• John R

Return of the Murdered Valerian

The toughest plant in the garden meets its match—Deb and a pair of clippers.


I’d like to talk about valerian but I really need to get something off my chest and say that Deb has become my garden nemesis. This is exceedingly difficult situation because 1) we live in close proximity; exact proximity, actually, and 2) we have a small yard with haphazard plantings and the flowers and trees and other planty things that have survived haphazard care and for that reason are extremely dear to me but not to everybody with whom I live in close proximity hint hint.

Which brings me to red valerian—aka Centranthus ruber, Valeriana rubra (why two Latin names I have no idea), aka Jupiter’s beard.

This plant is a national treasure in our yard because it grows so willingly and despite less-than-ideal conditions that include poor soil (I’ve never actually tested our soil although I have several inexpensive soil-testing kits sitting around, waiting for someone [hand raised] to spontaneously fall into the precise soil-testing mood that makes testing the soil seem like something interesting or even necessary; nevertheless, I can attest to the poor soil conditions on account of the number of plants that have died trying to live here, gasping for the last whiffs of nitrogen or potassium or whatever their tired and shriveled roots are trying to extract from the nitrogen/potassium/whatever-depleted soil, gagging on pH that’s too-alkaline or too-acidic like emphysema victims forced to smoke a carton of Camels), rain forest-like shade, brutal full sun, pests of all shapes and sizes—you name the botanical malady and our little yard has it in surprisingly ample supply.


It’s also an archipelago of ever-changing mini-micro climatettes (if that’s not a word it really should be and I would like to be cited as inventor) and all the attendant concerns about whether or not shade eventually will devour the spot where we’d just planted a bunch of sun-loving tickseed. To cope with all the uncertainties and challenges I use a couple of my favorite techniques. One, called Gardening in Retrospect, is helpful in envisioning what could have been if I hadn’t fucked up as much. Its corollary, Better Luck Next Time, is both a requiem and a breezy, clear-skied, warm mid-summer’s day of hope.

Various challenging conditions are of no consequence to red valerian, which will grow anywhere, especially if you let it, which is a complete bonus for forgetful people and neglectful gardeners, often one and the same.

It gets about three to four feet tall (the valerian, not the gardeners) and is topped by fluffy clusters of pink to red flowers that tend to persist throughout the summer, so bonus points for making up, color-wise, for all the lilies that didn’t make it. And the dahlias. And the cone flowers. And the ones that the woman out at the greenhouse told us would take anything you throw at them. Yeah, right. Those.


Anyway, valerian has become the default mode of our property, and every year we find young shoots poking out from some new place—in the deep shade under the squat Japanese maple or coming up through cracks in the baking hot concrete driveway. My “Sunset Western Garden Book” says that Valeriana rubra “self-sows prolifically” and tolerates “almost any condition.” Fine by me. Go ahead, take over. It’ll be an improvement over what’s already there, trust me.


Let me be honest: I’m not a very good gardener. I plant a lot of stuff with limited success, which by definition does not rise to the level of Very Good Gardener. I am dependent on the largesse of certain plants in regards to having any flora in our yard at all. So I don’t have to tell you that red valerian is one of my favorites. Reliably alive, day after day.

It follows that I am also not a Very Good Garden Planner. Good garden planning is not dependent on random selection, ruthless Darwinism, and blind luck, which is what our garden is predicated upon. Again, red valerian is the perfect remedy, as it happily fills in along our fences and borders and gives passersby the illusion of caring homeownership.


But on to the story:


I’m sitting on the back patio one day, relaxing, when I notice that big valerian plants are splurging along in the foreground and have become tall enough to obscure smaller flowers that are hidden from view behind walls of green and pink.


Then I'm struck by an epiphany. Maybe less of an epiphany and more of a slow-developing realization, but what I’m looking at is in complete violation of basic, rudimentary flower gardening. You’re supposed to grow the tall stuff in the back, and the shorter stuff in front. And I think: I could transplant some valerian towards the back of the garden, let them get nice and tall, and in a couple of years take out the closest valerian and voila! A garden made tres manifique by perceptive planning!


So yes indeedy I did exactly that. I dug up some valerian that had grown unbidden beneath a sprawling needs-a-pruning elderberry and carefully, strategically transplanted four healthy plants toward the rear of our yard where they would form a colorful backdrop for whatever foreground would manage to survive the next couple of years. At first, they did not do well. See aforementioned comments about poor soil etc. But I persisted, and so did they.

I faithfully watered, mulched, and sprinkled organic bat guano mostly because bat guano doesn’t necessarily come into your life very often and I want my lifetime experiences to be as full and rich as possible.

I really don't know if bat guano is good for valerian or not, but they thrived. Like the old adage about newly planted plants: first year they sleep; second year they creep; third year they leap. The third year arrived, and The Four Valerians had shed any reluctance and—with Jupiter’s Beard-like aplomb—had rooted deep and strong and were producing thick healthy stems with glossy leaves and every time I walked into the back garden my heart swelled with botanical confidence. I had mastered. I had prevailed. I had pulled off something surprisingly deliberate and consequential with other living things.


Then Deb cut them all down.


It’s difficult to describe the disbelief and dismay I experienced when one fine morning, java in hand, I walked into the back garden to see that all four of my lovingly transplanted valerian plants had been butchered. Erased. Eliminated.


I staggered back inside like I’d been shot (but not fatally) and gasped, “Why? How? When?” I pointed to the back yard. “Plants? Did you…did you…cut?”


“Those stupid things?” she replied, engrossed in some novel. “They were getting too big and in the way. They were stupid.”


“But I… they were…good...big…I planted them…gone…when?”


She waved a hand. “Yesterday. So what? We’ve got a ton of them.”


I tried to explain the emotional significance that those four plants carried for me, the epiphanic planning, the heartfelt work, the uncharacteristically careful tending. And now they were nothing but two-inch stubs sticking out of the ground, little corpse copses. She wasn't having any of it.


“Get over it,” she advised. “It’s done. I’m sorry.”


“Well,” I said. “Well.”


It took me some time to get over it. Like weeks. Maybe I still harbor. But eventually I had a sub-epiphany, Hey, these are valerian. They’ll grow no matter what you throw at them. So I mulched around their severed stems, sprinkled a little guano, and watered them religiously (if there’s a true religion it’s manifest in plants and sometimes robins).


And yes they have started to come back. Like being down nine to three in pickleball and coming back to take the game eleven to nine (if you haven’t played pickleball, you should try it—it’s fun). Or maybe like when you persevere in the way that life keeps asking you to do without offering many viable options. Little leaves—fledgling photosynthetic solar panels—have been deployed. I have asked Deb to please let them live and she’s reluctantly agreed, although she frequently stalks about the yard with pruners in hand which I’m sure she does just to make me nervous.


I’ll conclude by apologizing for not getting into why red valerian earns the name Jupiter’s Beard. I simply don’t know. Jupiter was one of those whup-ass Roman gods who hurled thunderbolts and maybe he had a red beard so there could be similarities between puffy red valerian flower clusters and Jupiter’s gingery facial hair but really, when you think about it, the only records we have of Jupiter’s likeness are made out of sculpted marble, and they couldn't carve stuff in color back then, it was all some shade of creamy white, so your guess is as good as mine. Probably better.

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