Friday, October 21, 2011

Venerable Plants

My approximately 130 year old farm house includes a Norway spruce that must be close to one hundred. Many old farm houses throughout rural Ohio and Indiana sport venerable old Scots pine, Austrian pine or Norway spruce.

Among the many emotions that we have for our gardens, one that is often present but rarely consciously developed is veneration. We don't usually think about making a plant venerable (bonsai being a conspicuous exception), although there are actually many opportunities. Certainly we can't make a tree ancient, although if we are lucky enough to have old trees we can make their survival a priority. We can also recognize that some plants have growth habits the predispose them for precocious venerability. I recently visited the Morton Arboretum in Chicago and photographed a sixty year old hawthorn. Sixty does not seem like a venerable age for a tree, but hawthorns reach maturity faster than others. Neglected hawthorns can look unsightly. It would be tempting when moving onto a neglected property to remove the overgrown hawthorns, but they may be worth the effort to save and prune for future veneration that may only take ten or twenty additional years. That is a fast track for a venerable tree. 
This sixty year old cockspur hawthorn (Crategus crusgalli inermis) has precocious venerability.

An even faster track can be had with other plants. I once grew an amaryllis for a decade or so. It methodically filled the pot and provided a grove of flower stalks in the spring. Its maturity and relative longevity gave me great satisfaction. It was venerable. Far more impressive examples of venerable potted plants other than bonsai can be seen at the Philadelphia flower show. The display of potted plants is my favorite part of the show. 
A potted plant like this amaryllis can be venerated, in this case after about ten years of cultivation during which it spread to fill a series of ever larger pots.

Perhaps the fastest avenue to a venerable status is had by monocarpic plants. I have written about my Cardiocrinum cordatum at least a couple of times. Perhaps I am trying to discover just why I find it so interesting. Since it has to grow for several years before it flowers and dies (leaving offshoots behind), I think of a flowering Cardiocrinum cordatum to be quite venerable when it manages to finally build up the energy to flower. 
A plant that has to accumulate energy over several years in order to finally flower and die induces a sort of veneration when it finally puts up that flower stalk, especially if a gardener has been growing the plant all those years waiting for the big moment. 

There are many ways in which to imbue a plant with venerability, but I will give only one more example. When my mother died I assumed responsibility for her rather substantial Clivia. I have shifted it up a couple of times but really should divide it. I resist the temptation. Somehow as long as it is growing altogether in the same pot it has the venerability of an inherited plant, passed down from one generation to the next. If it was divided it would lose some of its special association as my mother's plant, although I often hear of people who are very proud of plants they propagated from their parents or grandparents gardens. A similar example involves plants with historic associations.  I recently saw a little sapling that seemed to be highly venerated because it was somehow genetically connected with an alleged original Johnny Appleseed tree. As you might guess I didn't share the feeling of veneration in this case, but far be it from me to diminish their pleasure in the association of their tree with the history of Johnny Appleseed. 
An inherited plant like this Clivia comes with a special emotional status. 

Incorporating gardening into my lifestyle gives me a multitude of pleasures. Consciously thinking about aspects of the garden that please me helps to reinforce and focus my satisfaction. Certainly holding something of mine up for veneration is a source of pleasure, and if I can help to develop that object's venerability, all the better.