Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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Plant Shopping Challenge: No Labels Allowed!

On Saturday I drove to Oakland because a native plant nursery that I'd never been to before, but that I had long aspired to go to, was having a sale. My hopes for this nursery were sky high: its website gave me the impression that it carried hundreds of species that no other nursery in the state carried, and on top of that, its owner is a Facebook friend of mine and a frequent contributor to various online discussion forums that I read regularly, and, well, he consistently impressed me on all sorts of different levels. You might say he was a gardening idol of mine. So I was very excited to finally visit his nursery.

Most native plant nurseries have lists on their websites of what plants they have in stock. These lists, in my experience, are usually years out of date and bear no relation to what they actually have in stock. In this case, though, the owner specifically stated that he'd updated the list last week. Also, the list included a feature I don't usually see on such lists: an indication of exactly where in the nursery each plant species was located. I was impressed by the thoroughness. I downloaded the list, deleted all the plants I wasn't interested in, sorted what remained by location within the nursery, and felt brilliantly prepared to march in and locate exactly what I wanted.

The visit did not go quite as well as I'd hoped.

The first thing that happened, almost the first moment that I arrived, was that a sudden ripping noise alerted me that a rusty wire protruding from a post had torn a four-inch gash in the skirt I was wearing, around mid-thigh level. You know how it feels to be excitedly looking forward to an extremely fun outing and then realize you're going to spend the whole time embarrassed by some unexpected problem with your appearance? That happened. The rip was on my left side, and a bit too low down to be covered by my purse, but I switched my purse to my left shoulder anyway and pretended to be left-handed for a while, just because putting my purse there blocked the rip from my own line of sight, even though it didn't block it from other people's. It is awkward, though, pretending to be left-handed when you're actually not. Especially when bending down over plants a lot, when purses tend to swing around and you need to use your hand to keep them under control. Really, perhaps I should just take to carrying a few safety pins with me at all times in case of wardrobe malfunctions. It might at least somewhat reduce the feeling of awkwardness.

Having driven two hours to get there, though, I certainly wasn't going to turn around and go home without doing my plant shopping. So I forged onward. Where was the first plant on my list? No sign of it. Where was the second plant on my list? No sign of it either. More to the point, there were hardly any signs of any plants. This was a nursery full of thousands and thousands of plants, but only about 1% of the plants in the nursery had any labels to tell you which species they were.

Okay. Deep breath. This particular problem was not a problem I had ever encountered at a nursery before, nor even imagined ever encountering at a nursery. But surely there must be some way around it. How do they sell any plants at all here? Well, at least I did have the list of where each plant was supposed to be. Unfortunately the locations given on the list only narrowed it down to something like "This plant must be one of the 300 plants in this row," and only about 3 of those 300 plants had any labels, but still it was something to go on. I had a decent idea of what most of the plants I was looking for should look like, either because I'd owned or seen them before or because I'd owned or seen other plants in the same genus, or at least in the same plant family, so I could take a guess about which plants might possibly be the ones I was looking for. A lot of the plants I was looking for were plainly not there at all; presumably someone else had bought them during the past week. But others I was able to locate. Often if I could pick out a group of 50 pots that were all obviously the same species as one another and that looked as if they might possibly be the species I was looking for, I could eventually find a plant label in one of those 50 pots. Unfortunately many of these labels were obviously wrong (no, this fern is not a redwood tree, and no plant label claiming it's a redwood tree will ever convince me that it is), and a vast number of other labels were simply blank. It was maddening. And a few plants sometimes turned up in different locations than where the list said they would be! Argh.

