Fall plant swap: invasive by nature


Savannah Morning News column

Sunday, September 28

It started out as a lark, these plant swaps.

Instead of throwing away all these Mexican petunias – those purple beauties brightening up our streetscape as we speak – we thought, “Hey, let’s give them away to someone new to town, someone who has a whole blank canvas of a yard to fill.”

Instead of ripping up those banana trees that never do anything but take up space and offer empty promises, we reasoned, “Let’s see if someone else can get them to bloom, perchance produce bananas.”

Instead of composting, dumping or trashing those rows and rows of monkey grass that could be plastic they are so boring, we argued, “Let’s hand them off to someone who needs to define a space, who has a different definition of boring.”

It seems to be working, these biannual plant swaps, every spring and every fall, because if you have 10 people in the room or in a garden you will get 10 different opinions about a plant. Lantana? Me, myself and I? Can’t stand their smell. Can’t abide their prickly nature. Can’t put up with their wandering, won’t-take-no personality. If I had a chainsaw I’d haul them out and hand them off to someone else.

For this plant swap I’m thinking about seeds. I keep looking at the purple salvia in our front yard, waiting for the spent blooms to finally call it a day and leave behind some hardened seeds. Soon, they tell me. Soon. This has been a banner year for salvia – or sage, same thing. Maybe because I finally dug up the ginger lilies that never, ever bloomed, giving the salvia some room to grow and be happy. I guess they like space because they have been blooming for months, attracting every fuzzy-winged, down-covered, wooly-headed creature in the neighborhood. Must be something mighty tasty there.

But not everything propagates through seeds. This year I’ve been inundated with a plant that carries the glorious name of jewels of opar, a moniker borrowed from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel, “Tarzan.” At first I thought, “OK, well, you’re cute. You know your spot. You won’t take over.” Wrong. Just because this kissing cousin of the delicate baby’s breath is so, well, delicate, doesn’t mean it knows its place. This plant, which never seems to know a bad day, has spread far and wide in my garden. It has earned a place in the “invasive by nature” category of plants, IBN for short. But who can get angry at it? It’s easy to pull out. It plays well with others. It’s not half-bad as a cut flower. But there’s so surprise at its longevity. I pulled one out the other day to take a closer photograph and the root stem is as long as the plant.

My biggest problem at the moment in the IBN category are the millions of bidens alba or maybe you say beggar tick or stickseed. They’re everywhere, something I realized when I went to prepare a bed for the early-December planting of garlic and I couldn’t find the bed. Talk about a crazy-making moment. That’s because the bidens alba – I remember the name by thinking Joe Biden – had taken over the bedroom. This pretty and promiscuous plant is a kissing cousin of the sunflower side of the family, which means it is related to the asters (not to be confused with the Astors) and the sprawling composite clan, all innocuous and innocent plants, except when you want to put something else in your garden and you see they have sprawled over everything.

And yes, one year someone did bring the offending bidens alba to the plant swap, the same way someone brought the scarlet cypress vine, all sweet, dainty, innocent, a brilliant red and EVERYWHERE. Its cousin, the small red morning glory, both members of the ipomoea family, is a tad more respectful but a bit easier to unwind and remove. Both would be beautiful in open fields, not gardens with limited space.

“Invasive but worth it”: that’s what one plant swapper wrote on the tall swamp sunflower she was sharing a few years ago, the gloriously yellow bloom that is popping up all over now, in September, in the fall. That’s a good nickname for the plant swaps: invasive but worth it. Or, you might say, invasive by nature.

No plants? Come anyway. There are plenty to share, plenty of seeds, rhizomes, stories and, if you get there in time, coffee and sweet things.









Sorrel, sons and sugar cane

Sun., September 21, 2014

Savannah Morning News column

The common ginger root? There’s nothing better for seasoning meat dishes.  The large-leafed comfrey? Perfect to have on hand to treat bruises or insect bites. Fennel? It makes a great tea and helps the digestive system. Rosemary, tumeric, slippery elm? More roots, more leaves, more tea, more for what ails you. Sugar cane? Perfect for gnawing.

