I grew to appreciate and love xerophytic plants while in Tanzania, some of them, succulents. I was obsessed with them perhaps, for there were plants that spilled out of the garden and climbed onto the rooftop terrace. It was there, that the hot blazing all-season-sun demanded that I grow only sun loving flora, the kind that demand little attention or water. Getting those plants up there was another matter entirely, many of them fully grown specimens from the nursery that no one thought to provide a home for.
There were many varieties of agaves, including the piercingly dangerous Sisals or Agave sisalana, the spiny edged grey green leaves with a central creamy stripe of the Agave americana. I even managed a couple of very mangled sinuously woven Euphorbia milii. the crown of thorns/Christ thorn that had to be carried upstairs, wrapped in thick curtains, many leafy serrations of Aloe succotrina or the plant of immortality, snaky leaf blades of Sansevieria laurentii and Sansevieria Zeylanica also known as Devil’s Tongue or snake plant, an abundance of the toxic leaves of Euphorbia tirucalli or the pencil cactus and other such. It was not all Dante’s inferno up there, there were some thorny Bougainvillea that added vivid splashes of colour. I didn’t dream up this hellscape, it’s just what the hot tropical sun dictated I should add to a sun burnt terrace, a varied assortment of spectacularly sculpted, hardy and mostly indigenous survivors.
It was never easy entertaining families with children on that terrace and I recollect a conversation with one of our guests who once brought two excited and energetic kids over, when I told him of the plants around and that he may have to ensure his children not try to touch or eat them or heaven forbid, impale themselves. After a composite botanical soliloquy, I remember him as he blinked his English eyes to say, “Davina, behind every stem, leaf and blossom, there lurks indescribable danger”. Such poesy, I marveled at the thorns then and so poetically alarming my garden felt in the freshly pained perspective of another.
Inspired by this memory, I wrote something for my beloved Xerophytic Underworld of plants today. I believe, the pencil cactus does not intentionally mean to poison nor the gardener wish to poison those that cohabit with gardens. Some people find Christ in thorns, others inadvertently encounter an acupuncture perhaps, but the poor plant, Euphorbia milii for example, simply aims to conserve water in a leaf modification.
Process and form: I have employed open rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter. The imagery is of a xerophytic garden. This blog post is a work in progress as I may add to the images, as and when I retrieve them from my archive.
Do mind the children, like you mind the gap.
It's potently toxic, thick milky sap,
sparkling wit, this quill of desperation,
a pencil plants sad self flagellation.
Don't have them stigmata on the Christ thorn,
Mystic plants be penitently adorned ...
Bougainvillea, temptress, thorny hues,
rainbows sickle the bay in gentler views.
Snake plants little encrypt foul letter words,
leaves caressed, poetize in trenchant swords.
Drooping in flowers, a turgid aloe
sucks a searing sun, makes it mellow.
Marvel the poesy of this green being,
to her thorny poignancy, halcyon ring.
Hades, a solar hellfire meant to burn?
Or a riot of cacti to help us learn?
A distant sun couldn't hurt any less,
such willing serrations that plants confess.
The cornered sweet sisal has little wish,
to impale lost boys, any flying fish.
Words shed like leaves in a desert mirage,
paint vivid synonyms to love's collage.
What of real beauty in sunburnt green,
simply, arid soliloquy serene.
Chiseled 'take no prisoners' leaves conceal,
sisal ropes, would you know that aloes heal?
In this garden are no sashaying leaves,
care's simply braided in dignified weaves.
I wince for no Eden meant so little,
to poets of blossoms, verdant spittle
in quatrains for bowers on Gaia's face,
they exiled agaves to a barren space.
'Thorn' mocks, what jest a flippant word conceals,
leafless stems hide retrograde love, that heals
the earth of its gravel proclivity,
to a holding place...to eternity.
Let children whisper in Eden of pain,
childhood's a dream, till we be child again.
Know your plants: I will add to these as and when I retrieve the images from my collection. For now, I have used some from Wikipedia.
Euphorbia tirucalli (commonly known as Indian tree spurge, naked lady, pencil tree, pencil cactus, milk bush) grows in semi-arid tropical climates. A hydrocarbon plant, it produces a poisonous latex that can cause temporary blindness. The pencil tree is a shrub or small tree with pencil-thick, green, smooth, succulent branches that reaches heights of growth of up to 7 meters. It has a cylindrical and fleshy stem with fragile succulent twigs that are 7 mm thick, often produced in whorls, longitudinally, finely striated ~https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euphorbia_tirucalli
Agaves are characterized by a rosette of succulent or leathery leaves that range in size from a few centimetres to more than 2.5 metres (8 feet) in length, depending on the species. Most bear spines along the edges and the tip of the leaf ~https://www.britannica.com/plant/Agave
Crown of thorns, (Euphorbia milii), also called Christ thorn, is a hardy perennial with stout gray thorns and oval leaves that drop as they age. The sprawling, branching, vinelike stems can attain lengths of more than two metres (seven feet), though potted plants are considerably smaller. The small inconspicuous flowers are borne in paired clusters and are surrounded by two showy light red bracts (leaflike structures attached just below flowers). Various forms are available with yellow or deep red bracts. The white milky sap is poisonous and can cause skin and eye irritation ~https://www.britannica.com/plant/crown-of-thorns-plant
Notes and references:
Xerophyte, any plant adapted to life in a dry or physiologically dry habitat (salt marsh, saline soil, or acid bog) by means of mechanisms to prevent water loss or to store available water. Succulents (plants that store water) such as cacti and agaves have thick, fleshy stems or leaves. Other xerophytic adaptations include waxy leaf coatings, the ability to drop leaves during dry periods, the ability to reposition or fold leaves to reduce sunlight absorption, and the development of a dense, hairy leaf covering ~https://www.britannica.com/plant/xerophyte
Thorns are modified stems, like those of bougainvillea. Spines are modified leaves, like those of cacti. Prickles are modified epidermis, like those of roses. Then there are all sorts of plants with spinose leaf margins, like English holly.
Resource for thorns, spines, prickles~https://lompocrecord.com/lifestyles/columnist/thorns-spines-and-prickles/article_0df8fc5b-c8c4-5037-ba78-bf44032b8f88.amp.html