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How Thoreau helped my garden grow

By Carl C. Wright / March 22, 2001



A friend, seeing my small bed of wildflowers, asked, "Why piddle with such measly stuff when you have a greenhouse of lovely flowers?"

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Though I had several answers, I thought awhile before replying. Since I had been reading Thoreau's "Faith in a Seed" (in "Wild Fruits"), I gave him the essence of a statement by the renowned philosopher-naturalist: "We cultivate imported shrubs in our front yards for the beauty of their berries, while at least equally beautiful berries grow unregarded by us in the surrounding fields."

Satisfied or not, my companion was observing a row of wild violets. They were the progeny of an annual I first discovered on a creek bed one cold winter day. From dark-green heart-shaped leaves, stems bore blossoms of pale lavender. The self-seeding plant was destined to run free in the yard where growing anything has proved difficult.

In the same bed, wild oxalis attracts attention because of its long basal stems with three leaflets. Shorter stems have clusters of tiny pinkish-purple flowers. Again I think of Thoreau and his idea that it is not "the foreignness or size ... of a fruit that determine its absolute value."

What gave oxalis a place in my garden was my first sight of it in unlikely surroundings. In almost-freezing weather, it stood erect with purple flower protected by prickly-pear leaves. I carefully dug up this perennial's bulb, its means of propagation.

Since many wild vines produce blossoms and various kinds of fruit and seeds, I selected the balsam gourd, a real charmer. I first discovered it as a leafless brown string trailing three deteriorating apples. I collected their seeds for planting on the fence enclosing my backyard.

A planting brought slender vines with unbranched tendrils. The vines grew from turnip-like roots. Alternate leaves are palmate and lobed. Small yellow flowers bear small green melons that become striped. They turn orange and finally scarlet red. Only one inch in length, the fruit is usually longer than it is broad. It is neither edible nor poisonous.

Of course, the fruit is not so large as a tomato, but once more I agree with Thoreau, "Commonly, the less you get, the happier and the richer you are." My friend hasn't been around to see the balsam gourd and hear again from Thoreau.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor