Commoners to many, but aristocrats to me

In the parlance of horticulture, a "volunteer" is any plant that germinates and grows uninvited in one's garden.Some folks make it their life's mission to search out and uproot such invaders, treating them like weedy gate-crashers at a party of carefully laid-out annuals and perennials.I take a different view and have discovered the joys of welcoming them into my yard.

I learned a valuable lesson some years ago while visiting southern California.I noticed that, although the many transplanted residents from other parts of the country may have gone west to seek their fortunes, they wanted the landscape around their homes to look like the places from which they had come.

The result was legions of maples and hostas struggling to survive in an alien climate. Keeping them alive meant keeping them awash in water - a frequently precious commodity in dry, crowded Los Angeles.

That very summer I returned home to Maine and discovered a European buckthorn growing out from the base of my backyard toolshed.My first thought was to pull it up by its roots while the pulling was good, but then I hesitated and decided to give the shoot a chance.

"OK," I noised, "if you can make it on your own, you can stay."

Perhaps those words were the only encouragement the thing needed, for in the intervening four years I have watched that slender whip grow and bifurcate into a lovely small tree about 12 feet tall.It has radiated out into an umbrella of knotted branches with dark, tightly wrapped bark and small, oval leaves, not to mention the stout thorns that inspired the tree's name.

Since accepting that buckthorn into my life, I have "gone native" with abandon and haven't spent a penny on cultivated plants. I live on the banks of a river, and so am the recipient of astounding largess from some very prolific species.

The common ash, for example, is an aggressive self-sower.From the one ancient parent growing at water's edge just beyond my kitchen window, I have had my choice of seedlings competing for life in its shade.One of these has become a companion planting for the buckthorn; another is now a stellar street tree, fronting my home.

The Canada lily likes wet feet, too, and from one solitary wanderer has issued a patch of these tall plants with their drooping, bell-like, russet flowers.And not 20 paces from this volunteer, there has sprouted a clump of yellow flag irises - a resilient gift whose roots tough it out under the winter ice before giving forth with vigor in the spring.

I am so pleased with my army of volunteers that I have become impatient with the unpredictability with which they introduce themselves.So I have cultivated the habit of conducting "rescues" from the surrounding woodlands.

In short, when I find a promising seedling growing in the shade of its parent, I make a decision to gently excavate it and carry it back home, where it will have a chance at life in a sunny, open spot.

This is how I came to my swamp oak.Bent and pitted when I discovered it growing under a canopy of unforgiving blackberry canes last year, I prepared a hero's welcome for it a respectable distance from the buckthorn.

The oak struggled a bit at first, despite its newfound space, full exposure to sunlight, and ample water (too much of a good thing?). But this year it has rewarded me with a growth spurt and a modest canopy of broad, flawless leaves that bear testimony to roots well established and satisfied with their situation.

The glory of all this is that these plants are tried and true.They bear the legacy of parents that have accommodated themselves to the rigors of slugging out an existence in Maine, with its cold winters, smothering snows, often-cutting winds, and notoriously poor soil.

As a result, I need hardly tend to them, as they have mastered the growing game in the rugged north and do very well if left to themselves, thank you.These volunteers, which some sniff at, are not commoners at all, but aristocrats who are able to care for themselves.

For me, the runts of the garden are the picks of the litter.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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