants are the medicine cabinet of the world.
I honor this, and pay tribute to the Rubiaceae. When we visited the lovely island of Kauai a few years ago, we stayed one night on a coffee plantation, and took a tour. We awoke to green geckos on the walls and green tropical plants all around. Fascinating — the evergreen shrubs and small trees, the glorious green berries, the dark glossy leaves. The berries are green when immature, then they ripen to yellow, then crimson, and turn black upon being dried. I love this plant, and what she does for me. I live through this one.
Every morning when I wake up, the first thing I do is to go downstairs, with Megan following, her tail up as she descends the stairs, and together we enter the shrine to edible plants. I take down the special container with the dark brown Coffea canephor or Coffea arabica, and I pour the filtered holy water into the clean, clear glass pot, spoon the large scoops of the finely ground, roasted seeds into the paper filter, close the top with a click and press the bottom button. The magic commences — the steamy dripping, the seductive aroma, the growl and sputter as it finishes up, the slow pour into the mug with the warm milk at the bottom, the creamy tan swirl, the warmth in the hands, the first bitter sip slipping over the tongue, the flow of life down the throat, the return of energy and sanity after the long night — this is a bit of the summon bonum. By the second mug, I feel the magic, the buzz, the alert signals, the brightening colors, the return of hope. It has been said that coffee is proof that God loves us and wants us to pay attention. Yes, and yes, I feel the love.
This gets at it, the thing about love. Plantae is proof that we are loved. The plants delight us, heal us, feed us, shade us, energize us and more and more and more. Yesterday someone brought peppermint bark to a Christmas party I attended. I had four pieces, with coffee, and left the party happy with the world and assured that we are all loved. Theobroma cacao has to be one of the great sweethearts of the earth; it is so divine, so full of love, so helpful when life isn’t going quite right. Studies show that the plant originated in the Amazon, the hotbed of some many love-rich plants. I would not want to live without her, white, dark and every other form.
And even if we didn’t energize and glow from the use of the plants, the mere presence and appearance of this kingdom would alone be enough for us to glory in it. Take Cezanne; he loved the apples; he loved them for what they are, and taught us to love them too. He loved their special roundness, their unique color. I’ve seen the essence of the essence of the apples in his Pommes et bisquits in the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris. Cezanne instructs, points, suggest the possibility of loving more of the less, the simple forms, the minute variations in tone and color, the basic geometry of nature – the beauty of the cylinder, sphere and the cone. The plants offer this, the arc of the leaf, the sphere of the seed, the cylinder in the trunk, and thus they so look good up against the straight-edged world that we have created.
I’m undone. A world without plants, can you even imagine how vacant and comfortless it would be. It would be an unloved world. And so we must not let this go unnoticed. We must wake and shout, rave, jump up and down, dive in, look around, surface and praise God for the plants that decorate and energize our lives. We have way under-reacted. We are far to silent. If we don’t wake up and raise our voices, the rocks will animate and cry out.
And so today, waking and alerting, I celebrate Plantae, each and every one, my society garlic, raising their purple mouths to the sun in my backyard. My water lilies retreating into the rocks in my pond, preparing to rise again next spring, my Ficus standing guard in front and back.
And I sit and sip my strong coffee and chew my wheat checks drenched in soy milk, and I am thankful for plant life washing my eyes and washing down my throat again today.