Avenging Plants

As a gardener I spend a lot of time with plants and dirt. While putzing around the garden beds, I interact with them in a way that one might call emotional, or even personal.

Take the Avengers—plants, that is. The Himalayan blackberry has developed, over centuries of careful plotting, an exquisitely painful method of defense. Unfortunately, this prickly monster—tough, impossible to kill, and relentlessly self-motivated—bears some of the best berries on earth. I regularly do battle with it, arming myself with gauntlets, long pants, boots and electric hedge trimmer. I never emerge from the fight unscathed. I know it’s reaching out to snag me when my back is briefly turned. I know it conceals its sharpest fangs under soft green serrated leaves, because these sink into my flesh through my leather grieves. It defies digging with solidly rooted fingers reaching deep into the ground, and if the ground is clay-like, as it is in this part of Oregon, any hopes of defeating it this way are fruitless—unlike the black, juicy, sweet food it tempts me with every summer.

Well, hell, you say. Just use Round-up. Round-up is a tank rolling through houses, spewing bullets everywhere, oblivious about what it crushes as it rumbles through the tear gas. Compared to this, I am the bare-fisted, well-trained fighter, bruised, angry, knowing the fight will never end. There will only be the respite of winter. When I had a stressful week at work, there was nothing better to bring relief than to do battle with blackberries.

There is an even worse member of the avenging plants. Depending on the variety, its defense might be fangs that inject poison (SporotrichosisI know because I’ve had it) or thousands of tiny pricking needles covering its skin, like a porcupine. This plant is so mean and evil because it is also beloved and beautiful and very common in the garden. It shows up in competitive shows in the hopes of garnering giant best-in-show ribbons. There are thousands of species and hybrids, dozens and dozens of hues, a dizzying array of scents making it the “absolute cornerstone of perfumery” per the Perfumery Society website.

Oh wait, I’ve got it! you say.

Yes, sadly, this self-centered haughty beast is the rose.

Well, hell. Why don’t you buy thornless roses? you say.

My answer makes no sense, not even to me. They’re just not the same!

The battle with roses is all together different. Most varieties need pruning, in addition to careful watering (not too much!), fertilization, and monitoring for disease. But even then roses are practically indestructible; they can lose all their leaves to black spot, they can re-sprout after prolonged drought, and they’ll still bloom if you don’t feed them. When it’s time to prune the hybrid teas or the David Austins or the climbers, ground coverers and multifloras, I arm myself again with gauntlets, long sleeves, and sharpened bypass clippers. Oh, and a ball cap to protect my head.

When reaching past the towering stems of the hybrid tea, name unknown, who came with our property, I accept the fact that she will bite. It’s a bit like trying to pill a cat, as anyone who has experienced this will know. Golden Celebration, one of my David Austin roses, is strong and dense, likes to be bushy and resents my efforts to thin it. Ballerina, a sweet pink single, is pretty nice about it, but Saint Swithins, a gorgeously fragrant D.A. rose, is brutally aggressive. I have to move slowly and carefully around her.

I do talk to my plants. Not because I read somewhere that they like it, but because they are alive. Anything that is alive is worth talking to, especially a plant that does well, or puts out its first bloom, or comes back from the dead, or dies straight out, or is hiding its last ripe tomato from me behind a knot of leaves and stems. I talk to birds, garden spiders, our resident bull frog and garter snake, and the food compost worms. (Come on, you gardeners out there. When you misstep and crush a plant stem, you apologize to the plant, right?)

When I am pruning my roses, and they bite, I act wounded and surprised. Why do you want to hurt me? I’m helping you! They don’t bother to reply, so I guess they have the same attitude as the cat and the pill.



About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison


Avenging Plants — 3 Comments

  1. You do know that climbing roses are related to the native Mt Blackberry? Look at the leaves for proof.

    The Mt Blackberry has smaller berries that are incredibly sweet. But the tiny, almost hair-like thorns grow backward. That’s so if a bear gets hungry and tries to strip the entire vine, those thorns embed in delicate mouth tissue and are impossible to get out. Our bears have learned to delicately eat one clump of berries at a time, then poop out the seeds and start the growing process all over.

    Bears also love the Himalaya blackberries (nasty invasive non native species) with the jack knife thorns that will penetrate even thick skinned bear paws. Best leave those monsters to the goats. Goats consider blackberry canes to be candy. They may not kill, but will contain the monsters.

  2. When I lived in Seattle, we tried to get one of the Rent-a-Goat herders to bring a flock to chew the scads of Himalyans, but they were way too booked up.