As our end of the Earth tips closer to the sun and the frost migrates southward, the gardeners among us begin transplanting our coddled babies outside. One by one, we tuck them into freshly prepared soil, give them a hearty drink of water, and reluctantly retreat like nervous parents waving good-bye on the first day of Kindergarten.
The world is immense for a tiny seedling as the shelter of the greenhouse gives way to the outside world beyond it. Now, it is literally a baby in an orchestra that becomes, in Wendell Berry’s words, “a music so subtle and vast no ear hears it, except in fragments.” Delicate, bright white roots touch the soil of their new home for the first time, tickled by literally millions of teeming soil micro-organisms. The harsh sun baptizes its leaves and the wind whips at its stem. So much could go wrong in such a vulnerable state.
It learns, as all beings must, how to occupy a seat at this incomprehensibly interconnected table with strength and grace. It must etch food from rocks and to grow strong but flexible in the wind, like the hardened trunks of trees that still sway in the breeze. To share of itself, but not too much.
We humans have a distaste for bitterness, so we have over centuries bred it out of our beloved garden vegetables, transforming bitter, wild plants into sweet, cultivated ones. As we’ve taken away our plants’ natural bitter defenses, we too must play an important role in protecting them. Thus, we’re inducted into the concert as our cultivated gardens become members of the orchestra, working alongside the ladybugs and mantises to keep someone besides us from eating our dinner.
Sun-eating leaves multiply rapidly when roots can drink from the soil, and our baby plants soon grow voluptuously large. Their breath and ours intertwine in the elegant exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Yet the seed has a higher purpose–to make more seeds.
The method the plant employs is the stuff of sonnets, the very definition of beauty for some. While some plants like tomatoes can pollinate themselves, the majority of our cultivated vegetable crops need help. Without the ability to move, a plant must lure in an unwitting accomplice to aid it in the act of copulation, to move its sperm to another plant’s egg.
Thus, plain green stems birth garish flowers splaying petals, pistils, and stamens open for the taking, wafting alluring scents into the air, hoping to catch the attention of a passing pollinator. Guided by ultraviolet maps on petals unseen by human eyes, a pollinator reaches the sweet cache of nectar the plant generously provisions, in the process covering her hairy body with sperm-filled pollen. Plants don’t get insects to do their bidding through force or violence–they do it through irresistible sweetness and beauty.
And through unique mechanics. Umbellaceae family plants like dill and carrot shoot up umbrellas of tiny flowers on tiny stems, attracting tiny pollinators like solitary bees and small flies. Big squash flowers are better suited to big pollinators like honey bees and squash bees. Scrophulariaceae plants provide a little pedal of a petal for the bee to land on, releasing the pollen-drenched anther on a long filament to bop her on the bum while she drinks. Tomatoes shed pollen only for bumblebees who can buzz correctly. Thus the intrigue continues for the curious gardener, who passes awed summer hours observing the ingeniousness of flowers and the industriousness of bees.
Often we think of germination as something that only happens to seeds, but pollen grains germinate too! When a pollen grain lands on the sticky stigma of the female flower, it grows a pollen tube that stretches down the style of the female, unleashing the sperm to swim in and fertilize the eggs inside. The fertilized eggs will grow to become the seed babies of the plant, housed variously in an ovary as large as a pumpkin or as small as the button of a chamomile flower.
Now that the sexy work of pollination is done, there’s nothing to do but wait for the seed to ripen, which is the very definition of summer’s bounty. The juicy tomatoes, spicy peppers, and buttery squashes we covet are simply the houses for hundreds of ripening seeds, seducing us as the flowers seduced the bees into doing their bidding. We feast in their excessiveness as we await the autumn’s chill.