by Jim Wehtje for the Saker Blog
Dumping Russian vodka is easy, and you can smash the bottles publicly if outrage need be loudly demonstrated. Banning the soft power of Russian cat breeds in feline shows is also straightforward. Canceling Dostoyevsky from the classroom or living room bookshelf is another way to take a stand against aggression. Or perhaps ban Russian players from tennis tournaments, unless they take a disloyalty oath. A serious cleansing involves the most cherished aspects of our lives and for me I knew that meant plants. I have been making x-ray images of natural things — particularly plants and seashells — for 25 years and am living once again with my now aged folks and helping them tend our gardens of some 350 varieties.
These gardens are in Massachusetts, hardiness zone 5 or 6, but that is all I should say. If the long arm of Putin can mold any election and bend most any mind through social media, then it’s best to stay anonymous. His agents could be disguised as anything. Remember that collared beluga spy he had patrolling Scandinavian waters? No wonder Sweden and Finland want to huddle with NATO for security. Even liberal Boston — amidst its campaigns against violence and hate towards Chinese- and African-Americans — was vigilant enough to ban Russian and Belarusian runners from competing under their own flags in the Boston Marathon. Another type of runners — roots — work with mycorrhizal fungi and their tiny fiber-optic-like hyphae threads to pass nutrients and information along what is called the Wood Wide Web. It also has a wireless aspect, where plants give off volatile organic compounds (VOCs) through the air which can be picked up by other plants to signal such things as an insect attack — allowing recipients time to toughen up their leaf defenses. But who knows about all the amazing connectivity of plants. What all can they signal about and how far might their networks extend? There is no Alfa Bank branch in my town to connect to, but who knows what other agents plants could use in their asymmetrical botanical warfare.
I stepped out the front door into a bright June day. Greeting me were the Summer Snowflakes (Leucojum aestivum), mostly done blooming. I looked up their native range. Europe including Ukraine, but not Russia. Clear-cut, but then I noticed it also included parts of Iran. That wouldn’t work as Iran has long been sanctioned and accused of supporting terrorism. And I might as well decide about China now too because it was the biggest threat and stifling sanctions against it, or even war, was inevitable. I didn’t want to be caught cultivating a single enemy plant cell — and that determination could be as an ex post facto ruling making me guilty for growing it before the ruling even existed. It wouldn’t be enough to just continue to root out clear weeds like China Jute (Abutilon theophrasti) or Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) with its orange-yellow roots. Prized foreign plants were in jeopardy because any enemy of the US could also be accused of terrorism. I must not mistakenly harbor any of them.
Our Siberian Irises (Iris sibirica) would have to go. The cerulean blue of their flowers smack in the middle of the front garden draws serious attention. The roots mass in tight clumps but are not very deep. Their range is from Central Europe swinging over to Siberia, but I had decided I must avoid any “dual use” plants. If it is native to both a bad nation and a good nation, it must go. Obviously plants from west of the Urals in Russia often have a range which naturally extends into Central or even Western Europe. It is one continent. But “Putin must go” I mouthed as I hefted the mass into the wheelbarrow.
The ‘Krasavitsa Moskvy’ (‘Pride of Moscow’) lilac is a variety derived from the Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris), which is indigenous to the Balkans but cultivated widely in temperate regions. With such a blatant Russian name however it would be hard to explain keeping it. Perhaps it could be rebranded? In WWI sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage” and French fries became “freedom fries” when France refused to join us in the liberation of Iraq. Al Qaeda rebranded more than once in Syria to try to stay “moderate rebels.” The Contras were “freedom fighters.” The Azov battalion is patriots, not Nazis. I balked at the tough digging. This bush is like a cluster of small trees with roots galore. I decided it could be called ‘Glory to Ukraine’ lilac and kept.
Then there were going to be the hybrids. Typical garden forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia) has parents which are both Chinese so it obviously has to be dug out. Likewise Russian Comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) has Russian parentage on both sides. To be safe though I decided that if either parent of a hybrid were bad then I could not keep it. But what of tulips where crosses were often not even noted by the hybridizers themselves — in stark contrast to the precise record keeping of orchid zealots. Tulip species are native to a long oval swath from the Eastern Mediterranean to China. It is probable that they were first cultivated by Persians in the tenth century before being introduced to Europe. I don’t have any non-hybrid “species” tulips where I could possibly pin down a geographic region within that swath. So, sorry to our tulips, but looks like we can at least keep our daffodils — which are from the Mediterranean region, particularly Iberia. And sorry to my Persian and Crown Imperial Fritillary which are also inexcusably from Iran. It takes me two hours to dig out all the tulip and fritillary bulbs.
