A weed is growing in the pot of my Hoya plant. I struggle to get a grip on the stem with its two scraggly leaves. We battle. I tug; my fingers slip, I tug and slip again, I tug and – out it pops. At the end of the feisty little stem now in my grasp is an acorn. It is not a weed at all. It’s an oak seedling. Remorse ensues. I did not intend to end the life of a tree.
There is now a miniature crater in the dirt where the acorn took root. I don’t want a seedling in my pot, and I push the soil back in to cover the hole. Good as new. I can plant it elsewhere.
The full name of the potted plant where the acorn assumed squatting rights is a “Hoya Carnosa,” a “wax plant.” My oldest son gave it to me for Mother’s Day over twenty years ago. It loves southern exposure and bloomed beautifully, almost continuously, back East where it hung in the kitchen window. Now the Hoya lives with us on the Central Coast of California. Its pot sits under the live oaks, right outside the door of our home. The plant has flowered only once in two and a half years. Perhaps it’s lonely – and I had to go and snatch its companion, a baby oak.
I love all things oak: trees, furniture, acorns, et cetera. Oak and I have a long history. In small-town Ohio, where I grew up, our property boasted seven pin oak trees, and they only existed because of my mother. She was on our plot of land as construction workers were preparing to bulldoze our future backyard. Developers put up dozens of houses in our area to accommodate the veterans from WWII and their growing families. With heavy machinery, they cleared the land, put up one structure, then moved on to another.
One of the smaller trees was partially dislodged from the loamy earth and in the grasp of a backhoe. Mom marched up to the big machine and shouted.
“Put that tree right back where you got it!”
“We’re just doing our job, ma’am,” the operator shouted over the engine noise.
Arms akimbo, she yelled, “Well, you’ll have to remove me first because those trees are staying!” My mother was all of five foot two and maybe 110 pounds. But she could be fierce. Perhaps it was her red hair. He gently lowered the tree back into its place.
On any given day, those trees in the back yard would become my castle, the next day perhaps a playground, or a fantasy land where sticks, pebbles, and acorns became a miniature village—one I had to defend against interlopers – mostly ants and an occasional beetle.
During warm weather, I bobbed in the hammock slung between two tree trunks and read dozens of books, booty from my weekly trips to the library. The giant oak that presided over the opposite corner of the yard had a perfect limb for a swing. It projected out a good twelve feet and was as thick in diameter as the trunks of its six neighbors. But Mom’s rock garden with her tiny succulents – her “hens and chicks” – surrounded this giant. A swing would ensure their demise – death by stomping youthful feet. We learned to be creative with the hammock instead.
The canopy of those backyard trees provided us with an abundance of shade and mountains of leaves and acorns to rake. Many days I filled my pockets with a dozen or so fat, shiny, reddish-brown acorns topped by their miniature caps. I tried to remember to empty the pockets before throwing my clothes in the hamper.
I lived in that house under those oak trees until I went away to college.
Pan right four hundred sixty-one miles or so from Ohio to the East Coast where, for thirty years, my husband Michael and I lived. He was born and raised in New York City and has never lived anywhere but the East Coast.
I was raised in Ohio but moved to Boston, New York, and then Connecticut. Both of us have lived with snow our entire lives. The winters in the Northeast seemed to arrive sooner and grow more intense every year. It felt like we had one month of spring, a hot, humid three-month summer, one month of fall, followed by seven interminable months of winter.
The house we shared when we decided we’d had enough winter was in Southwestern Connecticut, close to the New York State border. A freak snowstorm surprised us on Halloween. The trees still had most of their leaves and, because the wet snow lay so heavily on them, many of their limbs broke. So did electric wires. We had no power for several days.
When the storm subsided, I trudged into the thigh-high snow and moved slowly from tree to tree – from crabapple to Japanese maple to weeping cherry – and shook the heavy wet stuff from all the branches I could reach so they wouldn’t snap. I talked to the birch whose limbs were almost flat on the ground. “Come on; you can make it,” I coaxed as I scraped the snow off each branch till it was light enough to lift into the air. I could not save them all.
After two more consecutive snowstorms, we put the house on the market. All our houseplants went to new homes – except for the Hoya – it would make the move with us. One of our cars traveled by transport truck. Michael drove the second car. Sitting in a vehicle for hours on end and traveling 3,000 miles is not something I do well. I flew, but not before I secured the plant into the backseat with a seat belt and uttered encouraging words to the driver.
Michael and his Hoya traveling companion left Connecticut on a Friday. My husband says they developed a special relationship on the trip. They had conversations. I’m not sure what the plant might have offered, but I know Michael can talk forever about anything and about nothing. It is his Irish gift, his genius. He could easily imagine what the plant’s response would be and take it from there. He recalls how things got a little surreal on the fourth or fifth day, especially on the trek through the Rocky Mountains and in the desert when, in his mind, the plant started answering his questions.
He developed a Facebook following: “The Plant and the Man.” His readers expressed concern, offered encouragement, and “liked” his posts. They reminded him to water the Hoya and make sure it didn’t get too cold or too much sun.
Eight days later, Plant and Man finally arrived safe and sound. Well, alive – albeit both travel-weary – but they came around. I repotted the plant and found a place for it outside. The Man did not get repotted, although that might have helped. It took a few days for his vision to normalize and his hands to lose their death grip on a phantom steering wheel.
The Hoya’s new home on the back deck is under a canopy formed by ten lichen-draped live-oak trees. The weather on the California coast is so temperate I’ve only had to bring it inside once. We have a bumper crop of acorns from those ten live oaks. They look quite different from the ones I used to collect in Ohio; they’re not fat, and their hats are a different shape. One of them fell into the Hoya pot and took root. That’s when, thinking it was a weed, I pulled it out. I set the little two-inch baby tree next to my computer to remind me of all the places I have lived, all the oak trees I have loved, and all the acorns I have collected. It got buried under a pile of papers, and when it reappeared, it was beyond replanting. I did, inadvertently, kill it.
Today I shall plant one of those funny-looking acorns in its very own pot. There will soon be eleven live oaks in the yard.
Next, I will give the Hoya some plant food and bring it inside for a pleasant visit with the Man.