Life lessons from a garden

Columnist Shannon McKinnon on lupines and thistles.

The man who I had the good fortune to call my father in law was born and raised in Earnscliffe, PEI before settling in northern B.C. to raise his family.

He often regaled me with tales of the island and once he talked about the lupine and how misunderstood it was. Early settlers spotted fields of breathtaking blooms and reasoned that any soil that could support something so beautiful must be fertile soil indeed. When the soil turned out to be poor they turned on the lupine, blaming it for robbing their land of nutrients.

Ah, but looks can be deceiving! As a member of the legume family with its astonishing ability to snatch nitrogen out of the air and tuck it into the soil, the lupine was, in fact, improving the land. The reason it grew so well on poor soil was simply because it could. Today wild lupines are being looked at in PEI for their potential as medicine, biodiesel and even as an organic biopesticide used in commercial crop rotation. This may have possibilities for the home gardener as well.

None of this means everyone in PEI likes their lupines. It might surprise you to know the wild lupine is not native to PEI and is, in fact, on the province’s list of invasive species. Even hybrids such as the Russell series are banned in PEI because of their tendency to revert back to their wild roots over time. Every year, while tourist shops hawk pottery, T-shirts featuring the lupine and even bags of lupine seeds, the island deploys mowers to wage war on the plant, razing the flowers to the ground before they can go to seed.

Isn’t that just the way of things? Life is nothing but layers. Just when you form an opinion about something (or someone) you find out one more piece of information that changes your perception entirely. If you’re a tourist in PEI lupines are camera-grabbing spectacular. If you’re a farmer in PEI lupines are a terrible weed competing for crop space (even if they do add free nitrogen to the soil). If you’re a bee — or a slug or an aphid — they’re lunch. Who is right? Who is wrong?

The thistle is as synonymous with Scotland as the lupine is with PEI. The reason the thistle is celebrated as Scotland’s official flower despite its weedy tendencies is … what else? A matter of perspective! One legend has it that a band of Scottish warriors were slumbering through the night when a group of invading Vikings closed in on them. In order to approach the sleeping Scotsmen as quietly as possible the Vikings removed their shoes. Scottish blood would surely have been shed had not one of the Vikings stepped on a thistle. He let out an involuntary cry of pain and awoke the Scots in time to save the day, or the night, as it were.

Now consider the same story from the Viking perspective — particularly the hapless boy whose sorry naked foot found the thistle! I am not sure where the story leaves me. Not only did I marry a Scottish descendant, I am one myself — but one that is a product of a Viking and Scottish union; hence the red hair. Perhaps my thistle-laced heritage might help explain the stupidest thing I have ever done as a gardener. Well over a decade ago I came upon a patch of Canada thistle.

It was decked out in gorgeous purple blooms and absolutely covered with bees and butterflies. I noticed one of the blooms was going to seed. I was in the midst of starting a native wildflower garden and impulsively cupped my hand around the spent bloom and carried a tiny fistful of thistledown back to my garden. I told myself I would only allow a few to blossom for the beauty and the bees and then I would quickly cut them off before they went to seed. I would be careful. I wouldn’t let them get out of control.

There’s an old story about a man who spreads some false malicious gossip about a neighbour. Filled with regret he visits the wise woman of the village and asks how to make things right. She tells him to find a handful of thistledown and release it to the wind. He returns to the wise woman and says, “I have done what you asked. Now what?”

“Now,” the woman sadly tells him, “You must go back and retrieve every seed.”

Just like gossip regret, as soon as I released the thistledown I realized I had made a horrible mistake. But it was too late. Ten years later, despite never once allowing a single thistle to get more than a couple inches high, let alone form a blossom, I am still pulling thistles from my former wildflower patch. They are a perennial — and prickly — reminder to think before I act.

Shannon McKinnon is a humour columnist from Northern BC. You can catch up on past columns by visiting www.shannonmckinnon.com.

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