Terry Fowler

Plant Migration

When we first moved into our house in downtown Toronto over 40 years ago, the back yard contained a garage 24 feet square and in the northwest corner a parking space covered with gravel. An elm near the north fence was in its death throes.

It took me years of backbreaking labour to clear out even some of that cursed gravel. Much of it went into a pile at the back of our house outside some sliding doors, the sill of which was about three feet above the ground. I put some soil on top of the pile and half-heartedly improvised some limestone steps and a scruffy rock garden, which was 95% gravel and 5% garden.

Meanwhile, the northwest corner of the lot remained sunny but inhospitable to all but the most robust weeds. Nevertheless, my wife Shelly and I were interested in native wildflowers and medicinal plants, so we experimented with species known for their tenacity, their tolerance of poor soil, and even their invasiveness.

Wild bergamot was an early attempt. I was drawn to its feathery crown of lavender flowers. They are used as poultices for burns, and a tincture on a moist washcloth draws out fevers. The nursery and our plant books said they weren’t particular about soil, but they liked the sun, so I set in five plants against the north fence in the gravelly soil.

Of course, we were putting in other things as well – a lilac bush some fifteen feet to the southwest of the back fence, for example. Back behind the former site of the elm we planted an English oak. At that time no nursery carried the old fashioned red or white oak, which I would have preferred. The original trunklet did not survive as the centre of the tree, but it grew back nicely from several suckers out of the base.

However, for years the bergamot had the place of honour against the back fence, along with some goldenrod and other opportunistic plants. The second year all five bergamot plants came back, but they didn’t seem particularly healthy and there were no new ones. The third year we were down to three rather unhappy looking specimens; one of them didn’t even bloom. After five years they had disappeared. Maybe they weren’t as hardy as we had been led to believe. I felt bad but moved on with some other wildflowers.

Wild ginger, some forty years ago, was endangered in southern Ontario. Its dried rhizome has a distinct woodsy flavour (it has no relation to the oriental ginger) and makes a delicious and unique addition to pumpkin pie. We found some on a hillside about thirty miles north of the city and planted it in a shady part of the northwest corner, on the north side of the garden shed. It too languished.

It must have been at least three years after the bergamot had disappeared, maybe more. I was working in the vegetable garden near the now defunct rock garden. Taking a break, I casually looked up at the periwinkle, vetch, goldenrod, and motley assortment of other plants – OK, weeds – that covered the pile of gravel. There, right in the middle was a healthy stand of wild bergamot, in full bloom.

I glanced over at the original site I’d chosen for these precious flowers. It was in complete shade, thanks to the handsome, spreading English oak and the lilac bush, no, tree. Plants don’t predict the future, do they?

Scientists have discovered that plants can not only sense changes in water, chemicals, and even sounds but also react to these changes. When some plants are being eaten by a bug, they release chemicals that attract that bug’s predators. Some plants can “walk” — the stilt palm moves toward the sun by growing new prop roots on one side and letting old roots die off on the other.

It seems reasonable that some bergamot seeds could have been blown to the gravel pile and discovered it to be hospitable. But they didn’t need to be so picky. There were, and are, dozens of eligible spots in the back yard where bergamot seeds, to my ignorant eye, could have sprouted. Why didn’t they try out a few more locations here and there instead of settling in one neat cluster? Had they already formed a bond near the back fence?

Whatever the explanation, my suspicion lingers that the wild bergamot was tapping into some sort of knowledge field and had the means to act on the basis of that knowledge. Every summer, in a bed of gravel and surrounded by a threatening tangle of lusty weeds, it shines forth in its lavender glory, right in the spot it chose over twenty years ago.

Meanwhile, the shade loving ginger had its own plans. We noticed some a few yards away from its original location, in the shadow of a rose bush. Come to think of it, I’d rather be in the shade of a rose bush than at the side of a shed. The ginger flourishes. Early every spring I get down on my hands and knees to part its spade-shaped leaves and reveal the shy, brownish red flower.

Being so close to these plants is a privilege, but it is shot through with delicious mystery.