Sunday, July 23, 2006

Growing, growing gone

Manila Times column
June 3, 2006

The grocery stores are selling plants – begonias, kalanchoe, fuchsias, ivy, six- and ten-cell packs of little pansies and petunias. In the early spring they were snapped up within minutes of opening, but after six weeks the initial mania has died down. Produced indiscriminately and en masse, the more common flowering plants are dying in their trays, while the larger, higher-end groceries in heated malls have put out more exotic specimens that will never thrive in Denmark’s cool summers – they are destined for greenhouses and glass-walled porches.

Gardening has become an addiction. Initially, I ventured out into the neglected lawn as a respite from my heavy academic reading list, but as April segued into May, the sunny weather had a profound effect on my system – it seduced me away from my studies. Like an errant schoolboy I was soon gazing out the window at the intense spring light and the profusion of buds on the tree branches. Soon the reading list had given way to a gardening list, filled with scientific names and brand names of commercial soil mixes, and I was squatting in the dirt, digging, grunting, shivering in the wind (for in this climate, working the ground is a sweatless endeavor). None of this I did with any shame, though it is far more typical for a middle-class Philippine gardening girl to stand in one corner, pointing this way and that, singing out instructions to the squad of young men hired for the day to do the dirty work.

Gardening is very much a part of the culture in this world of brief summers and an almost-sterile affluence. The neighborhood in this suburb of Copenhagen is filled with low brick houses, all of which seem obliged to put out geraniums in the window and white painted lawn furniture, complete with parasols, after the last frost. Even the most unromantic corporate type caves in to the pressure, zips down to the local ISO, and purchases a trimmed and blooming tree. There is a certain uniformity to this beauty, for the population is served by five or six major grocery franchises, all selling the same goods, with a branch or two (about the size of a Jollibee restaurant) in each district or town. Driving out into the country one sees the stupendous greenhouses that crank out the spring plantings – acres, it seems, of white-roofed, translucent-sided buildings, set against woods or in the middle of fields.

For Mother’s Day (a commercial occasion here, as well) the shops put out orchids – phalaenopsis in pretty pink-lavender hues. Phalaenopsis are the butterfly orchids Filipinos know so well – bound into quarter shells of coconut husk and lashed to the trunks of palm trees. The flowers are large and, commonly white; they glow in the brief tropical dusk; one hopes for their emergence, with the certainty at the back of the mind that they will arrive, some day. In Denmark the phalaenopsis are regimented -- two pairs of leaves to the pot, sprouting a clutch of perfect blooms that seem to take an entire month to wilt. Greenhouse grown, of course, the flowers “forced” by a mixture of chemicals, precision temperature and scheduled watering. That takes all the fun out of growing them. After the flowers die, I suppose, the befuddled owners of these orchids keep up the routine for a few weeks, before tossing them, shrivelled or water-logged, into the Green Refuse bin.

As for me, I work in the rain, under layers of fleece, for the novelty of having temperate zone plants – previously seen only in reference books – bloom under my ministrations. I leave the task of growing tropical flowers only to the natives, who have their own ideas of care and agendas of self-validation. Yesterday, I saw a row of bougainvillas outside an ISO grocery store. They were sprouting neatly from six-inch pots, little lollipop trees covered in papery hot pink blossoms – the kind you find, neglected, lining the walkways of public elementary schools from Aparri to Jolo. They cost 100 kroner apiece -- nine hundred pesos, for the promise of a hot and wholly imagined paradise.

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