The sacred and the devil’s own work, garden plants in the moral imagination.
It’s often the way the bad plants multiply which causes greatest offence. they swarm, they suffocate, they uproot, they propagate by the million, they’re eaten up with self-love, they’re poisonous, (being poisonous is a good reason for getting rid of a plant you don’t like, but it never stopped anybody from planting, for example, a laburnum,) they don’t want to live in a community, they don’t care whether they’re in a junkyard in Buenos Aires or on a mountain side in Japan, or running like wildfire along railway lines, they’re at home everywhere and nowhere, they’re aliens and immigrants, and they’re often ascribed a kind of immortality, they’re as hard to kill as vampires: don’t put any trace of them into the compost bin; they must be burnt.
Whenever plants reach out beyond their allotted space the word ‘jungle’ is invoked. Completely superseded by ‘rain forest’ as an ecological term, it survives in gardening as an expression of our fear of the alien tropics.
A sacred plant on the other hand could be the amenable but tough snowdrop, spreading slowly by seed when established . All it needs then is for the sites to be noted and in summer, after the snowdrops have died away, kept reasonably free of weeds. A covering of leaf mould will provide a good bed for the seedlings. Yet you see it growing in churchyards, for example, tolerating a ground cover of ivy. Beautiful and, the word is hard to avoid, pure, and a sign that we’ve turned the corner towards spring. They combine purity with strength, and there’s a good possibility that you can naturalise them in your garden, so they’ve crossed the boundary between cultivated and wild, they’ve come to seem natural and their appearance in winter is a gift, a token of natural bounty. But it’s a moderate kind of bounty, in proportion: nothing jungle-like about the snowdrop. And then in spring they slip away gracefully, you generally don’t even notice them go, and so they make way for other plants. And if you ever do have too many you can dig some up and give them away. (As soon as the leaves appear is a good time to do this, or earlier if you know where they are. Dig carefully and avoid any disturbance to the roots which develop before the leaves do.)
But a sacred plant – sacred to someone – will not often be as lively and sweet natured a flower as the snowdrop. It could be a scraggy, chlorotic rhododendron. It could be a thirty five year old red hybrid tea rose with terrible blackspot , a feeble, ancient plant with a massive stool of ugly old stumps and a few wispy, sickly new shoots sticking up out of it. But apparently it’s an ‘old-fashioned rose, you know, a really old variety.’ As if the death of this plant, which is bound to be offered by about 76 nurseries, would be a great loss to the botanical gene bank. It’s become some sort of family shrine, and a way for the customer – client, if you must – to retain a measure of control over the garden. It could be Mrs Higham’s poor old Lapageria rosea which barely survived the winter in an unheated greenhouse and was then brought out and force fed for the summer, when it languished anorexically. And how she hated her beautiful thugs, the nettle leaved bell flower in particular, which another unwise gardener had introduced years ago. A garden of sacred plants and sacred spots can turn into a hospital, an intensive care ward for sufferers from dehydration, malnutrition, broken limbs, frost bite, sun stroke, parasites, viruses and cankers and nasty swarming things that you read about in the bible. So we’re back in the demonic again.
For another plant with sacred status see this post: Cypripedium calceolus , (the ladies’ slipper orchid). For demons see phormiums and cordylines
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