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“How long do you think it’s been there?” I asked my Beloved, who was already hauling boxes out of the truck.
“Since yesterday, I imagine. Can you give me a hand?”
I kept looking at the tree as we moved back and forth with our boxes and bags and furniture. The trunk was a Celtic braid of woven stems; the leaves still green and fresh-looking, at least from a distance. The plant had been dumped out of its container and was standing bare-rooted in the snow. I assumed it was dead.
There must have been something wrong with it, I told myself at the time. Spider mites or aphids, perhaps. Why else would it be abandoned? An infestation of scale has brought me close to pitching my oleander into a snow bank, too.
But I haven’t. I keep scrubbing off the brown flecks with alcohol and washing the leaves with soapy water. I buy the last of the scraggly plants at those fly-by-night parking-lot nurseries and coddle them back to life. I’m no saint: I’ve done my fair share of murdering, too. I ship buckets of unwanted seedlings to the compost, smother misplaced sprouts under heavy pillows of mulch. Many a living thing has died under my hand. But that hibiscus haunts me.
The hibiscus that I left to die a Canadian death in the snow was not the cold-hardy variety I know as Rose of Sharon. My sister gave me a Rose of Sharon for my 50th birthday, because I had long admired the lilac-sized shrub outside her patio door. My garden is a zone colder than hers, and the birthday plant didn’t make it through the winter. I bought another in the spring, but that one failed, too. Third time lucky, I thought, but I was wrong.
Linnaeus named it Hibiscus syriacus because he thought it came from Syria but really the Rose of Sharon is native to Asia. The only truly hardy hibiscus shrub, it has been a feature of Chinese gardens for half a millenium at least, no doubt in part because both the leaves and flowers make an excellent tea. It showed up in Europe around the 16th century, though gardeners considered it tender and recommended that through the mild British winter it be kept “in a large pot or tubbe in the house or in a warme cellar, if you would have them to thrive." It took another hundred years before Europeans mustered the courage to plant it in the ground, where it was perfectly happy.
They called it the tree hollyhock. In North America it became the Rose of Sharon, though its only relationship with the plant of the same Biblical name is that it has a seeming endless bloom of gorgeous flowers. In fact, that’s the name of Hibiscus syriacus— mugunghwa, meaning "endless flower"—in South Korea, where it is the national flower, grown there for at least 1,400 years.
This all makes perfect horticultural sense. Hibiscus are part of the family Malvaceae, as are hollyhocks and lavatera, the low, pink-flowered rose mallow that dots my garden. All the progeny of the Malva family are promiscuous, flowering as if there’s no tomorrow, which there isn’t for the individual flowers since they last only a day, but each plant is so awash in buds that it is coloured with endless blooms from July until late in the fall.
The hibiscus sitting in my snow bank was not a Rose of Sharon. That shrub dies down in the fall and spends the winter underground. Besides, its leaves are heart-shaped and a rather dull green. Tropical hibiscus—Hibiscus rosa-sinesis—have glossy, jade-coloured leaves and produce enormous flowers, twice the size of a Rose of Sharon, that bloom not only in red, pink, white, and mauve, but in a rainbow of colours, salmon, peach, orange, lemon, blue, and a red so red it is almost black.
This is the hibiscus that Hawaiian maidens tuck behind one ear. The hibiscus of my Brazilian youth.
“Maybe it already had one foot in the grave,” I say to my Beloved on the anniversary of our moving-in day.
He looks up from his book. It is February, it is freezing outside, and the fire is warm. “What hibiscus?” he says drowsily.
“The one I left to die in the snow.”
He looks at me with something like pity. I can’t tell if he feels sorry for my crime or if he thinks I’ve lost my mind. “It was just a mall plant,” he says, turning back to his book.
Poor potted plants, to be held in such disdain! Disposable greenery. Just one step up from plastic. Something to get us through the bleak white winter, maintain the delusion that we don’t live where we do. A pretty face that we ditch when it gets too leggy or bug-infested or pot-bound. We don’t love our potted plants the way we love our gardens. Why is that?
Potted plants don’t have to be disposable. They just need bigger pots—or more light, or maybe a bit of a wash to get rid of the pests. Given some tender loving care, a potted plant can have a long and happy life. The oldest potted plant in the world, in fact, is over 200 years old—a giant cycad that lives near a side entrance to the glasshouse at Kew Gardens. It was sent to Kew in 1773 by the famous plant hunter, Francis Masson, and has been potted and repotted until now the soil and plant together weigh almost two tons. You’d think it would be famous, the Oldest Potted Plant in the World, but it is scarcely mentioned in Kew’s bragging bumpf. It sits out of the way, hardly noticed in its large teakwood box on top of an old, perforated, cast-iron grate.
At least no one threw it in the snow.
A year ago, my Sister the Therapist and I travelled to Brazil, the first time since we left as children, fifty years ago. We visited our apartment building that faced a park ringed with Royal palms. We ate feijoada, pastéis, churrasco, drank rum and Cokes. We took a bus up into the Black Mountains to the resort hotel where our family holidayed when the weather was blistering. The hotel was closed for Lent, but they gave us a room and we spent a day by the pool watching the hibiscus flowers open as the sun touched them one by one, petals unfurling in a slow scarlet dance, the golden stamen-encrusted pistil rising with the heat until it was perfectly erect.
“I killed one of those once,” I said to her.
She raised an eyebrow. She knows enough to keep quiet during a confession.
“I didn’t kill it, really. But I didn’t try to save it,” I went on. “I’ve always regretted that.”
She took a sip of her hibiscus tea and lay back, closing her eyes to the sun.
“Maybe it’s time to give yourself another chance.”