Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Welcome to USDA Zone 8

There is a big palm tree outside my front door. Not a sugar maple, not a red oak, not a gnarled old apple. A palm tree. It has three fibrous, serrated trunks and an arcing fountain of fronds that trail against the upper windows of the building next door. This is a foreign creature, citizen of a different vegetable nation. I feel I should show my passport before sitting in its rustling shade.

Beyond the palm is a fig tree. The figs don't look ripe to my New Englander's eye, but an obstreperous group of starlings seems to think they're worth an argument. I'll trust the birds; I don't know figs. Nor do I know bananas, whose lavender inflorescences thrust like rockets against the high brick walls of my courtyard. I brush past encroaching piper auritum, a black pepper cousin with strange white pipe-cleaner flowers. Its crushed leaves really do smell like root beer.

I've never seen any of these plants before. Their exotic architecture reminds me that I am very far from home. I am stunned by my good fortune. I unpack my botany texts and field guides, pour myself a sweet tea, and begin to learn this strange new botanical tongue. My passport's been stamped; I'm staying awhile. I have a big palm tree outside my front door.

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