POKEBERRY

I’m meeting a potential client in a garden on Sanchez Street.

“So I told the guy at the nursery, give me the fastest growing tree you have, and this is what they gave me,” Kari says.

“And how long has it been in the ground?”

“I don’t know.  About 3 years.”

Three years!  It’s as high as the roofline of the 3-storey house.  The large, shallow-lobed leaves look familiar.  I should know it but I don’t. “Do you know what kind it is?”

“All I know is he said it was a monkey palm.”

Palm.  It’s definitely not a palm.  Whatever it is, it is a serious tree to grow in this encroached-upon space, the encroachment mainly coming from the illegal addition to the house on the east, a big and cheaply constructed wall broken by one cyclopean window and tracery left by ivy pulled down.  The reason for the tree was to hide that ugly wall but it’s more intent on hiding the sky, what there is between buildings.  From the highest deck it is pretty spectacular, but what Kari wants is a garden at ground level where now there is a scattering of thirst-unto-death plants and a goodly accumulation of big fat leaves.

Coming over the north fence (the only fence) from the adjacent garden is a large pokeberry elbowing its way through a tangle of jasmine and potato vine.  Some of the berries on the clusters have a glossy, near-black ripeness.  Others are a rich magenta.  I crush one with my fingers, another I put in my mouth.

“You can eat those?” she asks.

“If you don’t bite on the seeds.  They’re poisonous.”

She gives me a deeply skeptical look.  Most of the homeowners I work for are suspicious of the plums and apples and pears that happen to be growing in their own gardens, especially if they come across one that some critter has gnawed on or pecked at or made an escape tunnel through.  Discovering such, the usual response is to go back into the house and wait till all the fruit falls off the tree and the gardener disposes of it. I don’t know if Kari is like that, and won’t find out because this garden is too shady for much of anything besides ferns and the like.

(A few summers ago in my parents’ garden in Kansas there was the rare voluminous apricot harvest (the buds almost always get zapped by a late frost), but each fruit was partially worm-spoiled.  My mother cut out the bad spots on each and every one.  She gets my first nomination as an Icon of Sustainability. (Note to Reader: joke.  See 1st blog, In Orbit).)

I was showing off by eating the berry, as if I do it all the time, though it was the first pokeberry I ever ate, and I swallowed it so fast I didn’t taste it, much less bite on the seeds.  In herbal lore an infusion of pokeberry is said to be an immune system enhancer, as well as being a remedy for arthritis and an antidote to Lyme disease.  I have, thankfully, no direct knowledge of the veracity of this.

Knowledge along another line came later at home, after I poked around the internet.  The fast-growing tree in Keri’s garden is Chiranthodendron pentadactylon, the 5-fingered, monkey hand tree.  I am indeed familiar with one, a large specimen in Strybing Arboretum near the succulent garden.  The flowers have the wonderfully peculiar protruding stamens, the “hand” as advertised, but even better, often contain within their upturned cup of sepals a thimbleful of sweet liquid.  If you really want to show off, take a sip in front of friends, but don’t let the gardeners catch you.

Now for you, dear Reader: a gentle poke from my five-fingered monkey hand.  Get your tickets to the Late Show Gardens now.  You too can become an Icon of Sustainability.

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