Signs of Life

A cold snap once killed the buds on a japonica bush. This was not just any japonica bush, but one at the hermitage where the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh lives. As he writes in his book No Death, No Fear, he initially mourned their loss, yet weeks later, new buds had appeared. “Are you the same as the flowers that died in the frost or are you different flowers?” he asked them. And, as perhaps only a Buddhist monk can claim without seeming crazy, the flowers responded, “We are not the same and we are not different. When conditions are sufficient we manifest, and when conditions are not sufficient we go into hiding.”

Butterfly bush--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow I thought of that passage many times this winter, as I wondered whether spring would bring “sufficient conditions” for my two lovely butterfly bushes—or whether the winter’s polar vortex and the accompanying deep freeze would do them in.

In fact, the winter’s unrelenting cold squeezed the life out of the corner one (photo on the left, from last year). Last weekend I dug it up. The roots—so tenacious in a vigorous plant—yielded without a murmur. Truly, life had passed.

Butterfly bush--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowBut what about the other one (photo on the right, from last year)? A month ago, it looked just as lifeless as the first, until I cut off the end of one branch and found a little bit of green inside—a sign of life. I tried another, twig and then another, with no further signs of encouragement. But then, a few weeks ago, scattered clusters of leaves began appearing on several of the brittle, woody branches. “Get rid of it,” said my husband. “Don’t mess around with it. It may grow, but it will be stunted.” But what about that green inside? What about the tiny leaflets?

In 2005, comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” to describe an argument that has emotional appeal and the ring of truth to it—even if the facts contradict. As I looked at my struggling butterfly bush, I decided that it contained a quality I dubbed “plantiness”—containing the essential ingredients of plant life, no matter how tentative.

I did buy a new butterfly bush–two new ones, in fact, to provide food for any bees and butterflies that may be looking for early-season sustenance. But instead of throwing out my old friend, I pruned it and gave it a dousing of fertilizer. And now I will wait for it to make its comeback—when the conditions are sufficient.
Butterfly bush--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowButterfly bush--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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