A Vegetal Compulsion

I am overcome with regret because two Google searches I just made turned up bad news. Firstly, there are no Nepenthes aristolochioides available for sale anywhere in the United States right now. There were two available on Sunday, but at that time, the price they command did not seem reasonable or prudent for someone in my position to spend. Now there are none.

Secondly, Amado Vazquez is dead.

Of course, no Nepenthes are native to the United States, or North America, or any of its contiguous continents. And Amado Vazquez lived well into his eighties, his death was not unexpected or what some might call unfair; our timing was simply off. We were on the earth at the same time for a spell, in fact when I was most knowledgeable on his life’s work, over a decade ago, he was still tending to his orchids with a rare and perfect fanaticism.

His Malibu was not one of multimillion dollar houses and swimming pools filled with rosé, but rather one of opaque greenhouses filled with multimillion dollar plants. In a way, it would seem foolish to put so much stock in living things. In another, it would seem foolish to put so much in the manmade. When Joan Didion interviewed Amado in 1976, he said, “A plant a hundred years old will show no signs of senility.” The same cannot be said of houses or jewelry.

I have watched my meager postgraduate savings evaporate into thin air paying rent and buying espresso to lease desk space and the lonely company of others in East Austin. Dire straits have led to much restraint. I’ve restrained from buying the second blind to match the first in my bedroom. A cardboard box blocked out the sunrise before I felt guilty for not recycling it. Now I wake up earlier. My car’s windshield remains heartily cracked from the ceaseless construction on I-35 (which, interestingly, was colloquially referred to as “Segregation Highway” for the way it divided the city’s ethnic populations in the 20th Century) because that repair expense seems somehow extravagant.

And yet, I am nauseous with remorse because I did not buy a Nepenthes aristolochioides when my preferred vendor had them in stock for the first time in months. They were there for two days, now they’re gone. We have to wait months for the next shipment from Borneo, then the re-acclimatization in upstate New York, then the shipment to Texas, then the re-acclimatization, then the long, slow growing process begins. A vendor I have no experience with had one for another day or two, but now even it is gone. And so I must wait. A hundred dollars seems a small price to pay for these half-dollar sized plants, plants so fickle that watering them with mineralized tapwater might kill them and if they were on the ground you could step on them without even noticing.

What is beautiful about these plants? What makes them worthy of the money and demanding care that makes a dog seem easy by comparison?

For one, they are carnivorous. That fascinating perversion of the food chain is worthy of endless contemplation. God has a sense of humor. And our salads are more sentient than we thought. Though Amado Vazquez’s orchids do not eat flies, ants, and baby monkeys, they also are endemic to regions so wholly inhospitable that they will die if you provide them the traditional idyllic environs. Too many nutrients in the soil, too much water, too consistently Mediterranean a climate will spell the demise of all carnivores and orchids. These fascinating little rosettes produce what we’ve universally christened “beauty” in the face of growing conditions that would kill Mother in Law’s Tongue (itself a famously hardy and aptly-named unkillable houseplant). Give them an accommodating environment and they don’t thrive, they wither. This lesson in asceticism is rather poignant when a Phalaenopsis is in full-bloom or a Nepenthes finally produces its first mature pitcher. Both occasions require a maddening patience. Garden-variety flowers may have gone through three or more generations before one of these tropical plants produces its first flower or sign of maturity. They operate on a calendar entirely their own, that encourages us to forget what we know about seasons, years, and cycles.

Amado Vazquez came into the orchid world by happy accident and came to be known as one of the top-five orchid growers and experts in the modern world. I cannot quite remember how and why I originally found myself in the bourgeoning world of carnivorous plant collecting in the very early ‘Oughts, but I can remember being so enraptured that I read the first edition of The Savage Garden, the Bible of carnivorous plants, cover-to-cover dozens of times before I was a dozen years old. I filled out CITES import permits to be one of the first five Americans to own a newly-discovered Nepenthes species from the first round of seed-grown plants cultivated from the species’ initial discovery in Borneo the year prior. I opined on internet forums with peers who are now considered the Amado Vazquezes of Nepenthes and Cephalotus and Heliamphora. Instead of following in their footsteps, I grew self-aware and embarrassed and sold my entire collection on eBay for what felt like a princely sum to an early teenager. It’s a classic case of “Wow, if only I’d held onto those,” as the additional decade of growth time and rapid rise of the plants’ popularity means I could collect twenty-plus times as much today. Not that I’d want to.