That’s how Esther Smith gardens. Not for smell although for my money nothing beats the aroma of a ginger plant in bloom (except maybe fennel, a close second). Not for rabbits, which love to eat comfrey (while the rest of us love their purplish bell-shaped flowers and curiously itchy leaves). Not for experimentation. This woman knows what to do with turmeric.  I grow turmeric, but like ginger I have yet to figure out how to go from the root of the fruit to the spice in the rice. Not yet.

Ah, but sorrel. That’s where we meet on common ground. Sorrel is what brought me to Esther’s eclectic, productive, medley of medicinal delights in the first place.

Isn’t it curious how once something pops up in conversation you’ll hear it mentioned again?

“What the heck is this plant?” a friend texts me with a picture the way people do these days, pictures rapidly replacing words. “I think it’s in the hibiscus family.”

Yup. I answer. It’s a hibiscus all right. It’s a sorrel plant, my all-time favorite of the hibiscus clan, a disparate and far-ranging family of mallow plants that include such distant cousins as okra, rose of Sharon and cotton.

Then, the next afternoon a friend told me about popping into that cool Jamaican restaurant on Waters Avenue for a snack of spinach and meat patties when she heard Esther’s son, Donovan Smith, the owner, talking about sorrel juice and how his mother likes to grow it.

That’s all I needed for a visit.

“The sorrel is kicking up right now,” Esther said in her beautiful Jamaican accent. So is the moringa. This one, new to me, I have to ask her to spell.

“In my country we drink a lot of herbs,” she said. “I believe in herbs. I like to eat things I know are coming from my garden. I just like to plant. I like to get my hands in dirt. From when I was a child I liked farming. We had breadfruit, mangos, avocados, plums.”

But for Jamaicans sorrel is essential.

“Christmas time, if you go to someone’s home in Jamaica and you don’t get sorrel, you don’t have anything,” she said.

When the fruit ripens,            Esther peels the sepals and places them in the freezer for Christmas or even Thanksgiving. She’ll steep them, like the rest of the herbs she prepares for tea, add a little ginger root and then, for the holidays, some white rum.

She used to plant the sorrel in front of her house but when she got too many questions about the plant she moved it to the back. Her modest backyard backs up to woods but since there might be snakes Esther only gardens so far.

“In my country we don’t have snakes, except for the zoo,” she said. If she does see a snake she has a machete at the ready.

Then she wrapped some sunflower seeds for me to plant and I promised to drop off some sugar cane at the restaurant hoping Donovan would bring them to her.

“My son, he didn’t tell you his mama taught him how to cook?” she asked.

“She said that?” Donovan, 43, asked. “For us growing up it was mandatory. She told me and my two brothers, ‘Don’t depend on a woman for everything.’ At 12, I could prepare dinner for the family. We grew up eating from the land. For us, obeying your parents wasn’t optional. I couldn’t pay for the moral values she and my father taught me.”

At 19, Donovan moved to New York City, “chasing the American dream.” Twenty years later after working in sales, “when I was still looking for the fruit on the trees,” he moved to Savannah, which he encountered during a stint in the Army. That’s when he started working at Island Breeze, a restaurant on Montgomery Street. Nine years later he opened his own restaurant.

“Welcome to Sweet Spice, where everything is nice,” Donovan says to everyone who comes into the shop.

Later I brought him the promised sugar cane to give to his mother despite her warning: “Don’t give them to him without calling me. He’ll eat them.”

That’s between mother and son.

The fall Savannah Plant Swap will be Sat., Oct. 4 from 8 to 11 a.m. at Jane Fishman’s West Boundary Street Garden next to Chatham Steel across from Garrison Elementary School. For more information call Jane at 912-484-3045.