Russian Sage (Salvia yangii) is a tough plant which spreads aggressively by its roots. I love to crush a leaf whenever I walk by for the fragrance. Must this go? I looked up its range and surprisingly it is not actually listed as native to Russia. I stopped myself from looking at more sources. I decided it was a dissident refugee. I could keep it.
The earlier war had a clear enemy. The woodchuck (Marmota monax) — surprisingly fast for its waddling form — was easy to identify. It could be in the adjacent field or, having crossed it, be in our vegetable garden terrorizing the lettuce. In times of drought they were more aggressive. They would come back to ravage tender new growth, not allowing plants to recover from their first attack. Voracious eaters, they once mowed down two long rows of beans.
Then one dug its home in our yard. At first we tried chemical weapons. We put a gas bomb in its burrow, trying to make sure all possible back doors were sealed first. Then we crossed the adjacent field and bombed the main colony. They were terrorists so we needed no permission. The bombs we bought made a lot of noise and smoke but the woodchucks survived and even thrived. When we questioned their efficacy the manufacturer blamed us saying that we probably were not finding all the back doors to the burrows. We and our neighbors ended up spending much more on bombs than we saved in Gross Domestic Produce (GDP). Some woodchucks were killed, but for every one eliminated ten of its relatives became avowed terrorists — so there was always a threat and more bomb sales.
Politically fences and walls became the next thing. Sure, a woodchuck could dig under a fence but we put it about a foot down so they would have to dig a little to go under it. On the other hand, if you build a three foot fence, a woodchuck can build a four foot ladder.
I considered our Oriental Hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis). They are not indigenous to Russia or Iran but are in Western Asia including Israel and Syria. In enemy Syria they are native to the NW corner which is occupied by Turkey which is in NATO. Fine enough. Everyone knows about Israel’s Apartheid thing and periodic attacks on les miserables in Gaza to “mow the lawn.” But as important as race is domestically, those flaws are over there and Israel is our ally as is Saudi Arabia and many other nascent democracies. So I’m keeping these hyacinths. More importantly, how pure is our lawn? It is a crazy mix of grasses and clover such as Eurasian dual use white clover (Trifolium repens). I really will need to dig it all up and put in something safe like Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis).
I come to the budding Oriental Poppy (Papaver orientale), which may be a spy because it is native to Northern Iran. But as with the Oriental Hyacinth these names bother me because “Oriental” is an imperialistic — even racist — term which assumes Europe is the normal place to view the world from, and which stereotypes people and things from Asia as “exotic.” And that is not just a common name but the scientific name for both (orientalis, orientale). Surely as I root the poppies out I should be respectful and try to learn one of the local names for them. Latin is dead and that makes it somewhat neutral, but it is still a Western tongue. My computer can do Asian fonts if I learned how. I felt as lazy and insensitive as I was about learning people’s pronouns. Instead I decided I would act and write to the scientists about name changes.
I turned to our wooded area. “Tame” Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis majalis) is European and larger than native “wild” Lily-of-the-Valley (Maianthemum canadense). The tame kind has a native range from Western Europe that sweeps across the top of Ukraine to largely exclude the Donbass. But then it goes on east to encircle Moscow before curving back to Western Europe. It also has a strong presence in Crimea. Indigenous to Russia, this plant must be eliminated but we already battle to contain it in two patches, ethnically cleansing it when it spreads out fast with sneaky underground rhizomes. It can drown out native woodland plants, in a sort of genocide. But those patches got corrupted with genes which make the white flowers pinkish. I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but we started a third patch of clean stock with pure white flowers which we hope to keep unblemished.
Next I spotted the Korean Fairy Bells (Disporum flavens), a star of our garden. This woodland plant has alternating ovate leaves and yellow flowers nodding downward in terminal clusters. Listed from Korea, I assume it must come from both Koreas. I lack a native range map. I am going to have to make calls. Better to be safe and destroy this rather than be caught sheltering a possible enemy.
Safe native woodland classics include the presidentially-named Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) which likes chalky ground, Trillium, Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), Yellow Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum), Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica), Canadian Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), and Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). The pulpits appear to be very male with their phallic spadices and they do start with male flowers on the spadix. Insects such as gnats get caught in the spathe and brush against the pollen of the male flowers. There is an escape notch for them to maybe go cross-pollinate a female pulpit — which has no escape notch however. As seasons progress male plants build up root mass and strength and then can change one season to have all female flowers which produce bright orange-red berries. If conditions go bad then they can conserve energy by going back to being male with the lower-energy pollen flowers. What a perfect transgender plant to counter old fashioned dioecious plants such as holly which closed-mindedly stick to clear and separate male and female plants.
