Plants like People


“If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.”                                        Confucius (551-479 AD)

You are looking at one of my favourite family photographs here on the left – it was taken at Expo ’67 in Montreal and it commemorates the one and only time that my two grandfathers had the opportunity to meet each other. On the left is my Mom’s dad, an Austrian named Franz and on the right is my Dad’s dad, Norbert, a true born-in-Quebec French Canadian. Today, while I was pruning a Bigroot Cranesbill   (Geranium macrorrhizum) my Austrian grandfather came to mind…it took only one or two bruised leaves for that distinct fragrance to hit my nostrils and with it, he immediately came into focus. Being an Austrian, I knew his favourite plant was Edelweiss, but my memories of him always involve that pungent aroma of the Old Spice aftershave that he wore religiously, day after day and year after year.  My other grandfather also has his own plant of sorts, which is actually just a common weed – but every time I see Buttercup in bloom my mind takes me back to an ordinary afternoon in Belleville Ontario some forty years ago. I rarely saw my Dad’s father, mostly because we lived in the west for much of my childhood and my grandfather wasn’t one to travel. But on one of those rare visits to our home I have a memory of us kidding around in the backyard. He went and picked a small bouquet of Buttercup flowers and brought them over to me. He said “let’s see if you like butter”, and then he gently lifted my chin and started brushing it with his handful of weeds. He explained to me that if my chin turned yellow that meant that I liked butter and after carefully examining it, he grinned and proclaimed …”see, I was right, I always figured you for a butter lover” and then he tussled my hair and went to play with my brothers. It’s funny sometimes the small things we encounter that bring the past back to life, and for me it’s almost always plants.  Another one of these is a rare Chinese shrub called Decaisnea fargesii. It has a very unusual common name, Dead Man’s Fingers…a reference to the bizarre bright blue sausage-like edible fruits that resemble a deceased digit. When my youngest daughter Madeleine heard about these gory edibles, she begged me to bring them home for her to try. She was about ten-years old at the time, what I like to call the macabre stage. Being an obliging father I brought a cluster home and we cracked it open to eat. The edible jelly inside the pod is whitish and very snot-like, so it takes a strong constitution to even try it (it tastes like Lychee Nut). Maddy was up for it, but neither of her two sisters would touch it with a ten foot pole. Of course, this gave her bragging rights and she was able to go to school the following Monday and tell her classmates that she had eaten Dead Man’s Fingers…and there aren’t many ten-year old’s that can make that claim with a straight face.

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