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A Piece of My Heart

Friday, January 8, 2021


 This is a post for Phoebe and Oscar and Liam, so we can remember together. Yes, it's about a plant, but it's also about a trip that glows like a firefly in the back of our minds, a trip we took in December 2019, as a way to celebrate Christmas together, for the first time without their daddy in our lives. 

 I love a plant with a story, almost as much as I love a mystery. Exactly a year ago, I found a pot spilling over with a strange, fleshy-leaved vine. It had tubular red flowers. I had absolutely no idea what it was.

This mystery plant was found in the tiny pueblo of Agulo, on La Gomera, Canarias. Here is Agulo, with the island of Tenerife, with its volcano, in the background. We've been there, Phoebe, Liam and I! Look at those serpentine roads! That rugged landscape, and the way Agulo just huddles at the base of the cliffs, shaded by them for so much of the day.

You have no idea what beautiful memories are elicited by seeing this photo.

I'm going to take you back to La Gomera in the Canary Islands, and our trip just a year ago, before the world fell apart.  Going to take you in the way back machine just 12 months, when we could still fly in jets across the sea. Phoebe rented a little smartcar and away we (Liam, Phoebe and I) went on a whirlwind tour of her favorite places on the island, a rugged chunk of basalt ringed by the blue Atlantic Ocean. 

We ate lunch at Mirador Agulo, a glass-walled restaurant that looks out on the sea and down on Agulo. There, I got some photos of my kids leaping in the air over Tenerife's volcano that are among my favorite of all time. 

The photos were funny until I suggested the kids give me a deadpan look as they soared above the red earth. Then they turned magical.

After lunch and photo leaping, we made a walking tour of little Agulo, my favorite village on the island, hands down.  It had the walls of antiquity, and seemed to be a haven for plant mavens! Look at the potted anthuriums lining this alleyway!

The doors alone left me reeling, they were so beautiful. This knocker was a hand...and in the background, you can see my kids  talking in the cobblestone street. I couldn't tear myself away from the doors.

And this one...oh my gosh, the shades of weathered sea green. OK, so its functionality isn't terribly high, but it is a piece of art. 

We found a magical garden of magnificent specimens of succulents and cacti--how about those red and yellow fishhook cacti?? These New World cacti are far away from their native lands, to be sure, as is the African crown of thorns. What a treat for this Ohioan to see, though, and to imagine being able to grow cacti and succulents outdoors in the ground! It certainly tells you how little rain La Gomera gets. In Ohio, they'd rot, drown, freeze and die. It'd just be a matter of in which order. 

Next to this garden was another magical doorway. 

I think red and blue is my favorite color combination (see my house...)

And I wondered: Do people consciously create these effects? Noooo...Does the weather do it? Yep. But I wonder: Do they think, "Man, my gate is weathered so beautifully!" Or do they think, "I should really repaint that..." I just wonder. To me, it's the most beautiful thing imaginable, what weather does to these layers of paint on ancient wood.  The rot and the wear and the weathering. Wabi sabi. It helps to have such a dry climate, to preserve the wood without degrading it.

And next to that gate in the tiny village of Agulo was a low round terra cotta pot. And growing in that pot was a plant, and I had absolutely no idea whatsoever what it was. I couldn't even get it to family. Maybe Gesneriaceae? The leaves were fleshy and rounded and dense; the flowers bewitching bells of coral red. Oh my. The only thing I knew was that it looked to me like something that might take to propagation. 

Yesssss my preciousssssss.

We finished our evening walk around Agulo, me trailing behind my long-legged, lithe kids, muttering and exclaiming over every little beautiful thing. Which included those kids. I watched Phoebe walk by an outdoor restaurant, and saw every head turn to watch her pass. There aren't many tall redheads on this chunk of basalt in the blue Atlantic sea. And yet she owned her foreignness; gave it up; acknowledged that when she got there she couldn't understand a word people said, yet became perfectly fluent, complete with a Gomeran accent (aspirated word endings, among other things); and loved the place as fully as anyone could. She made it her home. She moved boldly and confidently all over that island, drinking from its springs and picking its figs, making friends and getting the lay of the land as only she can. That is a talent, that is a gift, and I am so proud of her for her malleability and her willingness to give something so potentially scary a go. I couldn't have done that like she did, not in a million years. 

For that matter, there aren't many tall blonde lads, either. Just as there aren't hedges of bougainvillea and Ficus benjamina at bus stops in Ohio.

I still can't believe we got to do all this, only a year ago. It makes me savor the thought of past and future travel, with the razor sharp edge of keen longing.

Just to sit by the sea and watch the sun sink over the waves, on the island my daughter called home before the world fell apart and she was sent back to the States.

photo by Oscar Bello Goya

Fast forward a year, and I am home, watching a very small plant that languished and did nothing at all for nine months on a west windowsill in the house, then in a sunny hanging basket on the front porch. It grew a little, but it never bloomed. Just before frost hit, I tugged it out of its hanging basket and potted it up. And then I moved it to the greenhouse, with the idea that perhaps it would prefer that to another winter of  cold nights against the west window. So often, temperature is what throws a plant, keeps it from becoming what it is meant to be. And in the humid heat of the greenhouse, it started to grow and vine a little, and then it threw out some buds. I was beside myself.

