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The Phoenix-like Miracle of Coleus Resurrection
This is how the new year begins: with flowers, new pens, and the cleanest of slates
In the spring of 1989 I moved into a backyard cottage in north Berkeley and was lucky enough to inherit a dozen or so plants from the previous occupant. The most colorful representatives of this jungle were two coleus plants. I soon learned that there is a particular ephemerality to the coleus that requires constant attention. Not only do they get rootbound with astonishing speed but one must regularly pinch back any budding flowers or the whole plant will go to seed and start prepping for winter desolation.
Happily, when it comes to the challenge of rebirth, a coleus is one of the easiest plants I have ever been acquainted with. All you have to do is snip off a cutting and stick the bare stem in some wet dirt. Within a week or two the coleus will be back in splashy, colorful business. I know this because I’ve been doing it for thirty-three years with uninterrupted success. At this very moment I have seven coleus plants scattered around my house, all of which are descendants of the original two. There is always one on my desk and one in my kitchen.
Around ten years ago, after I moved back into my rebuilt house, I started a new coleus plant and placed it on the kitchen counter to the left of my range top. I have never tended to a happier plant. I would like to think that smoking peanut oil and the aroma of toasting Sichuan peppercorns provides it with magical mala sustenance but the truth is probably more prosaic. The sunniest spot in the house just happens to be my cooking station.
This particular coleus iteration has exhibited startling longevity. Despite getting rootbound to a ridiculous degree, it has kept me company as I stand by my wok for a mind-boggling ten years, in progressively more extravagant fashion. I can safely say that it has delighted an entire generation of dinner guests. Just being associated with that plant has conveyed honor and affection upon me.
But when I returned home from a holiday last week, I knew the moment I had been putting off for the better part of a year had finally come. The coleus was in a sorry state, gaunt and diminished, hanging on with grim determination, now more a harbinger of inevitable decay than a source of dazzle. Last night I picked up my scissors and started hacking away.
I always delay the harvest of cuttings more than I should because I can’t escape a sense of accompanying melancholy. This is how eras pass and narratives end. The click of the shears feels somehow transgressive even though 30 years of experience tells me that it’s really no big deal. After all, the original plant is undeniably still alive!
The coleus pictured at the top of this post is the result of last night’s action. It consists of a half dozen cuttings stuck in some dirt. Over the next week or so, the leaves will curl up and shrink in a pathetic and unappetizing crumble.
But then it will start to perk up again. And then it will burgeon.
I was alone last night when I decided to tend to my coleus. This isolation signified a breach of tradition that has gained steam in recent years. Once upon a time, I was the biggest fan of New Year’s Eve you could possibly imagine. It was my favorite holiday and I always made sure to mark it with all the gusto I could muster. I threw parties. I stayed up all night and watched the sun rise at the beach. I built massive bonfires from Florida live oak and stared into the flames while neo-hippies pounded their drums around me. I proposed to the mother of my children under the stars on New Year’s Eve.
But now I have discovered that what I really look forward to is getting to bed early on New Year’s Eve and rising before dawn on New Year’s Day to reinvent the world all over again.
I have always loved early mornings and fresh starts. Yesterday’s mistakes and disappointments are forgotten. The transformative possibilities inherent in a clean slate are endlessly seductive. On any normal day, I rise up and start aiming for perfection while my coffee brews, in full knowledge that by nightfall I will have endured another catalog of minor or major defeats. But when a whole new year is commencing, the chances for rebirth are spectacular. I relish the opportunity to unwrap a new yellow legal notepad and start a new to do list.
When I stumbled into my kitchen this morning and saw my new coleus plant on the counter, I realized I had unwittingly spawned a brand new ritual tradition to accompany my annual unveiling of a new to do list. Henceforth, New Year’s Eve is now reserved for catalyzing the phoenix-like miracle of coleus resurrection. This is a symbolic gesture that will carry my weight. I know that good things will flow from here, provided there is enough sun, water, and organic fertilizer to go around.
So here’s a rousing Happy Coleus New Year to all my readers. We’re going to have a lot of fun in 2023.
P.S. If you are a paying subscriber to The Cleaver and the Butterfly and you can figure out a way to Berkeley, I will start a new coleus plant just for you. Just give me a couple of weeks advance notice!