Monday, May 18, 2009

Star of Bethlehem

According to the USDA I grew up in Zone 5. Not that they track me personally; I’ve just always been fascinated by their brightly banded map, and wherever I go I ultimately want to know if lemon trees are possible (not hardy below Zone 9-10) and daffodils work (doesn’t get cold enough above Zone 8).

In practical terms this means because I didn’t grow up here, there’s stuff out in my yard I’ve never seen before.

A few years back I was mowing and found flowers where I had never planted any. The leaves looked like garlic chives, but longer and fallen over, with small white flowers, a few to each cluster. It was quite pretty, actually, and I wondered who would randomly plant stuff in the middle of a yard out by the curb.

I mowed around it, went back, and dug it up. This was harder than I thought, because the bulbs it grew from (again, like garlic chives or spring onions) were easily 6-8 inches down, and I mangled several before I got enough to transplant into my flower bed. I had no idea what it was. I assumed it was some sort of wild allium (garlic/onion type plant) or bulb. It’s grown up very nicely, and this year I took some pictures.

Gardeners probably seem rather solid and boring (old people with stone figurines growing way too many zucchini), but the truth is, we’re risk-takers. Who do you think invented zucchini bread? Crazy stuff. Seeing only pictures in a catalog, we decode a few bits of information (like zone hardiness, shade tolerance, and mature height), calculate whether or not we have room (and if it’s something we want, we always do), and send away for little bare-rooted sticks or knobby tubers or packets of seeds that look like alien gallstones. We stick these things in the dirt. We wait. A risky business.

Sometimes it pays off. When MP first saw the peach tree, he looked at me and asked, “Which end is up?” Six years and 30 pounds of peaches later, I apparently guessed right. Then sometimes things don’t go well, and one must rectify the mistakes. This happens to both my mother and her mother — a lot.

Currently my mother is ripping up sweet woodruff (“They said it was a groundcover. No lie!”) while my grandmother has spent 20+ years going at the lily of the valley (“It grows up places I never put it!”). Neither one has made much headway. Interestingly enough, my mother cannot get lily of the valley to grow — and she lives in the woods. What both my mother and grandmother agree upon is that STAR OF BETHLEHEM MUST DIE.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it grows everywhere! All the time!” my mother answered.

Grandma was more specific. “Because it gets yecchy.”

Okay… Over time they revealed that star of bethlehem, while pretty, is invasive, crowding out everything growing around it. After blooming, the grassy leaves get rather slimy and can’t be pulled out. It’s pretty for 2 weeks and annoying for 4 months.

I year or so ago I was at a plant sale hosted by a gardener friend of mine, and in her flower bed I saw the unknown little thing I’d rescued from my yard. “How cute!” I exclaimed, “Would you sell me some?”

“Oh God, that. No. You don’t want it.”

“But I already have some and I like it. What–?”

“Kill it.”

“But I like it! What is it?”

“Star of bethlehem.”

I had nursed a viper in my bosom! (Is that not one of the most wacked out sayings imaginable? No wonder it fell out of favor somewhere about 1910…) However, the truth is… I’ve never had a problem with it. It’s at the edge of the flowerbed, and though I occasionally mow over it in the summer, it always comes back in the spring. Look at it — isn’t it cheerful? Don’t the little while flowers look so happy to greet the springtime? Doesn’t its green center look like a Jell-O mold? I still don’t know how it got out in my yard. Maybe some disgusted person flung it there. Maybe a bird carried it off a compost pile. Nature’s mysteries abound.

“You watch it,” my mother warned me, “You’ll be sorry.” But she’s been saying that to me for decades now about this or that, and I’m still here. A lot depends on soil type and micro-climate, so maybe where I have it now it will remain in control. It marks a point in the springtime when the daffodils are gone but the azaleas aren’t quite ready to show. I’d hate to lose it.

Sometimes you have to take risks.

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