Plant swap joys go on and on and on

Savannah Morning News

Sun., Sept. 25, 2016

If there’s one thing you can count on at a gathering or a chance encounter on the street or even at a restaurant with a waiter/friend, it’s that one or more parties will reach into a pocket or a pocketbook, pull out a mobile phone and search (sometimes forever) for a photo to back up what they were saying. Most of the time it’s images of children or grandchildren.

That’s what my Detroit cousin Bob could have done when I saw him at a wedding last week. He’s got a daughter who produces knockout jewelry and two grandbabies from a son (plus another offspring of sorts: the son’s riveting new television series, “StartUp”). But no. Forget all that.  With barely a hello when Bob spotted me he palmed his phone and went straight to a photo of something else.

“Aha,” I said. “A double-fluted purple brugmansia. One of my favorites.”

“You gave me the seeds.”

“Nice job on growing it,” I said. “You raised a fine species. And it’s one of those flowering plants that like to be grown from seed. They don’t seem to produce babies you can dig up and give away.”

Silence, followed by, “It’s poisonous.”

“Then don’t eat it,” I said. “Half the plants in your garden are poisonous.”

Take castor beans. Remember that great scene from “Breaking Bad” when Walter White, the desperate chemistry teacher turned meth maker so he could raise money for his cancer treatments, slipped ricin, the poisonous substance from the seeds of the castor bean plant, into someone’s tea, which resulted in yet another death in that compelling TV series with questionable morality and great scenes from New Mexico?

Castor beans are beautiful plants. The leaves are large and lobed, glossy and red. The cluster spiny seeds in the pods are dramatic. The tree is tall; it makes a statement. The seeds, which look like pinto beans, are mottled – and poisonous.

I’ve grown it, sketched it, passed along the seeds, cheered when it came back in the spring. I have never eaten it or slipped it into someone’s tea. I’ll never do either.

All right. Let’s get this out of the way from the beginning. Half the plants that pop up at next week’s plant swap will probably be poisonous. If you eat them. Then again, batteries are poisonous too. If you swallow them. So is nicotine. If you ingest it. So are oleander if you roast a marshmallow on the end of a stem. So are green potatoes. So are the seeds in an apple core, which are quite tasty. I eat them all the time.

Full confession. In the nearly 20 years we’ve been meeting twice a year on West Boundary Street (the first Saturday in October, the first Saturday in April) to tell stories, look for gems such as kiwi vines (hint, hint, anyone have any?) and swap plants – fig trees, maidenhair ferns, baby kale plants, magenta night-blooming cereus (I might have some of those except when I took the plants inside during the pending storm known as Hermine they got mixed up with the more traditional white ones and to my eye at least they are identical) I’ve never heard of anyone going to an emergency room or spending the night regurgitating from any of the plants they walked away with.

But there will be photos. If I could have found the photos of the bananas that I had to cut off the trees after the high winds from Hermine I would have shown those to cousin Bob in return for his purple double-fluted brugmansia. While banana trees are a snap to grow in Savannah you don’t often get multiple hands of bananas, especially so early in the year – as we did this year – which would have given them a chance to ripen. Instead I’ve got the severed bananas encased in a plastic bag with a cut up apple (and I’ve crossed my fingers – part of the directions) hoping they’ll ripen because there is nothing like a banana off your own tree compared to one that traveled from Costa Rica or Guatemala.

Bragging rights are part of the process of swapping plants or growing plants.

Rules for the plant swap? Come early, bring something to eat if you don’t have anything to share, bring a story and expect lots of four o’clock tubers, excess Mexican petunias, baby loquat trees, monkey grass, ferns of every nature, spiky prickly pear cactus pieces, the herb known as shiso, umbrella flat sedge, and excuses about why your garden didn’t do very well this year (too much rain, not enough rain) and photos. There will probably be a photo of two.

The plant swap goes from 8 to 11 a.m. The garden sits next to Chatham Steel (501 W. Boundary Street). For more information, call Jane Fishman at 912-484-3045.






