Confessions of a plant whisperer

Naturally, along with all other perfectly rational types, I suspect that people who talk to plants are, well ... fairly eccentric. So when I caught myself spontaneously addressing a vegetable a couple of days ago, I coughed apologetically, looked skyward, and pretended I hadn't said a word to a soul since breakfast.

But I had. Aloud.

In Italy and other parts of the world, the long, green, sausage-shaped fruits of the plant I spoke to are known as zucchini. Here in Scotland, we know them as "courgettes" or, when they are left to grow too large to slice neatly, "marrows." To distinguish these from anything to do with bones, we sometimes further call them "vegetable marrows."

Anyway, my marrow plant was flowering and fruiting like the dickens – until a couple of days ago. I arrived at the community garden plot to find that although this plant was sporting one promising, if still adolescent, courgette, its leaves might best be described as disconsolate. Or flagging.

"What's happened to you?" I asked it. It was meant kindly. A friendly concern.

That was bad enough. It would have been far worse if the plant had answered. I am relieved to report that it maintained a suitable silence.

We talk to our dogs and cats (and, I might as well come clean, to our ducks) all the time. But at least they have ears that perk up or eyes that look quizzical. And they do use some form of approximate verbalization at times. But if plants respond to human speech, it seems to me that the vast majority don't use ears and eyes and vocal chords to do so. Do people who habitually hold conversations with their African violets or their morning glories secretly believe they have ears to hear?

This (due to an understandable reticence) isn't an easy human foible to measure. It is a private affair. Something between you and your plant. But I can't help wondering what sort of things people talk about with their plants.

Some, I know, don't discuss things on an equal footing. They boss their plants around shamefully. One Scottish lady told me she issues verbal warnings to some of her shrubs. She points to one that's been taking up valuable space for years. She is beginning to lose her patience with it. "I've given it notice," she says, "that if it doesn't flower this year, it's headed for the chop."

Sometimes, presumably in sheer funk, her shrubs pull up their socks and ... flower.

But what does one say to one's obligingly floriferous African violet in the way of harmless chat? Do you discuss the political conditions in East Africa, whence its progenitors came? Do you discuss, man-to-plant, the excitements and vagaries of life on a windowsill?

Morning glories are easier, I think. There in the rising day, delicate and superb like a sudden settling of large butterflies, is the latest crop of fragile trumpet blooms with their inexpressibly blue freshness. If you didn'tspeak to them it would be surprising.

It may sound like a misquote from "Oklahoma!" but it's really impossible not to exclaim, in the pre-heat-of-the-day air: "Oh, what a glorious morning!" And the flowers chime "Yes, yes, yes" – though of course they do it visibly rather than audibly, hoping to attract passing insects rather than specifically to amaze and gladden humans.

My long acquaintance with plant life suggests to me that, by and large, plants display little recognition of my existence. They don't object to being watered or fed, of course, and raise little protest when I prune, tidy, or transplant them. But I have the impression that although we fool ourselves into thinking that plants are there solely for our benefit, to buy, sell, eat, or display, it is the other way around, from their standpoint. They use us, laughing all the way to the seed bank. And even if it is hard to be persuaded that plants actually enjoy good conversation, one thing I do not doubt: Plants have a sense of humor.

Some plants have a kind of mechanical humor. The "sensitive plant" closes its fronds when you touch them. Snapdragon flowers, if pinched, open their mouths as if to protest. The pendulous flowers of many kinds of fuchsia, when they're still closed buds, don't seem to mind if you press them between thumb and forefinger to make them split open with a charming "pop!" Balsam provides endless childish entertainment by its seed heads. When ripe enough, they spring violently open and fire their seeds like bullets from a wayward gun.

Then there's the so-called "obedient plant." Its small, tubular flowers project horizontally all around an upright stem. If you move them sideways with your finger, they "obey" by staying put.

But a more psychological humor (or wit?) seems to be in the character of other plants, and they are not "obedient" at all. In fact, I think some are positively recalcitrant to the point of sheer mischief, delighting in making a fool of humans who fancy they can force them to grow in their gardens.

I might mention the tall Japanese anemone. It will flourish in a neglected patch overwhelmed with weeds. In a scrupulously tended border, though, it's just as likely to disappear, leaving nothing but a silent memory, like the Cheshire Cat's grin.

The same, I find, is true of a Chilean climber known as the Scottish flame flower. It is so called because in Britain it often defies the most solicitous gardeners of southern England, but is said to flourish in the northern land of Scott and Burns. I have come across only one gardener who doesn't want to grow this entrancing nasturtium, which can cover tall dark hedges of yew with its dazzling scarlet flowers all summer.

When it does this, the sight of it stops people in their tracks, even those who would never dream of soiling their fingers by the grubby practice of horticulture.

But it has a dreadful sense of humor. I live in Scotland, but will it grow for me? Only in pitiful dribs and drabs. I have tried every corner of our garden. I have even planted it on the fence around my vegetable plot, hoping a lighter soil will suit it, and I have talked to it with affection and admiration.

How does it repay me? By disappearing from my plot and showing up, brilliantly, yards away in my neighbor's plot. Is my neighbor keen to have it? Not really. He's more of a potato man. Why, I ask it, if I like it, does it not like me?

I'm sure that all I hear in reply, wafting mysteriously in the air of a balmy late-summer evening, is an extremely naughty chuckle.

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