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The Garden of Men

I'm taking a plant identification class. We recently took a field trip to the Tilden Park Botanical Garden, which has a section labelled the Garden of Men.

Possibly a typo, but I'm loving it! A Garden of Men, what could be better! “It's a milonga!” A tango community, full of men busily growing in their own ways. Some are already nice and ripe...some you want to leave on the vine a little longer. On the other hand, some you pick green for peak enjoyment. Each with their own soil preferences and susceptibilities.

Yesterday I did well on a quiz. I correctly identified every plant, genus, species, and cultivar. This is not so easy, because in real life, it can be hard to tell the difference between one plant and another. One of my massage teachers says, “there's the map, and then there's the terrain,” and it's the same with plants: almost no specimen presents every feature it's supposed to, mutations abound, and most of them can generally be caught doing something they shouldn't, or growing where they oughtn't.

And if you think plants are hard, try taking a walk through the Garden of Men.

I get almost no points when it comes to man identification. I am too easily taken in by superficial attributes. If I know of a plant that has pink flowers, thorns, fuzzy leaves, blue fruit, and reproduces by cuttings, and then I run into a plant that has pink flowers, thorns, fuzzy leaves, blue fruit, and reproduces by cuttings, I assume the plant I have run into is the plant that I know of. Unfortunately then I study the plant at greater length and discover that actually it comes from a completely different family! What I thought was a Pinkus flowerii is actually a Wilsonium genoviana, an invasive pest known for mimicking cultivated flowers.

Here's the thing about life in the garden. It's amoral. Plants don't care about what's nice, suitable, or appropriate. They don't care about being pretty. They also don't think of themselves as “good” plants or “bad” plants. Every plant has a mix of “good” and “bad” attributes, and often their strongest attributes are both good and bad depending on the application. Nicey-nice little blossoming things cause hay fever. Stinging nettle is delicious to eat. Belladonna is poisonous and also used for medical purposes. Bamboo is nightmarishly fast-growing and invasive, which makes it a godsend for pandas and environmentally-minded woodsmiths. One gender of gingko produces fruit that smells like dog crap, and it also has beautiful leaves.

Here are a few of the plants in my Garden of Men. Many of them are exotic imports, hardy enough to thrive in foreign soil.  You may have encountered them or related cultivars.

You'll notice Nissa devotica before anything else in the garden because of its profuse display of bright red fruit. These glossy round fruits are delicious to eat, high in sugar content, and contain vital antioxidants and a solid offering of many vitamins and minerals. Everybody wants the fruit of Nissa devotica! Fortunately Nissa is extremely generous with these fruits, each plant laden with more than a million fruits at a time, each fruit taking only a few minutes to reach maturity. There's more than enough for everybody. Nissa also self-sows, and if you have one Nissa plant, before you know it there will be Nissa seeds all over your garden, in your house, in your hair, in your post-man's apartment, and soon your Great-Aunt Silvana who lives in the Ukraine will be calling you up long-distance wanting to know how these Nissa seeds ended up in her carpet. Nissa likes the adoring sunshine and protected conditions of a garden, but prefers not to be fussed with by gardeners. In fact, the more you neglect them, the more impressive their burgeoning fruit harvest is. As long as lots of people pick its fruit, and nobody meddles with its growing process, Nissa is happy. And even though it is best known for its flashy multiple annual harvests, when provided with exactly the right conditions Nissa will also display extremely sweet, fragrant, tiny white blossoms. However, woe be to any gardener who tries to espalier or prune the Nissa. The minute Nissa smells pruning shears, it drops its fruit all over the ground and suddenly your garden is an ankles-deep sticky mess of fermenting ooze. Just don't try. If you give Nissa the sunshine, benign neglect, and ample growing space it wants, Nissa is an exceptionally long-lived plant that will grow happily in your garden forever, providing you and every single person you've ever met (and many you haven't) with as much delicious fruit as you can possibly manage, and then some.

