Unexpected Beauties

Unexpected intrusions of beauty. This is what life is.  — Saul Bellow, Herzog

The daily garden walkabouts are usually pragmatic affairs:  this plant seems a little dry, there is some weeding to be done on the raised bed, the basil plants need pinching (again), the “Shoot-the-Moon”  Bougainvillea’s dropped bracts need to be cleaned out of pots (and the pool, and the garden umbrella, and my hair), and the like.  Some plants simply don’t make it for whatever reason, and I contemplate how their spots could be used to reseed California poppies and borage, which I need for tea; I note that there are now, briefly, a few glorious roses whose petals would be perfect for drying; and if I don’t do something about that pumped-up lemon verbena it’s going to go Thunderdome on the tarragon next door.  It’s usually a no-nonsense and task-oriented routine. But every now and then some vision jumps out at you, a picture framed as if an artist designed it just for you, at just that moment.

Mystery grapevine Every family’s got one.

The grape arbor out front is a riot of greens and grapes.  Every now and then I trim it back a bit to keep the vines from taking over the entire driveway, but on the whole I leave them alone.  The other day I noticed a bright spark of color buried in the brilliant green leaves — it was a single leaf that had burst into crimson and gold. There were no others like it.  It was gone two days later.

The same day I saw the grapeleaf beacon, I passed the plantings near the front of the house.  Here we have a plant that I call “The Martian Maw Of Death” — a plant that appears so irredeemably hostile that even the Hive Queen giant opuntia cactus is afraid of it.  Robert Heinlein, the science fiction writer, once remarked that it was generally a bad idea to scare a little man; I can see that principle applying to this cactus, if that’s what it is.  But there are several more of them, and I was surprised and delighted to see that even the prickliest curmudgeon of a plant can produce something of striking and even unnecessary beauty.

Martian Maw of Death cactusPay no attention to the thorns behind these flowers.

The Hive Queen herself is no slouch in this department. For a giant cactus covered in brutal thorns, featherlike needles that can drive you insane if they get under your skin, and possessing a general posture of incipient homicide, the Queen can also strut her stuff when it’s time.

Opuntia ficus-indica, bloomingThe Hive Queen says: Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful while I slash you to ribbons.

Each of these flowers tops a structure that will turn into the rare and delicious “prickly pear” fruit. The petals range in color from brightest yellow to blush pink to deepest rose, and only last a few days.  It’s always surprising to see something so delicate, so perfectly fragile and absolutely lovely, on a plant like this.  But that’s what I think Saul Bellow was getting at:  unexpected intrusions of beauty are what life is, and no matter how unlikely, they are all around us. Gardens are really good for this.