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Plants: keystone of life

For 75 years they have fascinated me


Ever since I was knee high to a grasshopper I’ve had a curiosity and reverence for plants. I was an energetic and restless child. If I had to stay indoors during bad weather, mother was always looking for projects to keep me quiet.

Once she placed a colorful metal tray with rounded edges at my assigned place at the kitchen table. Then she gave me tweezers and a large economy-size packet of mixed summer flower seeds. My task was to separate all the different seeds and put them into cupcake tins.

A few of the seeds were easy to identify: marigolds, zinnia, scabiosa, cornflower and sweet peas. But that still left many assorted brown or black perfectly round seeds of different sizes. The largest were the size of bbs, the smallest were the size of a period at the end of a sentence, pushed and pulled by gravity and chasing one another with my every breath.

When weather improved, I was given a child-size rake, shovel and hoe and was shown how to dig and smooth a 4-foot-by-6-foot plot of dirt of my very own near my favorite plum tree. This project was one of my earliest memories of the miracle of life in seeds ... and I was hooked.

I learned to respect nature and how to work with it. I would dash outside first thing every morning — even before breakfast — to see what magic might have happened overnight. What seeds had sprouted? What seeds had I mixed up? What plants had been damaged by bugs? What plants were thirsty? What flowers had opened? Were there any flowers yet that I could pick for the supper table?

When I was 8, my piano teacher and her husband — a high school science teacher — would allow me to enter their greenhouse where they would patiently answer my incessant questions. They explained how the closed environment and location of their greenhouse could extend the growing season and trick some tropical plants into accepting a Pittsburg address.

At their home I learned as much as about plants as I did about Beethoven and how to hold my wrists and to sit up straight at their grand piano. I was enriched by all these lessons until my mid teens. I felt like their adopted daughter, and I loved them both.

I learned to respect nature and how to work with it. I would dash outside first thing every morning — even before breakfast — to see what magic might have happened overnight.

Plants still tax my power of observation. Plants must be tended to see if they are healthy and happy. Are they straining for more light? Do they need more or less sleep in the dark such as poinsettias? Many may need fertilizer, though that could kill others? Some only produce by “taking a rib.” Some fling their seeds to the wind. Some depend on animals, birds or bees to start elsewhere. (Notice wild asparagus growing beneath utility wires along country roads thanks to birds. Euell Gibbons’ 1970 book “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” taught me that!)

If we attempt to move some plants from their native habitat — trillium for instance — they may not flourish. Some remain single and will languish unless left alone. Some just visit, then die. Some migrate by themselves. Some just stay put.

Plants feed us. They clothe us. They shelter us. They cure us. They indulge many of our senses. Some even power vehicles. They stand mighty and minuscule. They are the keystone in the circle of life. Yet this silent species is content to remain at the bottom of the food chain ... beautiful, delicious, nutritious and vital. And to this day, they continue to fascinate me.

Sylvia Malagamba is a member of the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.



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