I perservered. I came to see it as a test of my plant identification skills. Other customers resorted to simply grabbing a nursery employee and telling that person which plants they wanted, and getting the nursery employee to go retrieve the plants for them. But those customers were generally buying 5 or fewer plants. I was buying . . . well, I ended up with 28 plants, but the list of plants I was trying to find was a lot longer than the list of plants I actually succeeded in finding and buying. It wouldn't have felt reasonable to me to make a nursery employee spend an hour looking for a hundred different plants for me. So I did my best on my own. Mostly I did okay. A few times I resorted to asking for help. Once I asked the nursery owner, "Is this Sidalcea calycosa?" Yes, it was. Another time I asked two employees, "Which of the grasses in this row is Poa secunda?" (There were about 15 different species of grass in that row, and in most of them, none of the pots had any labels.) The two employees looked at each other blankly and resorted to Googling for pictures of Poa secunda on their cellphones to try to figure it out. Eventually they took a guess and brought their guess to the nursery owner for confirmation. Was this Poa secunda? No, it was Festuca idahoensis. Poa secunda was somewhere on the other side of the nursery entirely, not in the location where the list said it would be. The employees retrieved it for me.

It was abundantly clear that the nursery owner knew instantly exactly what every plant was and had no need for plant labels. It was equally clear that nobody else was anywhere near as skilled at identifying things. One of the drawbacks to being brilliant is that one may have difficulty comprehending how much less knowledgeable other people are and properly accommodating other people's limitations. The nursery owner is brilliant with plants but less brilliant at understanding how hard it is for other people to navigate a nursery without any plant labels. I will forgive him his failings, because I like him, but I'd probably have bought more of his plants if I'd been able to find them. I decided that a lot of them weren't important enough to bother asking someone to find them for me if I couldn't find them myself.

Also I was convinced I'd already spent a ridiculous amount of money, although it actually turned out that I'd spent less than half of what I thought I had. The plants were cheaper here than plants normally are. He could probably charge more money for his plants if he bothered to label them.

As I shopped, a nursery employee who spoke Spanish almost exclusively (there was clearly no sense in torturing him by trying to ask him to identify plants for me, even if the actual plant names were in Latin rather than English) fairly unobtrusively but fairly dedicatedly followed me around for an hour, taking plants out of my hands over and over and carrying them all to a table for me, since there weren't any shopping carts. Then the nursery owner came to the table where my plants were grouped and tallied the plants for me, and gave me tips on how to take care of some of them, and commented on what unusual plants I'd chosen. Yes, that's because I already owned the more usual ones and only bothered driving to Oakland to find the less usual ones. One of the employees who had helped me locate Poa secunda told the nursery owner, "She really knows her plants. She did all that shopping almost entirely by herself!" That's right, but I would have done more shopping if it hadn't been ridiculously difficult.

While tallying my plants, the nursery owner noticed that one of my plants was not what the label claimed it was, and exchanged it for me for the plant I actually wanted. (I wanted Viola glabella and mistakenly picked up a pot of Viola adunca that had been mislabeled as Viola glabella. It wasn't in bloom, so I couldn't tell that the flowers were the wrong color, and I'd never seen Viola glabella before.) After I got home, I realized that another of my plants was also not the one I actually wanted. I had wanted "goldenfleece" (Ericameria arborescens, pictured here), which is native around here, but I ended up with "goldenbush" (Isocoma menziesii, pictured here bearing ridiculously close resemblance to goldenfleece), which is native only within about 100 yards of the Pacific Ocean. The goldenbush probably will not survive here. I did not intend to drag it to a terribly ill-suited location and slowly torture it to death. But this is what happens when a nursery has no plant labels.

The Spanish-speaking employee helped me carry my plants to my car. I had parallel parked, which was probably only about the fourth or fifth time in my life I've ever needed this skill, and was blocked in, and I was proud of myself when I managed to escape from the parking spot successfully. (Though it was easier than it could have been; I had more maneuvering room than is sometimes available.)

Then I went home. Along the way, I took a slight detour through Sacramento, where I saw the cutest gay male couple ever to exist, walking down the street holding hands in front of the state capitol. When they paused to wait for a street light to change so they could cross the street, one of them kissed the other, and I may possibly have died of the cuteness. But if so, I was miraculously resurrected and continued driving home.

On Sunday I planted 11 plants. Only 17 left to go!
Tags: native plants
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