It starts with a pot of dirt.
The pot is there when we move in, next to the steps leading to the back door, which we use as a front door. It is a plain white pot full of crumbly old black soil. It must have been left by the last tenant, or perhaps it belongs to the landlady.
A big pot of black soil at the entrance to your home does not greet you with enthusiasm. Its black maw constantly cries, Feed me!
So I do. I get a pack of cheap lupine seeds at Fred Meyer, sprinkle them in–I don’t remember if I even bother to cover them with some of the soil–give them an initial watering, and wait for the bright multicolored stalks pictured on the seed pack to appear. I have chosen lupine because it is a Northwest native, a plant I expect to grow on its own without any thought or effort on my part. As you can tell, I am an avid gardener.
What comes up in the weeks that follow are two types of little green leaves, one of which turns out to be a weed. The other grows in an unusual array of seven to 10 or more leaves fanning out from each stem in a circle. I google lupine. That’s it.
The green plant proliferates throughout the summer. Its strands grow tall and voluminous, filling the large pot. There are no pretty multicolored flower stalks like on the seed pack, but still, I am proud of “my” creation.
Our landlady comes by and notices it. What’s that? she asks in a voice full of curiosity but strangely lacking in enthusiasm. I detect a hint of fear in her eyes.
That’s lupine, I say proudly. I grew it from seed.
The fear dissipates from her eyes, but not from my mind, as we talk of other things.
Did I imagine that? I wonder later.
And then it hits me. Most plants have leaves that grow in pairs, either directly across from each other or staggered, but always in pairs. This is called…something-or-other, and I learned about it back in seventh grade science class, though I’ve forgotten its name.
What makes the lupine plant so unusual looking is that its leaves do not grow in pairs, but in a corona-like array of several leaves.
Can you think of another plant that grows in an array like this?
Maybe the landlady thought I was growing a marijuana plant in her backyard!
However, if you examine them with a little attention, you will notice that the leaves of the marijuana plant are serrated, while the leaves of the lupine are smooth. In the esprit d’escalier of my mind, I point out this difference to the landlady. But the landlady of my imagination only responds with an esprit of her own as her widened eyes meet mine with a new skepticism that translates to, How would YOU know?
By the time summer is fading and the last of the roses are turning from red and yellow to brown before falling into a dejected heap on the lawn, my lupine-cum-marijuana plant still has no blossoms. I complain about it to the owner of the local garden shop. Maybe I should have bought my seeds there, instead of on the cheap at Fred Meyer. As though I have a right to complain in any case, doing nothing to nurture my plant except occasionally watering it and expecting a floral rainbow to pop up any minute.
But it turns out it is neither my lack of attention to the plant nor the Fred Meyer seeds–which are the same brand I would have bought at the garden shop anyway–that caused it not to bloom. Lupine doesn’t bloom in its first year, the garden shop owner says.
If I’d known that, I would have picked a different seed. But I like my healthy-looking, unusual plant. It has already fulfilled its purpose, its green hands waving welcome in the breeze when I approach the door.
It’s a hardy plant and survives multiple freezes and two snowstorms that winter. It stops growing, but its green leaves never shrivel up.
In the spring of Year Two, they shoot up to over a foot in height. The bottom half of the plant, consisting only of slender stems, looks bare, so I spend $20 on an understory plant that fill in the gaps with shamrock-shaped leaves that rise a few inches above the soil and then cascade down the sides of the pot.
The irony of spending money on a secondary plant to complement the seeds I bought because they were cheap is not lost on me. But now that my plant looks like something, I’m invested in it. I want it to look even better.
And then, that summer, the miracle happens. Some of the leaf coronas develop a green side-stalk, like a thick sheaf of wheat. The side-stalks thicken further and shoot up several inches above the leaves. And then–finally!!–they begin to blossom.
Boy, do they ever. Cone-shaped stalks pop up everywhere, loaded with vibrant petals, purple mostly, but some pink ones too, just like on the seed pack. Except these flower stalks grow to be huge, much bigger than a typical garden flower. Size is something the seed packet photo cannot convey.
The flowering stalks grow to four inches, six inches, and finally a foot tall, towering over the delicate leaves below.
My lupine now looks like a plant from outer space. Even though the understory plant fills the gap between lupine stems and leaves, there is now a larger, more disconcerting gap between leaves and flowers. The plant has become an item of curiosity–ridicule, even–instead of a thing of beauty.
Now I understand why I don’t see lupine planted in people’s gardens, even though it grows so well here. The whole thing was a mistake, and now I’ve made it into a more expensive mistake. I half hope the lupine will not survive another winter, or that the understory plant will crowd it out, as the garden shop owner implied it might when I bought it.
But both plants survive another brutal-by-Seattle-standards winter of temperatures in the twenties and two more snowstorms.
Fast-forward to the present time of late May, Year Three–and the lupine looks like this:
Full, rich green leaves everywhere with no more gaps. Enormous purple and pink blossoming stalks that no longer look like they landed from outer space, though they are undeniably huge, and a little weird.
It is a scraggly, unruly plant with a mind of its own. A strange, glorious thing of beauty. A plant that says welcome home in its own language each time we cross the threshhold.
But this is not our permanent home. We hope to buy a house of our own soon, and Bigfoot thinks we should take this plant with us when we go. When I point out that the pot is not ours, he says we can pay the landlady for it, or buy her a new pot.
I like the idea of buying a new pot. A big pot. Leave it in the same spot by the steps and fill it with black soil.
Feed me! it will cry to the next tenants.
And even if they’re brown-thumbs with no interest in gardening, like I was, they’ll feel compelled to respond with a new, weird, and ultimately beautiful design all their own.