The buds became peach-coral bell-shaped flowers. And I still had absolutely no idea what this plant even was. 

I put it out to my Facebook friends, thinking it might be a gesneriad of some kind. And my friend Vicki rooted around and asked some people and came up with an ID for me: Kalanchoe manginii, Beach Bells or Chandelier Plant. It is native to Madagascar! Oh! Oh! Oh! It's in the Crassulaceae, along with succulents like jade plants and, of course, kalanchoe!

 No wonder it did the best when grown in the same conditions as my sweet yellow grocery-store kalanchoe! Here they are side by side. Gotta love it! As you can see, manginii is a viner, its peach bells borne on wiry stems like lights on a chandelier. Once Vicki told me it was a kalanchoe, the paired leathery opposite leaves and the happy, handy little air roots it makes made perfect sense. I just couldn't see their relatedness by the flowers.

Two kalanchoes. Ain't that a kick in the pants? 

I can't tell you how I love it, and how excited I am to see it when it's in full bloom. It's going to be a while--weeks!  This plant does everything verrry sloooowly. 

That's OK. I've got time. 

I've already rooted a cutting and potted it up for Phoebe to take home with her to North Carolina, so she can watch and wait for it to bloom. Seemed only right. Ah special plants, and sharing them with those I love, and the memories tied up in them--they are  all pieces of my heart. 

Meanwhile, Out in the Greenhouse

Monday, January 4, 2021



The greenhouse is an ever-changing scene. Since this photo was taken, the beautiful cockscomb planter, with its flames of red and gold,  has finally gone out and faded away, disconsolate at the total lack of sunshine in this Very Cloudy Winter. I'm glad I have a photo to remember it by. I was amazed it made it almost all the way through December. 

I never expected it to keep blooming after frost. It was a total bonus. Most people probably let them freeze outside and just chuck them out, and I got two more months of happiness out of this grocery-store find. Win win. And now I know I love cockscomb and will grow it in my garden next summer. When it croaks, it croaks, and I throw it away then. Much of good gardening is knowing when to say goodbye--and good grooming! 

My two dwarf pomegranate bonsais are packing it in for the winter, as they should. When they drop their leaves I demote them to the cold floor of the greenhouse to keep them asleep. They appreciate a dormant season, I find. And once I got over the shock of realizing they would drop their leaves and sleep all winter, I thought it was neat that I could grow a tree in a pot, that would go through all the normal cycles of a deciduous tree--leafing out, flowering, bearing fruit, dropping leaves, sleeping. And I get to watch. The dwarf pomegranate is too tender to winter out in the garden like the rest of my bonsais, so I winter it on the cold floor of the greenhouse. They grow outside in California, and I've seen pomegranates flowering and fruiting in Spain and Costa Rica, but not nasty old Ohio! 

This one dropped some gorgeous fruit. I think this is what happens in nature: the leathery pericarp, which few birds could peck through, finally splits when it's good and ready, revealing the jewel-red fruit for birds to disperse. 

 Or for Zicks to plant, hoping for more babies. Such a great, great subject for bonsai. It's so satisfying to grow a tree with neon-orange fluffy flowers and cute fat fruits packed with juicy seeds. They're hella sour, to taste, but I like 'em anyway.

I just figured out by searching my photo library that I got this plant as a gift from my fellow artist and  plant freak Beth in the fall of 2013. It was in a gallon pot, but it was only a few inches tall.  We'll fix that. 

I immediately started downsizing the rootball and the pot, planning to make a bonsai of it. It obviously liked that idea. Here it is in spring 2018, in good proportion to its pot.

and here it is in fall 2019. It's abotu 2' tall now.  I just adore this plant. It's loaded with garnet-red fruit here  and it's getting a better trunk every year. Even I am amazed that it's going into year 8 with me. Has it really been that long? I've got one baby seedchild who's shaping up very nicely, and just planted a slew of its seeds. Hoping to see seedlings come spring. I really recommend this plant as a satisfying flowering and fruiting bonsai, if you can swing the cold but not freezing overwintering conditions. 

 Hibiscus Creole Lady is just enormous now--much taller than I am, scraping the ridgepole of the greenhouse. I want to cut her way back but there are too many flower buds. Pretty much have the aphids under control, with several-times-daily spraying no longer necessary. Ugh! But that's hibiscus, some winters. You have to keep up with their care. Low maintenance they are not. This is the first serious aphid infestation I've had in years. Every winter is different.

TOO DURN TALL. But I can't cut her back when she's blooming! And we've been through so much together. 


She looks fine at night under twinkle lights, if I hold my phone up over my head. 

The Path is not to be outdone. Here she is in a very rare hour of sunshine. Gaaah I love this plant. She blooms more than she grows, in the words of Logee's greenhouse where she came from. True!

I always love to spend time in the greenhouse on bright days. I can just feel the plants exulting. Me too.

Much more manageable in size are these Smithiantha plants, that I grow from odd little rhizomes made by last year's plant. Very cool looking things, in the gesneriad family (African violet, Streptocarpus and the like).

