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Tend the Garden

A longtime friend commented during dinner that her next door neighbor’s son was on the path to nowhere and constantly in trouble. She thought herself clever referring to him as “a weed in the garden of life”. Although an avid fan of barbed words and wit, I found her comment harsh directed at a kid who was barely a teenager. He was dismissed and labeled as worthless. A weed.

“But maybe he’s a pokeweed!” I said in a positive tone.

She rolled her eyes. I recognized the look of resignation on her face. The look many of my friends have when I spit out a puzzling one-liner and they know a story is coming. She sipped her drink and grinned, arms crossed in silent permission for me to proceed.

Years ago I had a yard packed with plants. It was full of boxwoods, azaleas, and geraniums surrounding a dogwood centerpiece. A problem area at one end of the garden saw pokeweeds sprout thickly every spring. I chopped them back, broke them off, stomped them down, but still they sprouted. I finally spent a day digging up the massive roots and unceremoniously dumped them in the woods.

The very next weekend I was in the woods again to dump my centerpiece dogwood which had spent two years dying a slow death until I finally cut it down. I noticed that some of the pokeweed roots dumped a week earlier had sprouted while simply lying in the open air.

A week later, back in the woods to dump grass clippings, I saw that all of the sprouting pokeweeds had died except for one scrawny stem with two leaves. It leaned feebly towards the light. I pondered the struggle of that weed and impressed by its determination, I picked up the withering root and took it with me. In the hole where my dogwood had once grown I replanted the weed. Right in the center of my garden.

In only two days the frail sprout became sturdy and turned a darker green. I watered the pokeweed daily and even fertilized the baby beast. It took off.

When friends dropped by they told me, as though I didn’t know, that I had a weed growing in the center of my garden.

“Why are you leaving that there?”

“What’s that doing in your garden?”

“What is that awful thing?”

“It’s my pokeweed.” I responded each time.

My grandmother loved to garden and I learned all I know from her. Nannie said about various plants in her own garden, “It’s only weed if you don’t want it.”

I wanted this pokeweed.

Summer passed and the pokeweed grew. And grew. It was soon taller than me. Huge dark green leaves and red stems were supported by a thick reddish stalk. I trimmed and trained the pokeweed as it grew and by the end of summer it was a massive umbrella of a plant and a beautiful centerpiece in the garden. As fall approached, hundreds of tiny white flower clusters transformed into huge bunches of purplish-black berries. Cardinals, robins, and mockingbirds feasted for many days. Friends continued to drop by.

“What a beautiful plant!”

“That’s amazing!”

“What is it?”

“It’s my pokeweed.” I responded each time.

In the end, this unwanted “weed in the garden of life” had given me weeks of enjoyment, triggered hours of conversation, fed countless birds, and for one summer became the centerpiece of my garden and was admired by people from all over. It took very little effort.

Amazingly still awake after that story, my friend at dinner leaned forward and took another sip of her drink. She grinned with understanding as she spoke.

“So, I get it. Instead of tossing this kid next door into the woods, train him a little, make him the centerpiece for a while?”

“He’s only a weed if he’s not wanted.” I shrugged my shoulders as I spoke. “It’s certainly worth the effort.”

As a reward for her staying awake during yet another of my stories I thought I would suggest we have dessert. My treat.

“So,” I began, “how about cheesecake, or maybe carrot cake?”

“I can’t this time.” She said. “I need to get going.”

Worried I’d irritated her with my pokeweed memories; I apologized and promised no more storytelling that evening.

“Oh that’s not it at all!” She declared.

“Was it something I said?” I asked.

“It certainly was.” She grinned as she stood to leave. “There’s a little pokeweed next door at home who might want to go see a movie or something.”

Stuart M. Perkins

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