Monday, July 11, 2011

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/11/2011)

A clump of pampas grass was purloined from the Olivia White Hospice Gardens. So far, the usual suspects deny any participation in or knowledge of the theft.

One thing is known. The theft was accomplished by sophisticated botanists. The pampas grass was removed with surgical skill. The hole left by the death of the pampas grass was expertly filled, and a buried drip line was carefully restored. Thus, the search is focused on horticulturally trained thieves, botanical burglars adept at theft in the dark of night.

One thing is certain. The purloined pampas grass was not an inside job since all of the volunteer gardeners at the Olivia White Hospice Gardens have expressed dismay and disappointment at its removal. One person, at one time active in the gardens who previously expressed displeasure with the pampas grass, has been questioned but has firmly denied knowledge of or connection with the theft.

The issue of the pampas grass gets to the heart of one of the vexing questions about gardening in Flagstaff and the high country: invasive, exotic species. Was it, to quote Asa Gray, the famous American botanist of the 19th century and friend of Charles Darwin, one of those “intrusive, pretentious and self-asserting foreigners?” Was the pampas grass a magnificent, toxic weed?

It fits the definition of weed. It’s invasive. It sucks up scare water. It overtakes defenseless native plants and grasses. It is a threat. Richard Mabey, the English botanist calls weeds: “Shape-shifters” with speed, ingenuity, and “almost supernatural resourcefulness.”

However, it’s alleged that this particular pampas grass wasn’t guilty of any of these crimes. Several horticultural experts claim that this particular pampas grass was sterile. Sitting in its corner of the garden, it is claimed that it was much like a castrated male lion lounging in the shade of a tree on the veldt sporting his splendid plumage. Was it such a clear and present danger to the gardens of Flagstaff that immediate covert action was required by horticultural “black ops”? Many think so.

Like many clandestine black operations, these “black ops” may have been ignorant of the alleged impotence. They clearly thought that the pampas grass was an immediate threat, especially now that Flagstaff is overwhelmed by toxic, invasive, exotics. If people dig up plants at will, chaos will ensue. No gardens or gardeners would be safe. Gardeners would have to ride shotgun on their gardens.

The case of the purloined pampas grass raises the issue of non-native plants and grasses. Do people have a right to grow toxic weeds? Apparently, they do. The City is seemingly impotent, claming that people are free to do what they like in their yards, except growing very high weeds. How about marijuana? HOA’s seem more concerned about derelict garbage cans than they do toxic weeds. Does the list of targets include water hogging grass lawns, such as at City Hall, NAU, or the golf courses in sequestered communities of the rich?

Since black operations presuppose deniability, there is a long list of denials and know-nothings. A person who wasn’t authorized to speak but spoke, nevertheless, on condition of anonymity said that there must be a vast horticultural conspiracy of silence, reaching to the highest places. The culprits may never be identified.

The “black ops” apparently took to heart Barry Goldwater’s famous nostrum: “Extremism is the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” So, is botanical theft a moderate virtue or an extreme vice?

Martin Luther King, Jr., said that if people choose to disobey an unjust law, they should own up to it. One of his great pieces is a “Letter Written from Birmingham Jail.” Since the perpetrators already covered themselves in darkness, it is unlikely they will come into the light. If they do, they can publish a manifesto, but it must be well-written, not a self-righteous farrago.

So far no one has. We are left with a missing clump of pampas grass, the threat of “intrusive, pretentious and self-asserting foreigners,” and the possibility of botanical “black ops” digging up plants wherever and whenever their fancy suits.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2011

Dana Prom Smith whose email address is edits the column GARDENING ETCETERA in The Arizona Daily Sun.


Jan Busco said...

Hi, Dana, add me to your list of suspects, but I must respond. One has only to go for a walk in one of a thousand scenic places in California to see the impacts of pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana). I have been in parts of Big Sur where the only things growing over hundreds of acres are are pampas grass and scotch broom, another lovely garden plant that got away, replacing the once endless fragrant coastal sage scrub typical of the region. I am not sure which hardy relative of the pampas grass I know was removed from Olivia White Hospice Garden, but I am sure that like a cat calmly watching a bird, it was just biding its time before springing into action sending its seed into heretofore semi-pristine ponderosa pine country. It is likely that if one were to take a walk around a one mile radius of Olivia White Hospice, baby pampas-like grasses have already taken up residence in disturbed areas like the YMCA parking lot area, the development (that has temporarily stopped developing) down the hill a bit and on the other side of Switzer Canyon Road, and other places unknown to this author who only knows the area on foot at Olivia White Hospice Garden.

I am not a plant xenophobe, but I do love our native plant communities. Only coming from a place like Southern California where so many of them are totally gone forever can I anticipate the future impacts of some of the supposedly innocent ornamentals sold when there are many useful and beautiful non-native plants to chose from that can give us joy and ornament without harming our natural surroundings.

xxoo Jan

Loni Shapiro said...

Having shared my story with Dana I felt compelled to answer Jan who is a longtime friend. I have walked the neighborhood many times picking up the garbage that people dump in Switzer Canyon and I have worked in the garden almost since the plant was planted 8 years ago. There are no pampas grasses ready to take up residence. The plant was apparently sterile. This is Flagstaff not Southern California. The plant was admired by many and watched because of the frequently express concerns. There are many more plants that people could spend their time removing that have proved to be invasive here. Have them come to Switzer Canyon and remove all the dalmation toadflax, cheat grass, cheeseweed, ragweed and diffuse knapweed that fill the canyon. We are out there doing our part every week but can't keep up with it.

I don't think anyone has the right to come on private property and remove plant material including those listed above, unless they ask the owner or explain the need to remove it to them. I am still offended.