Solving the mystery of Clayton’s toxic legacy

Our old neighbor seemed to delight in illegally dumping his used motor oil. But what is that tree that seems to be thriving in the contaminated soil? 

Karen Norris/Staff

Last winter, here in the Pacific Northwest, we got more rain than we’d dared to hope for. And then the winter rains gave way to spring rains, and summer showed up, more or less – at least the rain was warmer. Most of us, fresh off the horror of the 116-degree Fahrenheit heat dome last year, were fine with that. Once the sun actually made a sustained appearance, it was relatively well behaved.

Meanwhile, the garden had come alive. Things that struggled in last year’s heat and drought burgeoned. Included was one lovely little tree growing straight and tall in the center of one of our flower beds. It was amazingly vigorous and sailed above the shoulders of the rest of our perennials and shrubs. It was a clear success.

Problem: I had no idea what it was. I didn’t remember planting it. And – cue the ominous music – it was right in the middle of the Clayton Zone.

The Clayton Zone is the area of our garden in which nothing grows well, or for very long.

Occasionally something will take off and make us hopeful and proud, but just when we’re ready to put it in the “win” column, five years in, it will fade away like a morning dream, or an investment portfolio.

Ah, Clayton! Everyone should have a legacy: some mark of their having existed, something to remember them by. We do still remember our old neighbor Clayton from 40 years ago, and his legacy is this botanical graveyard that seems to spell doom for every hopeful sprout. 

In the Clayton Zone, seeds sour, vines wither, tubers turn to pudding. Clayton had a number of qualities, and a few of them must have been OK, although no one around here can recall one like that offhand.

“Bless his heart!” our nicest neighbor used to say, and then refrain from saying more. Right now the most charitable thing I can say about him is that he smiled while he poured his used motor oil under our hedge. His old car positively wept oil, and that one act evidently made him so happy. He got rid of his motor oil without having to pay the city to dispose of it, and our laurel hedge never seemed the worse for wear.

That’s because laurel has evolved to withstand fire, flood, nuclear winter, and, ultimately, Clayton. Our laurel hedge, however, was eventually no match for my husband, Dave; his 1969 International Harvester truck in first gear; and a sturdy chain. Dave managed to evict the hedge altogether 30 years ago, and what we have left is a lot more space for gardening and, apparently, a motor-oil aquifer.

The soil looks good. We’ve piled on the compost, and the tilth is stellar. But nothing is all that eager to grow there. If I were more of a grown-up, I’d have it tested. But I’m not sure I want to know. It’s a little handier to have Clayton to blame for our barren wasteland. 

Meanwhile, here is this mystery tree going gangbusters in the middle of it.

This should be good news. After all, this is an area of the garden not known for horticultural enthusiasm. We’ve considered importing invasive kudzu just to see some signs of life. It’s not like it would get out of hand. And here we finally have a real contender. If this thing has soared 5 feet in one springtime, it clearly has dreams of empire. Already it is throwing Godzilla’s shadow over the salvias. 

What is it? 

In my handy pack of useful young people, I count a niece who is an actual professor of botany. I brought her in for the identification.

“I have no idea,” she said promptly. “Maybe send me a picture once it leafs out a little more?”

Well, heck.

I sent a picture a few weeks later. The tree had gained girth – it might have been capable of being logged for fuel, or tapped for syrup.

“Clerodendrum,” she opined. “Smash a leaf. Does it smell like rancid peanut butter?”

By gum, it did. It is out of here. I know that tree: It’s rather attractive in several stages, but it’s nothing I want in the middle of my flower bed, however stunted. If we grow a tree that smells like rancid peanut butter, with side notes of Pennzoil, that’s more legacy than I really think Clayton should have.

Bless his heart.

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