Hostas are indigenous to that bad Northeast Asian trio of China, Russia, and (North) Korea, as well as good Japan. So, goodbye to our lovely Plantain Lily collection which never had a chance to bloom this year. Another shade plant from that region is “Tame” Bleeding Heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis). It had been in the Dicentra genus along with nativists Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), and “wild” Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia), both of which we also grow. But it clearly has to be eliminated. And it seems that scientists have already sanctioned this plant by removing it from Dicentra and isolating it alone in Lamprocapnos. The grounds were that it has split stems which hold the leaf stalks and flower stalks, but that other Dicentra are stemless — with flower stalks and bloom stalks coming from the base. But what of violets? Many, such as the Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia) are also stemless. But there are branching stems in the case of the Johnny-Jump-Ups (Viola tricolor) we have right here — where the stem is clearly separated from and above the rhizome before it branches out. Yet it gets to stay in Viola. Classification seemed quite arbitrary and half-baked. I mused over the wide variety of forms warehoused in the Euphorbia genus, and the 500 crammed into Veronica.
Our true lilies caught my attention. The Tiger Lily (Lilium lancifolium) is a reproductively diverse plant with hermaphroditic flowers which are called “perfect” and “complete” by botanists — meaning that flowers of only one gender are incomplete. But this lily can also clone through bulb division and from little black bulbils which grow in the leaf axils then drop off. As appealing as all that is, I had to have integrity. Coming from that NE Asian trio of bad nations, it must be purged along with all the other lilies. The problem was that though we had some great native lilies like the Canada Lily (Lilium canadense), these were rarely commercially available. Except for Turk’s Cap Lilies (Lilium martagon) of Eurasia, it was the Chinese East Asian lilies — Asiatic, Oriental, Trumpet, and Orienpet — which were produced in mass in places like the “Garden Factory” I used to buy from when I lived in Rochester, NY. American species were hardly produced. We had lost our native industrial lily capacity.
Would it be proper to get a potted Easter Lily (Lilium longiflorum) for the celebration next year? It is indigenous to Taiwan and the nearby Ryukyu Islands of Japan. Is Taiwan still recognized as part of China by the US or not? Is Oceania still at war with Eurasia or now with Eastasia? Is Guaidó or Maduro president of Venezuela when we go beg it to pump more oil? Consulting the internet I realized that the lily variety used commercially comes from the Ryuku Islands, so I was saved from a big decision.
I looked up at our trees. The European Tree of the Year competition had banned a Russian oak from entering to help call out Putin’s aggression. We needed to do our part. Other than our native Eastern Redbuds (Cercis canadensis), most of our decorative trees were foreign and actually Japanese — Japanese Red Maple (Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’), Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia), Japanese Dogwood (Cornus kousa), Japanese Tree Lilac (Syringa reticulata), and Japanese Snowbell (Styrax japonicus). Japan, like South Korea, is occupied by American troops in spite of constant Okinawan opposition and is still aligned with us. So I thought these trees were safe, except that it is not easy to separate Japanese flora from that of other NE Asian countries. All of these trees were compromised by also being native to Korea — and some to China and Russia too. The Japanese Dogwood for example is also known as the Kousa, Korean, and Chinese Dogwood. It and the Japanese Stewartia both have beautiful bark of different color patches which makes them seem so multiracial. Could I find grounds to justify revamping my “dual use” rule? I took a break.
Then in horror I realized our prized Ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba) was Chinese. Very Chinese. It is only indigenous to China and is the only one on our block. Its triangular leaves sport fanning out parallel veins of equal thickness. Female trees bear fleshy fruit which is not admitted as a fruit because the trees have no flowers. What a unique tree! which is the sole survivor of an ancient botanical Division, Ginkgophyta. But its second strike is that it is a sexually traditional dioecious plant with clearly separate male and female tree roles — not a hip transgender one like the Jack-in-the-Pulpit, which can change gender back and forth so progressively. There could be no exception here. Patriotism has its demands and mine was tested as I went to the garage for the axe — we must hack out even the roots and leave no stump. (The real reason for that tool selection was that I was not handy with power tools such as chainsaws.) My leg shook. I took a swing. What was I doing? Suddenly I realized the axe was made in China so that could excuse me from using it. I blurted out an apology to the tree. I felt dizzy.
Things had gotten so complex. What was native to where? Who were our current enemies? What of the other BRICS countries? If the rest of that bloc got sanctioned then our South African Crocosmia and Gladiolus must also be disappeared. Campanulas were from various areas so each had to be looked at carefully. Cultivated clematis use stock from across the Holarctic in its varieties and hybrid mixes — primarily from East Asia but also from Europe and North America. Was my Solomon’s Seal the garden hybrid (part Russian) or the North American species? I was overwhelmed. I wanted an authority. A smooth Fauci- or Politifact-styled body to politely tell me what to keep or not. I would obey. I didn’t care if the body later admitted to telling noble lies or changed the hard facts. As a February 18, 2021 New York Times opinion piece said: it was time to stop critical thinking! Trust the mainstream and our experts. Yes, I agreed. Covid and now the Ukraine war were all too much to sort out truths, half-truths, and lies all on one’s own. It was safer to follow the herd. Ukraine was winning. NATO was defensive. There was no 2014 Kiev coup. Light and Dark could be painted in clear chiaroscuro. I sighed relief. I had spent enough time trying to spell plant names correctly and keep up with terms like “cisgender,” “chest-feeding,” and “non-binary” — it could be most embarrassing to get those wrong.
