Blooming in December

The cascading petunias are doing fine.  It’s a little odd to see them in December, given that petunias are annuals, not perennials.  (The terminology has always been confusing to me—annual could mean, as it does, that they only grow one year.  Exegeted differently, however, annual could mean that they come back yearly, but it doesn’t and they don’t.)  The Aerogarden (not a sponsor) system provides plants with a perfect mixture of light, water, and nutrition.  The only thing missing is the soil.  Hydroponic, the unit gives plants the ability to prolong their blooming life preternaturally long.  These particular petunias have been blossoming since January and they’re showing no signs of slowing down.  This is kind of what science is able to do for people too—keeping us going, even as nature is indicating, well, it’s December.

I often wonder what the flowers think about it.  We keep our house pretty cool in winter.  Partly it’s an expense thing and partly it’s an environment thing.  In the UK they talked of “overheated American houses”—how many times I Zoom with people even further north and see them wearing short sleeves indoors in December!—and we went about three years without using the heat in our Edinburgh flat.  You see those movies where Europeans are wearing vest and suit coat over their shirts (and presumably undershirt) at home?  It occurs to me that it was likely because they kept their houses fairly cold.  In any case, I suppose the low sixties aren’t too bad for plants, but they certainly aren’t summer temperatures.  Still, what must they think?

Set on a counter where the summer sun came in, at first they gravitated toward the window during May and June.  Even with their scientifically designed grow light, they knew the sun although they’d never even sprouted outdoors.  That’s the thing with science.  I’m grateful for it, don’t get me wrong, but it can’t fool plants.  We can’t replicate sunshine, although we can try to make something similar.  (Fusion’s a bit expensive to generate in one’s home.)   So it is with all our efforts to create “artificial intelligence.”  We don’t even know what natural intelligence is—it’s not all logic and rules.  We know through our senses and emotions too.  And those are, in some measure, chemical and environmental.  It’s amazing to awake every morning and find blooming petunias offering their sunny faces to the world.  As they’re approaching their first birthday I wonder about what they think about all of this.  What must it be like to be blooming in December?

Somebody Else’s Heaven

Ailanthus is known as the “tree of heaven.”  It’s an introduced species in North America and, like many such species, it outcompetes its rivals.  The tree of heaven isn’t bad to look at—in fact its handsome appearance was one of the reasons it was brought to these shores.  Heaven isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, however.  The tree is aggressive and resilient, and difficult to eradicate.  Among the many unexpected “gifts” the former owners of our house left us was a back yard full of ailanthus trees.  At first I thought they were pleasant but then I had to remove a small one.  The smell almost knocked me off my feet.  I then learned that the Chinese name for it translates to “foul smelling tree.”  Whose version of heaven is this?

Over the weekend I spent some time lopping off trees of heaven.  Mosquitoes, I found out, love its shade.  It keeps the kinds of friends you might expect.  Heaven is, after all, a construct.  The word can refer to either the great dome of the sky in which the ancients believed deities dwelled, or the realm of blessedness to which the righteous go after death.  In either case, it was assumed to be a pleasant place.  Any trees there (and there are some according to the Good Book) would likely have a pleasing fragrance.  The ironically named version we get down here didn’t get the memo, it seems.  As best as I can determine, the name of the tree refers to its rapid growth, as if it’s grasping for the sky.

A problem with our own species is that we seem to think we know more about this world than we do.  We introduce species from other parts of the planet without considering how they impact the local environment.  In the case of a property with lazy former owners, it can translate to a real problem with heaven trees.  We’re often taken in by the innocence of names.  The first time I saw a tree of heaven, in a public park in New Jersey, I thought I should write a blog post about it.  It took being invaded by heaven, however, to make it seem relevant.  Heaven is a foreign nation, it seems.  It should smell nice and be open to people of all nations and creeds.  According to Revelation the trees up there bear fruit every month of the year.  Presumably in heaven someone else has to take care of the yard work.