by Erhardt Hehn
The year of 1993 was not ushered in by record breaking weather extremes. Winter did, however, hold a firm grip on the land from January through mid-March, but without any blinding snow storms, bone chilling temperatures or spring-like Chinook winds. The absence of ice-melting Chinooks may have been a portent of future climatic oddities to come in the course of this unusual year. Moisture was adequate in April and May with below median temperatures but without killing frosts in most areas of the Gallatin Valley. The lilacs burst forth in full glory for Memorial Day. Daffodils, hyacinths, tulips, crocuses, irises and other early perennials bloomed profusely.
The gardens of some innocent newcomers to the valley and old-time gardeners that like to challenge the elements had many of their annual flowers and vegetables up and going by mid-May, but then things began to change — rainfall became overly abundant, the skies were mostly overcast, the temperatures dropped and so did the growth rate of the garden plants. This condition continued on through June and July. An unheard of fifteen inches of rain fell in July.
It was an interesting opportunity to observe the response of plants and their diseases and insect pests to the stresses of an unusual growing season. How exciting it would have been, if one had been able to intercept the talk of plants. In recent years I have permitted random, volunteer hollyhocks to thrive in my garden. By late June they stood above all other plants like communication towers and indeed their flowers do resemble disc antennas. Plants can sense differences in temperature, light, moisture and possibly sound levels, as is evidenced by their responses in growth habit. Even the perception of odors and touch may influence interplant compatibility differences. It is proposed that plants can integrate these sensed stimuli into a mode of communication within and just maybe between species. Based on this possibility an attempt will be made to relate the summer conversation among three hollyhock plants in my garden.
Two of the plants, Hock and Jock, expressed a sense of maleness in size and disposition, whereas Holly with her deeply lobed leaves and frilly, pastel yellow flower antenna discs suggested femininity. Hock’s location was in the middle of the garden and he dominated his area. His girth was immense — the sum of fourteen individual stalks. Jock found himself growing in the southeast area of the garden. In contrast to Hock he was slender in form but ten feet tall. Holly was wedged between two rocks in a terrace wall outside of the garden proper. She could survey the northeast area plus peeking around the corner of the garage to the front door of the house where the Man lives.
The activities of the Man were closely followed because he seemed to control the destiny of the plants in this speck of the earth’s surface. One day late in June Hock noticed a flower bud opening on one of his stalks. Immediately he sent out a “Hello, this is Hock — over,” but there was no response. On the third day there was a weak return signal, “Hello, this is Jock — over,” but the signal faded. As more flowers opened up the signals became strong enough for daily conversations between Hock and Jock, but not even the weakest of signals had yet been received from Holly’s position.
On this morning following a night of driving rain storms Hock was anxious for a signal from Jock. “Good morning, Jock. How did you make it through the terrible night?”
“Good morning, Hock; it was a frightening experience. You know how tall and thin I am with only one stalk. Well, if I hadn’t leaned on my yellow rose bush neighbor I would either have fallen flat on the ground or broken off. Either way it would have been the end of me. If I had fallen on the ground, the Man would have cut me off with his pruning shears. He is dangerous with his shears. You know, my southeast corner is kind of a thicket with dogwood, forsythia, currant and yellow rose bush of each and a sour cherry tree. Well, the dogwood was growing up under the roof of the garden house and in general hogging the entire area. The Man took after it with his shears and you should have sensed the horror of the dogwood. I thought he was going to kill it. And have you seen him lop off the ends of the grape vines on the garden fence? They bleed.”
“Yes,” replied Hock. “I have also seen him trim the asparagus down to look like a mound. I do not know why — then there is the plum/cherry tree that suffered severe winter damage last year. It still looks like it is going to die but the Man keeps attacking it with his pruning shears. But, if you fear him with his pruning shears, you should see him with the spade! I am anchored on the north edge of a strawberry bed. The plants looked healthy this spring but produced few berries and just like that, he dug out half of the bed and planted brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage in their place. He came so close to me that I thought he was going to dig up my footing. Being as big as I am I do worry about keeping my balance during these severe rainstorms. Even though I don’t need it badly I hope the Man ties up the stalk that fell over last night, rather than operate on me with his pruning shears.”
The sun had floated higher into the blue sky and was warming the garden. Hock and Jock had dried off and in their physical comfort they drifted off into the silence of somnolence. In mid-afternoon the shadow from the garage began to creep across the garden. The decreasing light intensity and falling temperature aroused Hock to full receptiveness. He was quite certain that he was receiving new signals from the corner of the garage to the west of his position. He thought to himself, “Now, those signals could finally be coming from Holly. If she is still wedged in between those rocks, she will again be slow in developing and stunted in growth and then there are those deformed discs with the many curly petals. I shall try to send a message to her.” Hock transmits, “Hi, Holly! Do you hear me?”
Faintly, “Yes, Hock, I hear you and I am so glad to receive your message. I made it through the winter but I am still wedged between these rocks. I’m no taller than last year but I do have two new stalks, so my form is somewhat improved.”
Hock: “I am delighted to know that you are alive and well. I had hoped that you might have been moved into the garden by the Man. I am sure he has noticed that you are quite unusual and different from Hock and me.”
Holly: “Yes, I’m glad to be alive for another summer. Something strange has happened.”
Jock: “What is that?”
Holly: “I think I spawned two surviving offspring. They have the same pastel colored, curly, many petaled discs as mine, but stand as tall or even taller than you. Now, what do you make of that?”
Jock “I don’t quite know what to say, but you know we did become rather close last summer. I suppose we may have exchanged pollen and they could be our offspring. I hope the Man will think they are worthy of growing in his garden.”
