Thursday, May 08, 2008

One That Does Not Wither

Every garden has the history of itself within it.

It is, at all times, the sum total of the peat moss, compost, topsoil, cow manure, fertilizer, and sweat with which the gardener has laboriously changed the clods of hard, red clay into a bed of dark brown fertility that sifts softly through his bare, dirt-lined hands.

It is also the latest generation of earthworms - few in number in the early days of the hardened earth but now appearing in multiples-per-shovelful, made momentarily motionless by the upturning of their home then slithering swiftly in search of new soil samples with which to nourish themselves and their surroundings.

And it is all those uninvited former residents whose descendents voluntarily appear in unexpected and sometimes totally unwanted locations year after year after year.

Some of these interlopers are weeds of the classic definition, "a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants". These unwelcome weasel-inners are, of course, forcibly removed on sight and consigned to the Ninth Circle of Horticultural Hell, a.k.a the bottom of the large green town-supplied trash collection barrel. Others however are not that easily dismissed.

Tomatoes for example. Here is a portion of the dialog on "volunteer tomatoes" from "answers/".

"I feel bad for I am pulling these as weeds. what do you think? out of garden space. (Oreo)

"For some reason I also feel bad and a little curious about weeding volunteer plants. Since most tomatoes are hybrids they don't grow 'true' from seed, but that's the fun, to see what the new tomato will look like after the plant is open pollinated. I've had normal looking tomatoes m
ost of the time but one year I had one that produced ribbed fruit like little red pumpkins. If you can find the room, save one for fun. (RScott)

"If there is little room, they won't grow well. Rip them out. (sncmom20)

"I usually leave the volunteer tomatoes. My regular tomatoes are caged to 1) support them, and 2) protect them from critters. I view the volunteers as a bonus if they survive, and it gives the critters (squirrels, rabbits, cats) something to get to so that they don't go after my 'good' plants. But, if you don't want them, and are concerned about the space in your garden, then pull them. Technically, a weed is just an unwanted plant. (B.B)"

Our volunteer tomatoes normally generate nothing more than a tower of compound leaves with healthy looking, albeit seriously undersized, leaflets arranged attractively along equally pint-sized rachises - but no fruit. The reappearing Amaranths however are totally the real deal.

Named from the Greek word "amarantos" meaning "one that does not wither" Amaranths are often used in literature and poetry to symbolize immortality. This plant has more families (sixty) than the Providence Mafia. And a big enough variety of distinguishing characteristics as to earn it the label of a "difficult genus" among horticultural systematists - those Latin speaking scientists who try to impose a difficult-to-remember-and-pronounce nomenclature on things that the rest of us have a hard enough time remembering whether we just watered or not. Amaranths are also know as "Pigweeds" which I think gives everyone a good idea of just how these official plant name-makers really feel about them.

Some Amaranths are considered weeds. However people around the world do value other varieties as leaf vegetables, cereals, and ornamentals. I believe the variety that grows in our garden is called "Amaranthus cruentus" or "Purple, Red or Mexican Amaranth". It may not be, but the pictures that I found for this model sure look like what happens to our yard every summer. Unlike the tomatoes that appear in groups of two or three, the volunteer Pigweeds arrive in mobs of thirty or forty at a time. Each plant can grow to a height of about five feet with a thin but muscular stalk (some have required a pruning saw) topped by a one to two foot tall maroon feathery flower - think Tina Turner as a maroon shaft of wheat.

I also came across a website for the "The Order of the Amaranth...a social, fraternal, and charitable organization whose membership is open to both men and women with a Masonic affiliation." And a music video called Amaranth by a "Finnish symphonic metal band" called Nightwish. In this three minute and fifty-four second movie two 18th Century looking young men find an injured female blonde angel (with really big wings) and bring her back to their house. The home is then set ablaze by the angry villagers, and the angel ascends from the flames. Any questions?

It is discoveries like these that are the real reason I haven't determined what the actual Pigweed variety that resides on our property is - along with the fact that I don't really care that much. Telling people that what there are looking at is an Amaranth is more than enough to impress 99% of the visitors to our gardens.

We saw identical Amaranths to our home-growns on our trip to the Mediterranean island of Malta. There they were actually the centerpiece of many of the public gardens that decorated the town of Sliema and other parts of the limestone isle. Our personal Pigweed plague preceded this journey abroad so we recognized them when we saw them. And, since we already had them, we made no attempt to smuggle seeds back with us - not that we would have, it being illegal and all that. It did however move the purple plant up quite a bit in my personal estimation seeing as how it was such an important part of the ultra-cool Euro-Horti-Cultural scene.

Our Amaranth collection came from Mars' parents in whose vegetable garden it had likewise grown unsolicited for years. My recollection is that they snuck it in among our vegetables one day while we were at work. If true, while it would not be in keeping with the their normal behavior, it would be consistent with the stealthy way that Amaranth spreads itself around - at least here in "the States". I do not believe that either of my in-laws was in the Order of the Amaranth (although they may have secretly belonged). I am however quite certain that they never saw the music video.

The next year we probably had fifteen or twenty of the thick-stalked scarlet imposers. And from then on at many times that number annually. Although I feel badly about it, I rip most of them out of the dirt at first sight - not because I don't appreciate their beauty and attitude (Tina Turner, remember) but because of space constraints. Because the Amaranths just keep on coming this culling out process continues throughout the summer and beyond - even when the rest of the garden crops have packed it in for the year.

I have used dirt from my vegetable garden to fill in other spots around the yard and - you guessed it - the Pigweed shows up there also. These uninvited but welcome intruders are as much a part of the soil as the compost, peat moss, topsoil and worms. And they probably will be forever - even if the next property owners are not gardeners and do not appreciate them.

I mean what are they going to do - incinerate the insistent Amaranths out of existence? We saw in the Internet music video how well that works!

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