Nissa, despite its rampant self-sowing and its overabundant fruit, is a sweet plant. Gardeners love it for its amiable reliability long after they no longer see its shiny red orbs. Chaenomeles clintonii, on the other hand, is just about the only plant in the entire horticultural world of which one could say, “that is a bad plant.” Chaenomeles was originally classified as a medicinal plant and a number of years ago was the key ingredient in a line of cosmetics for men. The chemists involved did not mention the fact that Chaenomeles is fatally poisonous. Not just if ingested. The merest brush against a Chaenomeles clintonii has produced numerous reported deaths. In fact in all of Chaenomeles' artificially-lengthened life, there is only one gardener who has successfully grown it, and because of her exposure to its toxins, she can't grow anything else and can't even associate with other gardeners. Consider Chaenomeles the way you would consider badly-cut fugu sushi. But it's also like eucalyptus: nothing can grow, ever again, where it grows or has grown. It poisons everything around it. ….It is a glossy-leafed climbing vine that prefers bright sun and dry winters. In its native habitat it prefers to take up all the nutrients in all the available soil, but as a transplant has learned to defer to other plants, at least in name, while simultaneously ripping up all your water pipes as would a Salix babylonica. —It has a showy, nearly year-round display of huge white flowers that wither quickly and then cling on persistently, faded and brown around the edges, and not nearly as impressive as it thinks. The flowers also produce a sickening smell that turn the stomachs of most gardeners. Its pride and joy are the itty-bitty little cones it produces, even though this hybrid has been genetically manipulated for sterility. It also cannot climb without external support and constant chemical additions to its water supply. If you are foolish enough to give it its hyper-finicky diet of constant round-the-clock maintenance, it rewards you by killing all the other plants, destroying the wall it grows on, salting the crops of the neighbours for the next hundred years, strangling your cat in its viny clutches, and then killing you with its poisonous fumes while you hide under the covers in your house behind locked doors. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Fortunately there is only one Chaenomeles and just saying no is simple enough. There are a billion delightful plants, all with their own benefits and drawbacks, that would love to grow in your garden. Let's not overlook the less-showy plants, either. Berberis slavonicus is a modest little ground-cover, good for very cold winters, tolerates shade, lets all the other plants have all the soil, and, while it thrives on attention, will continue to sit there in a shady corner producing one wan flower after another even if you completely ignore it. Go ahead. Forget about it altogether. Berberis slavonicus, despite its drab little leaves, dull flowers, and limp little stems, is actually a great plant for bad gardeners because it tolerates so much abuse. You may be tempted to toss it onto the compost heap just to free up space for something more interesting and to see it keep on living, which it will, and then you will probably hate yourself for a few minutes.

Osmanthus mangalorans likes hot humid weather and monsoons and one wonders just what it's doing in a Zone 17 garden. But that's plants for you: they never do grow where the book says they're supposed to. Because it doesn't usually grow here, an Osmanthus sitting on a nursery table looks interesting to gardeners, who like its emerald-green berries and golden leaves. However, the berries have no taste, texture, or nutritive content, and after a while, a gardener's initial “wow, an emerald-green berry!” often fades to, “enh.” Osmanthus is hardy, tolerates neglect and abuse, gets along well with other plants, and knows its place in the garden. It's a good choice for gardeners with allergies, as it is too inoffensive to bother anyone.

Cercis architectonia “Okinawa” is the oldest plant in the garden but behaves like one of the youngest. It is a rare fruit-producing epiphyte. It grows in any climate although as it gets older it prefers warmer ones, likes sunshine, and prefers to be grown in little glass globes hanging off of porches. It thinks of itself as a house plant. It likes coddling and nutrient-enhanced misting. You might grow it in your garden for a while before it produces fruit, but one day, after diligent care, and generally at the point at which you throw up your hands and say, “well, damn, I've been watering this thing forever and it still looks like a three-inch green spider in a glass globe,” an enormous Cheez-Wiz-coloured melon, at least five pounds, will appear, hanging precariously off a tender stem. There are, however, two tricks about these melons. Yes, they are delicious, and do contain a fair number of nutrients, although not as many as do Nissafruit. But, the melons only last a matter of hours before disappearing completely (no one knows where they disappear to), leaving the gardener, platter in hand, bewildered. There is no way of knowing when or if another melon will appear. The other trick is that sometimes these are real melons, but more often than not, they are just mirages. This particular cultivar of Cercis architectonia is not recommended for gardeners looking for edible crop plants, because it has been bred to produce the enticing illusion of pickable fruit out of thin air. After a while your average gardener generally lets the epiphyte float away on the breeze and plants green beans. Not as tasty, but a lot more reliable, and better for you.