As I’ve finally hung up the fly rods I bought with that firesale for good, I find myself starting over with a rather modest collection of carnivores. My flytraps were all-but-murdered while I was on a five day vacation; their few but strict requirements proved too much for my plantsitter. I will not get to enjoy their strange, hyper-alive beauty much this season, but have patience and hope for the next. My Nepenthes are all extraordinarily small and have been quite patient with me as I remind myself just how particular they really are. The bass and trout of the American Southwest are pleased that I’ve seen the light; common houseflies are not. The formerly top-of-the-line carbon fiber flyrods and made-in-America reels that I purchased with the money made from my plants have depreciated and been rendered virtually irrelevant by a decade’s worth of technological innovations, while the plants I sold have grown to be famous specimens in some of the great collections in America. There are some that I could barely buy back if I sold my bikes.

My life has changed a tremendous amount since I sold my Nepenthes jacquelineae and rajah to the highest bidders and packed them painstakingly to be overnighted to Colorado and Virginia and God-knows-where. Whatever series of events that led to this vegetal compulsion came nearly full-circle when I found myself fanatically landscaping my rental house that I can barely afford. Every time I had a rough day, I’d rush off to one of the local greenhouses to pick a lantana or salvia plant that might fit into a bare space in the front beds. Something about purchasing plants brings me a deranged and incomparable peace. When I move out in March, the next tenant will be the benefactor of my frostbite from a mid-march deep freeze while I was building flower beds and my thorn-filled hands from pruning prickly pears and tending to century agaves. In-ground plants define ‘sunk cost’ in a particular way that seems wholly lost on my landlord, and was wholly lost on me when I believed that pouring everything I had into a garden would force me to stay home more, or at least make my self-imposed isolation more bearable.

Since then, I’ve seen the restorative power of community and the priceless value of shared experiences in a new light. I’ve found myself barely even home for eight hours of sleep as I dive headfirst into a world filled with people and places and newfound things. With that busyness came a necessary explanation for my frequently dirty hands and bloodied legs. Without wincing, I could say, “Gardening.”

One day it became obvious that I needed a tank full of highland Nepenthes in my bedroom so that I’d have a garden I could take with me when I leave and roommates who never made messes that drew flies. A week later, it was so. And now I am shaking the dust off necrotic neurons that had conceded they’d never be activated again. I can feel my brain working in ways it forgot how to, remembering scientific names and native habitats and care requirements. And I have achieved something through a long and quite painful process that I didn’t realize I’d been longing for. Joan Didion put words to it when she said of Amado: “It seemed to me that day that I had never talked to anyone so direct and unembarrassed about the things he loved.”

The same me who once sold all of my plants because I was mortified of what being a pre-eminent expert in anything but flirting, flyfishing, and skateboarding did to my reputation is now fiendishly scraping together spare change to expand my collection as quickly as possible. This concept is strange, because we are never the same as we once were. Our skin cells are totally regenerated every 27 days and our minds change at consistently unpredictable intervals. Still, my name is as it ever was and my hopes and dreams are, too. Amado Vazquez did not come to America from Jalisco seeking to become a world-renowned orchid breeder. But he had all of the right sensibilities and desires. That he found his separate peace among moth orchids and achieved his American Dream selling designer flowers to the rich and famous from LA to Taipei is only logical for a man who possessed such a singular desire to be comfortable with himself and his wife and his kids while engaging with the natural world at the highest level possible. This did not mean that he ended up a migrant farmer in the Central Valley, but rather that he became an orchid grower and land owner in Malibu’s Zuma Canyon. Though Amado is no longer living, his son runs the business which is still regarded as one of the world’s best. And plants that Arthur Freed inherited which were given to Amado will now be given to his grandsons. They have no regard for their age or the age of their slavish caretakers.

I read an op-ed on the ecological impact that catch-and-release flyfishing has on our planet, and I finally admitted that I had no business awkwardly pursuing something that made me feel guilty even before I pondered the consequences of commercial fisheries and the tourist attractions that are “Blue Ribbon Trout Streams.” Flyfishing is a beautiful sport that gives us an excuse to clamor over rocks and stand in leg-numbing water for hours on end, squinting at riverbeds and watching mayflies hatch. It’s also wholly incompatible with my refusal to swat even a housefly. Growing plants that eat them probably is, too, but the one consistent thread in my life is that I seem to have a penchant for paradoxes.

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