Five dozen colorful characters hibernate in our basement. They have names such as Willie Willie, Curly Q and Ryn Fou. Some are babies; others are as old as 70. Wrapped in newspaper (but disinclined to read) they sleep in cardboard boxes with the tops shut. Compared to other creatures trying to survive the Maine winter, they have it easy.
They are our dahlias, collected over the last 15 years from friends, greenhouses and Pacific Northwest dahlia growers. Yesterday we hauled out these tangles of tubers (which the Aztecs used to eat, sort of like potatoes), gave them a brief look at the lovely seaside landscape, and then planted them in motley assortment of pots and troughs.
Many had sprouted half-inch-thick starter stems. I tried not to break those off as I played midwife, pulling and cajoling new tubers from old, deconstructing an interlocked puzzle of growth. On occasion, unable to solve the puzzle, I sawed clusters apart with a serrated knife. An expert dahlia surgeon might have turned our 60 plants into 600, but that's more than we can handle; the troughs and pots already fill much of our living room as we wait for frost danger to pass.
Like kids growing up, the dahlias race each other to see who can get tallest soonest. In late-summer, as the giants reach six feet and bear blooms as big as blueberry pies, Pamelia starts drawing and painting the vastly varied varieties. Some plants scarcely reach two feet, but are no less worthy. Pamelia especially likes the candy-striped Ryn Fou. Watching her spend hours and days doing a meticulous pencil drawing of a cut dahlia is mesmerizing, her lines as fine and perfect as the blossom itself.
As we unwrapped our flower children yesterday, a bug crawled out of one bundle of tubers. It had nestled in the variety of dahlia we call Betty. We have a lot of Betty dahlias—the color of pinot noir—and they are our oldest. They were handed down to us by our friend Betty Higgins, who had inherited them from her mother, who cultivated them at least as far back as 1940. Because I had not yet investigated what sort of bug was bedding with Betty, and because I wanted to plant the infested tubers as an experiment on pests, I wrote BETTY WITH BUGS on a wooden tongue depressor and stuck it in that pot. We'll see what happens.
My bug inquiry led me to identify the 14-legged creepy crawly as a type of wood louse—a creature that may hold the record for wonderful nicknames. It is known in different parts of the world as a roly-poly bug, a pill bug, a doodlebug, an armadillo bug, a cheeselog, a cheesy bug, a sow bug, a chuggypig, a chucky pig, a slater, a gramersow, a butcher boy and a butchy boy. Sounds like a good short story: "Betty and the Butcher Boy."
The name dahlia, by the way, comes from 18th-century Swedish botanist Anders Dahl. He was a student of Carl Linnaeus, that towering figure who created the first version of the now-familiar naming system for all living organisms (kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species).
And who would have guessed: As we were finishing our planting yesterday, Pamelia found 11 members of the Apiaceae family still living in last summer's vegetable garden! That is, carrots. Beautiful, sweet and the color of a robin's breast. Like our basement dahlias, they had slept through the winter in cozy quarters—garden dirt, protected by fallen oak leaves. This spring surprise was, to my palate, a treat tastier than a dahlia tuber....even if the Aztecs might have disagreed.
...that April 22 is Earth Day and also the day on which Disney's next big nature movie, Oceans, debuts. Start checking your newspaper event calendar for something environmentally fun to do that day. Or visit http://earthday.nature.org for other ideas!