Holly: “I don’t know. He could think otherwise. He does seem to like nice looking plants. I can see from my position his hanging baskets in the front yard.” With this reply Holly’s signal weakened and failed with the waning day.
In August the rainstorms abated and the sun often shone through the broken clouds. Most garden plants, trying to make up for lost time in June and July, responded vigorously to the improved growing conditions. Hock, Jock and Holly grew to their full height with row upon row of disc sensors. They took advantage of the excellent reception for frequent sharing of observations made in their respective sections of the garden. On a glorious morning to be alive, just as the sun was peeping over the horizon, Jock sensed complaining sounds coming from the rows of peas, potatoes and garlic growing next to each other. It seemed the peas were vining over the top of the potatoes.
Jock heard the potatoes wailing, “Hey, you pea folks get off our back! We can’t hold you up, and anyway, we can’t have you shading out any of the sun that we so desperately need!”
“Well,” said the peas, “we are sorry, but not having strong stems like you we must hang on to something and you happen to be handy. Why, the man did not build a trellis for us to climb up on, we do not know.”
“Why, you can’t just crawl along the ground like a snake we also don’t know!”
A row of garlic next to the potatoes chimed in, “Don’t you dare crawl over on us. Do you see this half-hitch of our seed stacks? We may throw a loop around you and pull you all up by the roots!”
The peas did indeed respect the threat. Only a few vines wrapped themselves around a garlic stalk, but they did crush the potatoes to the ground. The potato vines covered by the pea vines resulted in a Garden of Eden for slugs, who multiplied in great numbers. By harvest time the potatoes were completely defoliated, but the tuber production was surprisingly good.
“Yes,” said Jock. “the Man has something growing in every square inch of ground around me. The tomato plants are planted so close together that there is a solid canopy of leaves. He often spreads the leaves with his hands and I suppose is looking for the onset of fruit. In his corn patch he has interplanted peppers, egg plants, cucumbers and squash. It is now mid-August but all I can see is leaves.”
Holly: “Close to me is a square plot of strong plants that are in an intense struggle for the available space. There are three kinds of plants that have either a knob or flower-like organs at their growing tips and a fourth, vigorous plant that has small knobs forming in each leaf axle. Thinking these balls might be sound sensors similar to ours, I have tried to communicate with them, without success. Maybe they are on another wavelength. “
Hock: “Holly, those are the plants that were planted where he dug up the strawberry plants that didn’t produce enough berries to please him. To my horror, I saw him yesterday cut off one of those large balls and walk away with it. What for?”
Jock was anxious to break in and tell them about a puzzling group of plants in his area of the garden. “To the southwest of me are these rows of plants with pipe-like leaves that smell terrible. I think he calls them onions but has names, such as Red Beard, Green Winter Perennials, Walla Wallas, Leeks, Shallots and Scallions for the different rows. Now and then, he pulls up a plant, cuts off the tops and carries the bottoms away with him. Next to onions is a patch of low-growing leafy plants. Sometimes he pulls off a large pile of these leaves. Some of them he shoves into that gash in the knob at his top end — the rest he carries away. Then there are plants with strong, distinctive smells. The Man calls them herbs and often he walks around among these plants, plucks leaves and holds them up to that bulb above the gash in his knob.”
Jock: “You know what I saw? I saw Man pull a carrot plant out of the ground and stick the yellow part in that gash in his knob and it slowly disappeared! Amazing!”
Holly: “Do you suppose that is what happened today! He was standing in the tomato patch. He bent over, reached down through the leaves and came up with a red fruit, stood for a while but when he turned around the fruit was gone. Do you suppose it also went into the gash?!”
Jock ponders. “You know I have often wondered how the Man stays alive. He has no roots with which to draw nourishment from the soil.”
Holly: “I think he might take root if he weren’t always moving around. One day he was sitting next to me on a log when he pulled something off his two lower stalks and lo and behold there were short stubby roots! They might grow if he covered them with soil.”
Jock: “Plus, he has similar stunted roots on his two upper stalks. If all four stalks were simultaneously planted in the earth the Man could grow like a strawberry with runners.”
Hock: “No, I don’t think that could happen. I believe the Man must move around on his lower stalks to find plants that he feeds to himself through the gash in his knob with his upper stalks and their deformed roots — really not too different from a slug, who does the same thing even without stalks.”
Holly, fearfully: “Heaven help us! I do hope he does not find some part of us to be nourishing for him!”
Jock, trying to allay Holly’s fears, says, “No, I don’t think he will. I think Man tolerates us because we adorn his garden. Often others like him go by and admire us. I feel sorry for Man having to work so hard to nourish himself For us nourishment is so easy. All we have to do is sink our roots in the ground and draw nourishment from the soil without moving an inch.”
In the waning days of August and the fore days of September Holly, Hock and Jock could see that the Man was working feverishly, carrying above and below ground parts of many plants out of the garden around the corner of the house as if he were expecting something to happen.
Hock offered the speculation that maybe summer is coming to an end. “You notice,” he said, “the nights are getting longer and cooler and the sun is lower in the sky.” Holly and Jock nodded in agreement.
And sure enough, one morning it started to rain, which turned to snow by mid-afternoon, but cleared at sundown. That night it froze hard enough to injure the disc sensors of the hollyhocks. At daybreak Jock signaled the others without success. The sky was clear so by ten o’clock the temperature had risen above freezing. He tried contacting the others again and did receive weak but audible responses.
He said, “Listen, this may be our last day of communication for this year. Maybe if nature is kind and the Man tolerates our presence in his garden for another season, we can carry on from where we are leaving off today and I am going underground for the winter — la, la!”
© Erhardt Hehn