China is the looming threat but I admit it provides the best of many garden classics. Besides dominating in true lilies, China along with Japan are the strongholds of Daylilies (Hemerocallis), which come almost exclusively from East Asia. SW China (and neighboring Himalayan regions) have the largest temperate center of diversity for Rhododendrons. The Chinese Peony (Paeonia lactiflora) is the basis of peony garden hybrids and they have a long royal and medicinal tradition in China. Most roses are native to Asia and the Tea Rose (Rosa x odorata) — a hybrid from Chinese stock — has been endlessly mixed with previous mixes done in Europe to make the plethora of modern hybrid tea roses. Those previous mixes included the China Rose (Rosa chinensis) and European, North African, and Turkish rose genes. So likely our roses are at least half Chinese, but what if some are only 1/8 or 1/16. What should the rule be? One drop of Chinese genes makes you Chinese? To be safe we decided all our roses, rhododendrons, and peonies must go. True patriotism requires sacrifice. Freedom isn’t free.
Our Bigleaf Hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) were exclusively from Japan, so we could keep them. We have a variety which blooms blue if there is enough aluminum in the soil and it is acidic enough to dissolve it in water so the plant can absorb it. From non-Russian Europe we could keep our Purple Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), German Bearded Iris (Iris x germanica), and Spanish Bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica). On indigenous grounds we could keep our Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis), Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Sweet Shrub (Calycanthus floridus), and Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) varieties and the hybrids derived from it. I thought we could keep our Common Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) which has a range centered in Europe, but Iran again sabotaged things by having a strip of it along its Caspian shore.
Scientists praise a plot of native plants purged of immigrants. Yet a third of all wild plant types in my region are not native. I pondered that all humans came from Africa. Where was the first plant from? A garden or ship escapee becomes widespread then naturalized and then when can it be accepted as native? Successful but disliked plants are labelled “invasives.” Some people like Boston Ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata), some do not. This NE Asian native covers Ivy League university buildings in Northeastern US, and also adorns the outfield wall at Wrigley field in Chicago. In Southern states Kudzu (Pueraria) was brought in to deal with erosion and being a legume it also builds up soil. No native plant would do that hard work for such small pay. But it is too successful because it keeps whole houses and trees from eroding by completely blanketing them.
I had quite a mountain of dug up bad plants from over a week of purging. It must be more than what is left of the plants in the gardens, which seemed isolated now. Should I burn them? Bury them still half alive? Was there a Geneva Convention governing plants? In hate I hacked with my shovel at the root mass of Siberian Iris but instead of dismembering this Russian blob into four or five pieces the shovel glanced off and hit my own foot. I cursed Putin.
What will go in their places? I could already see there were some natives coming up — Pennsylvania Smartweed (Persicaria pensylvanica), Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), and Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) — so those are safe. Should I grow indigenous Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) in the sunny front garden for monarch butterflies? Should there be Affirmative Action for the Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) brought here by Europeans as a beautiful nutritious medicinal plant only to be later maligned by the lawn chemical companies and persecuted with poisons. Maybe I should grow strongly symbolic Sunflowers to show solidarity with Ukraine. But the power behind them is us — Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are clearly from America.
The physical and emotional strain of the purge caught up with me. What had I done? I loved these plants. None had ever done anything to suggest it was a spy. I teared up. I looked at the wilted white Lily-of-the-Valley, blue Siberian Irises, and red Bleeding Hearts in the pile and remembered that these are the colors not only in the Russian flag but in many other flags including those of us, France, the Netherlands, the UK, Chile, Australia, North Korea, Thailand, the Czech Republic, Iceland, Luxembourg, and Cuba — only in different orders and patterns. I wondered why instead of finding commonality we are supposed to play up differences and hate each other and never lose patience with a system which creates grotesque inequality to the benefit of the elite class who crafted it. But I had done the right thing and embraced more sanctions just as I had not questioned the COVID-19 shutdowns, no matter how much damage these did. I could not stomach letting my faith in the system be crushed. White, blue, and red are also the colors of the bars on the “OPEN” for business flags of our small businesses which are being crushed unnecessarily like Ukrainian soldiers in Donbass cauldrons.
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Jim Wehtje is an independent radiographer (x-ray photographer) who loves to work with seashells and plants. He lives in Lancaster, MA. Check out his beautiful photos here: http://jimwehtje.photoshelter.com/archive