I still fall for grocery store roses, too. Not sure why they sell them in grocery stores this time of year--they are the FUSSIEST plants in winter., fussier than gardenias. I tried keeping it on the kitchen table as it was obviously sold as a Christmas decoration, and within a couple of days it demanded to go out to the greenhouse with the cool kids. It did this by turning yellow, dropping loads of curled leaves, and moping. 

Now that it likes where it's living, it's beginning to emanate a little fragrance. That's how I can tell it's happier. But it still wants sun, and that I can't give it. Hey. We all want sun. 

 Speaking of happy, Happy Thought is coming into its radiant own. This geranium cheerfully takes over the entire east wall of my tiny plastic house by springtime.

I need to make some understudy cuttings--it makes me nervous when I have only one copy of a treasured plant like this velvety marvel. Especially when, like my two big hibiscus or this geranium, they are too big to lug into the house on very cold nights, when the greenhouse is in greatest danger of freezing thanks to water in the gasline freezing up and blocking the gas supply. 

I've been burned--or frozen--too many times to want to lose any more plants, so when the temperatures dip to the teens and my new little heater has trouble keeping up, I trundle these plants to the nearby bedroom until nights go back into the 30's and 40's. These are my two understudy hibs and a magenta hybrid balcony geranium that I love too much to lose. 

This plant is obtained by crossing a regular geranium with those amazing vining "balcony" geraniums that have meaty, shiny, star-shaped leaves, that tumble out of Swiss windowboxes and come in such incredible colors. I am a FAN. From the balcony geraniums, the plant gets its huge jeweltone flowers, a spreading habit, and its deep green leaves. The only thing about them:  Like balcony geraniums, they hate summer heat and look like absolute crap when it's hot.  But ohhh the winters. They love winter in the greenhouse. I have learned to have faith in plants, and to wait them out when they fail to thrive. With this hybrid, it's all about ambient temperature. They just hate to be cooked in hot, humid weather. Well, so do I. I think next summer I'll try growing them in full shade when it gets really hot. I bet they'll do a lot better there. It's ironic that my geraniums look their very best in the greenhouse, in the dead of winter! They deeply resent heat and rain, preferring to live in a climate-controlled, squirrel, rabbit and chipmunk-free dome. Ha! 

A place I am more than happy to provide them. I just looked at the ten day forecast for Whipple, Ohio. Highs in the 30's and 40's. Lows in the 20's. And a solid blanket of thick gray over it all. It is just colorless, like a sepiatone photo here.  Plants, I'm gonna need you. Thanks for hanging in there. You owe me nothing, but still you give and give. 

Animal Stories for the New Year

Friday, January 1, 2021


 I'm actually trembling, I'm so excited to share this with you. 

Last June, the nationally syndicated radio program Living on Earth held a live interview with me, via Zoom, on my newest book, Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-luck Jay. If you missed it, it's at this link:

I guess host Bobby Bascomb and the staff liked what happened last spring, because they've asked me back to tell some animal stories for their New Year's Day show, which will air all across the country on NPR affiliate stations, starting today, January 1, 2021, and continuing through the weekend.  You can listen here:

a cottontail in my driveway in the morning, light coming through its ears (ever my favorite scenario)

Thinking about it a bit, though I have lots of good bird stories, for this special show I wanted to tell stories about the underdogs: animals most people consider varmints-- namely woodchucks and cottontail rabbits. As you know, I'm an avid gardener, and I've had more than my share of run-ins and losses to these mammals. But I still love them, and I work around them, because they were here before we were, and I believe that having a taste for my vegetables and flowers should not be a capital crime. 

In this podcast, I'll tell a couple stories about heroic mother rabbits, doing what they must to feed and protect their nests. And what it feels like to reach down through straw and fur and hit a nest of slick baby rabbits. 

There is also a woodchuck story. I love woodchucks as much as most people hate them. 

This is a magical woodchuck story. 

Obviously, my ulterior motive in telling these stories over National Public Radio is maybe to sway a few gentleman farmers and gardeners who might otherwise shoot rabbits and woodchucks, to pause and consider what is going on between those sweet ears, behind those dark eyes. 

Listening to the podcast, you'll hear some bewitching guitar music.

They are composed and performed by Josh Kimbrough, who happens to be my niece Katie Zickefoose's husband. I think they're the perfect pairing, don't you?

For more of Josh Kimbrough's music, and to buy his excellent new album, Slither, Soar and Disappear,

This, rather than calling it up on a streaming service, is how to support an independent artist. We get nothing when you listen on Spotify or Pandora. With song titles like "Sunbathing Water Snake" and "Backyard Hawk," Josh's beautiful finger-picking style is a perfect fit for this podcast, and your taste!

Go here to listen to my part of the Living on Earth podcast:

And for the entire show, go here: 

If you're an habitual podcast listener, just look for the Living on Earth podcast on your favorite app.

My deepest thanks to Bobby Bascomb, Jenni Doering and the fabulous staff at Living on Earth for featuring these tales of the underdogs and Josh's beautiful music for a brand new year. 

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