The quiet after the storm: in a canoe

Savannah Morning News

September 15, 2016

Yes, last week’s storm, nature’s version of a major tree-trimming event, was a mess. We still have debris on the curb.

Yes, it was a bit of a crap shoot: who would lose a roof, a car window, maybe a chimney? Who would lose power? Some houses on our street lit up, others stood dark.

Yes, it was inconvenient to be without power for up to 36 hours. No a.c., no window fans, no microwave, no electric toothbrush, no clock (the kind with minute hands), no Magic Bullet, no washing machine, no charging capacity (unless you got in your car and took a drive, carbon footprint be damned, assuming you had a car with that feature).

Yes, it was hot, especially when the high winds died down and the drama had passed, especially in the middle of the night when you had to practically will yourself to sleep it was so hot.

But in the end it was quiet, hushed you may say, and that’s what I’ll remember and appreciate the most. The refrigerator that constantly cuts on and off and drives you (me) crazy? Silence. The outdoor heating and cooling return so inconveniently situated that interrupts, intrudes and infringes on conversation? Gone.

In the end it was a good excuse to rid your fridge of leftovers and condiments that had turned blue, limes as hard as golf balls and mystery food from the freezer; a great excuse to sit on the steps of your front stoop with morning coffee and talk to your neighbors because no one wants to stay inside a stuffy house; and a good reminder of how pleasant it is to sit around a table and eat dinner by candlelight, the more candles the better. Maybe we can remember these things and do them more often.

In the end the only thing quieter than going about your day without electricity – and a lot less stressful considering all the defrosted food (some you want, some you don’t) and less anxious than worrying about when exactly the power would return – is to be canoeing on the Ebenezer Creek, to be navigating under your own steam without worrying about where you fit into the electric grid.

It doesn’t start out that way, especially if you don’t know your canoeing partner.

“Uh, boat-mate,” you may start because if you’re canoeing with someone you just met, as I was, and you don’t remember names very well, as I don’t, and she, not a great swimmer, was more concerned about falling in the dark water and endangering her expensive hearing aids than following your instructions the start of the paddle can be a bit rocky. “Pick a side. Any side,” I say, trying to be diplomatic. “Then stick with it.”

But after a while, in between chinwags because what better place to have a good old-fashioned chinwag than in a canoe on the Ebenezer Creek where the only sound is that of a pileated woodpecker or the screech of a red shoulder hawk catching a thermal, you begin to find a rhythm, which in the end earns you the name, “stern master.”

All because sometime a million years ago at overnight camp you learned the “j” stroke.

Aside from learning a diplomatic way to talk to your partner in the boat, the “j” stroke is about all you need to know in canoeing. That alone makes you seem like an expert. I’m not sure what it has to do with the letter “j.” It’s really just a way to steer the boat so you don’t run into some of the overhanging limbs that might – just might – be carrying a water moccasin. It’s a way to steer the boat over to the towering tupelo trees or the flared trunks of the powerful cypress knees (which look more like billowing skirts), some of which are over 1,000 years old, so you can fish a Styrofoam cut out of the water or so you can get a better view of the greenish legs of the little blue heron.

The water, black from the tannic of decaying leaves, was calm. The level, which seemed fine to me, is determined by the Corps of Engineers who decide when the flood gates to the Savannah River should be opened. I’m thinking the best time would be when the water is released.

We paddled on a Saturday, the day after the storm. If I expected crowds I was wrong. Maybe everyone was home cleaning up after the storm. If I expected debris, I was wrong again. There was very little litter to pick up. On one hand I was grateful the creek, a tributary of the Savannah River, was so quiet and that it was so easy to get in and out. On the other hand, I wonder: why don’t more people go out there? If you value quiet, if you want to get away from the screen, if you want to feel your shoulders drop a few inches, Ebenezer Creek is the place to be. Just don’t tell too many people.