Another hardy import is the Costalis salsify, whose watermelon-like fruit makes a crowd-pleasing salsa. Costalis' chief allure is its reliable crop of really big melons. They look nice spread out all over the ground, green and stripy. Costalis actually stays where it is planted, but most gardeners find the low-investment high-yield crops so refreshing that they often make the mistake of planting multiple beds of Costalis, and then they look around and find that suddenly most of their garden is full of nice-looking big melons that are...just kind of there (it takes no offence at being uprooted and given to a neighbour). Sweet enough to enjoy a slice of once or twice, but there's no flavour complexity, no nutrients, and the melons are mostly water anyway. Costalis is another good choice for gardeners with allergies.

Some plants grow on you. Someone gives you a packet of seeds and you originally think, “really? Not what I would have chosen myself,” and then over time you find they're your favourite plant in the whole garden and you wouldn't want to imagine a garden without them in it. Such is the case with Quercus touchstone. Not a flashy plant. Almost imperceptibly slow-growing. Unnoticeable flowers, no juicy fruit. But Quercus, given a lot of time, grows from seeds into a solid-trunked tree that provides shade from the heat, shelter from the wind, branches to climb and play in, and endless fodder for philosophical musings. In a garden full of seasonal-harvest plants, annuals, finicky plants that die, and plants that spend a lot of time dormant, the Quercus is always there, pretty much the same, going about its slow Quercus business. And after you spend many years taking Quercus for granted, after a while you realize there's nothing nicer than the coppery hue of its leaves, or, if you bury your nose against it, the smell of its bark. You realize that most of the happiest moments you've spent in your garden were all with the Quercus, and when you were sad, you brought those moments to it too, and it stood there, putting up with you, fixing things, pretty much the same as always. You find that it, more than any of the others, has made you into the gardener you are. And one day you find that you were daft to think Quercus doesn't flower, because it does, given the right conditions. It produces tiny little creamy flowers, hidden unexpectedly under its leaves, that are even sweeter and more fragrant than those of the Nissa. And who needs fruit when you have Quercus's small but constant supply of acorns, a more stable energy supply, that sticks with you, and provides no sugar rush. The only protein-producing plant in the whole garden, that also provides vitamins and minerals no other plant offers. The vitamins in Quercuscorns are exceptionally good for fuelling mental productivity, so gardeners who belong to Mensa often long for a Quercus. Unfortunately, the thing about Quercus touchstone is it only grows into a tree in the gardens of gardeners who pretend it isn't there. Gardeners who actually take care of it report no end of trouble, root rot, aphids, powdery mildew, chlorosis, decaying bark, scales, falling branches, self-sowing, you name it. (Apparently it can also tell if a gardener intentionally buys it from a nursery and starts out recalcitrant from the beginning.) The problem is that once you've had a Quercus touchstone in your garden long enough, you, the conscientious gardener, want to give it the love and care it so obviously deserves—and the minute you do, it's the beginning of the end.

Gardening is a maddening, frustrating pastime. But it's also infinitely rewarding. There's no such thing as a “good” plant or (except for one) a “bad” plant. Gardeners are only human. Plants need gardeners and gardeners need plants. And somehow, bumbling along from day to day, despite pests and failed crops and fruitless experiments, one day we gardeners can wake up and look out bedroom window and see that we, too, have a beautiful, thriving, resplendent Garden of Men.