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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. 


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I so miss travel, and my kids. Thanks for the tour. I think I’ll go to the greenhouse...

I believe this may be my all time favorite post by Julie. In it you show your heart through the beauty of your photos, the selection of what is beautiful, and your beautiful children. I see the writer, the artist, the science chimp, and the generosity you have to share your human experience. Thank you. And why does this blog bring me tears?

It snowed in La Gomera yesterday!!

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