I’ve had a particularly stubborn pot of petunias living out back on my apartment balcony for a couple of years now. It’s a bit odd that the plant is still alive. Most people would let the undergrowth choke the plant by now and buy a new one every spring; they’re only $3.99 or so.
The petunias were purchased from a neighborhood grocery store, the healthiest looking of a sickly zoo of herbs and perennials, as a bit of a joke for my partner’s 42nd birthday. I stuck a sign on the pot that said, “Oh no, not again.” Almost no one got the joke.
After the party, the flower pot was thrown out into the chill spring air, with every expectation that the plant wouldn’t make it past the first summer heat wave. I was very wrong about that.
I watered the petunias every few days, but took no further actions for several weeks. One day, while watching the activity of the funeral home that my apartment overlooks, I noticed just how much of the plant was dead. A thick underbrush of brown leaves, and half-rotten liquidating stems, took up much of the space in the plastic pot. The remaining greenery seem to be choking in its own rot, one or two weak purple flowers half unfurled. My gaze shifted back and forth between the dying plant and the black bag delivery going on across the parking lot.
Finally, I turned away and went hunting for my garden snips.
It took most of an afternoon to excavate the living bits of petunia plant, cautiously cutting through layer upon layer of dead matter and trying not to kill anything still alive and relatively healthy. Gradually, a much smaller organism appeared, a single petunia plant erupting from the soil where before there had been nearly a dozen plants stuffed into the plastic container and its 12 inch diameter. All condemned to a short, seasonal life.
I gave the soil a few days to dry out, and let the little survivor breathe. It was late spring, and the drought still gripped Texas, promising heat waves and a handful of flash storms that would do more harm than good. The last bits of slime turned to dirt in the sun.
When I finally went to water it again, the little petunia plant seemed to sing out. Within days the pot was full of bright purple flowers, and new tendrils had shot out from the plant’s base to explore the tiny world it had all to itself.
There was a funeral going on below, the parking lot packed full, teenage boys awkward in black suits clustered behind a large red pickup. Several middle aged women seemed to be passing out hugs and earnest conversations. The sun was bright and hot. Bits of conversation drifted up, mostly about the drought, and the expected arrival of 100-plus degree weather.
I realized I would have to move the little survivor inside to a windowsill soon, and figure out how it signaled that it needed more water. The petunias survived the last year of the drought and headed into winter robust and bursting with flowers every few weeks. It turned a bit yellow whenI forgot to bring it in the night of the first freeze that winter, but stopped being mad at me eventually,brightening up the apartment with defiant winter blooms.
It’s been a trying friendship, this petunia plant and me. I have forgotten to water it for long stretches of time, left it out in both extreme heat and cold, and never had faith in that first year that it would survive the seasonal extremities. But it continues to forgive me and keeps making those lovely purple flowers.
I don’t really talk to the petunia plant, but it gets all kinds of emotions projected towards it. Annoyance when the dead growth needed to be trimmed again, fear when something mysterious and hidden started eating the leaves at night. The petunia plant looks at the moon with me, watches traffic on the major road nearby, and observes goings on at the back of the funeral home. It reminds me to keep an eye on the weather, and what day of the week it is.
The tendency of mammals to bond with things is an old habit that goes back a hundred million years to the time when we weren’t quite mammals yet but had decided to stop being reptiles. We make friends with anything that will have us.
I consider this as I watch tiny black ants exploring the petunia plant’s leaves. They show up every few months and seems to be harmless, maybe even beneficial. These ants also have a relationship with the petunia plant, but it’s much more utilitarian.
Down below, an older woman walks across the parking lot with a heavy vase of cut flowers; lillies and other traditional mourning symbols. The petunia plant says nothing about the carnage or wasteful sentimentality, but its leaves droop slightly, reminding me that I haven’t watered it in days.