MARTHA SEZ: ‘You might as well tell a waiter to hold the salad, save a radish’

My friend Darla’s house plant is in heat.

This is just one of the many mysterious natural phenomena observed at Darla’s house over the years. There is something about Darla, some openness to the vagaries of the natural world, that invites this. The unusual in nature is drawn to her.

Take the orange-throated hummingbirds. Every spring, a family of these rare little migrants comes to nest in Darla’s yard, where they partake of sugar-water from feeders she hangs in the trees. While it is common practice to add red food color to hummingbird feeders, it is not good for them. Darla keeps the feeders clean and makes the food herself, scrupulously following a special recipe that does not include red dye.

Darla figures these orange-throats are ruby-throated hummingbird mutants. She recognizes each individual, and will tell you that they are all members of the same family. When she moved from Elizabethtown to Lewis, she worried that her little friends wouldn’t find her, but, the following spring, there they were!

The Orange-Throat family has dwindled in size, which concerns her. Once she found the lifeless body of one of the males in the road. Before burying him, she removed two brilliant orange feathers from his throat. She keeps them in a special treasure box, the way another woman might preserve a lock of baby hair.

Officially, there are no cougars in the Adirondacks, but one winter day a young cougar came from the woods to the edge of her yard. She and her partner watched as it walked around in a leisurely manner, then left. It has not returned. This is disappointing in a way, but also a relief, since at the time they had a miniature pinscher dog, Moose, and a tom cat about the same size named Peter.

Peter was feral, until he showed up at Darla’s door and decided to take up residence there. This shows excellent judgment on Peter’s part, since he later became diabetic. Who else would have taken him to the veterinarian and injected him daily with the insulin he needed?

Darla cared for Peter for six years. After his death she said, no more pets. Moose, now elderly, is enough. She is adamant on the subject.

Porcupines, skunks, chipmunks and various strays find their way to Darla’s back door. A broken-tailed squirrel eats out of her hand. She is currently having a special house built for a stray calico cat that has chosen her recently.

“I hope it keeps her warm and dry this winter. I hope the porcupine doesn’t get in. I hope I’m not going to adopt another cat,” Darla says.

When I’m shopping, I often hear other customers say, “I don’t need a bag. Save a tree!” We don’t actually need to save trees here. For one thing, they grow like weeds. Also, trees are a crop, raised and harvested. You might as well tell a waiter to hold the salad, save a radish.

Rare tropical houseplants are a different matter. For months, Darla and her partner had been aware of a mysterious smell. Dead mouse? Bad drains? It emanated from the kitchen, but only at night. The odor would disappear for a time. They’d think it was gone, only to smell it again, weeks later. It gave Darla a headache.

Finally, she realized that it was a houseplant. In the night, its flower clusters emitted a powerful stench.

“I first noticed it last night,” Darla told me when I went to visit. “Look.”

The flower clusters were dripping, sticky-looking droplets hanging from its hairy, pink, star-shaped flowers. It was 10 o’clock in the morning, and there was no scent.

“Would you like it?” she asked sweetly.

I declined, recalling that she had already given me a cutting, which now, potted up, is huge and thriving after spending the rainy summer outside on my deck. It has never bloomed, but I watch it carefully just in case. I find this plant a little creepy, but I keep it anyway.

Darla and I consulted Google and discovered that the scent, while repulsive to humans, is highly attractive to certain insects. I knew night-blooming jasmine and nicotiana give off their scent at night, thus attracting the moths that pollinate them. I had also read about tropical flowers that smell like carrion, attracting flies, beetles and other insects. But why would a carrion flower be sold as a houseplant in the first place?

Another mystery. Have a good week.

(Martha Allen, of Keene Valley, has been writing for the Lake Placid News for more than 20 years.)

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