Personal Essays

Welcome to USDA Zone 8

There is a big palm tree outside my front door. Not a sugar maple, not a red oak,
not a gnarled old apple. A palm tree. It has three fibrous, serrated trunks
and an arcing fountain of fronds that trail against the upper windows of the building
next door. This is a foreign creature, citizen of a different vegetable nation. I feel I
should show my passport before sitting in its rustling shade.

Beyond the palm is a fig tree. The figs don't look ripe to my New Englander's eye,
but an obstreperous group of starlings seems to think they're worth an argument.
I'll trust the birds; I don't know figs. Nor do I know bananas, whose lavender
inflorescences thrust like rockets against the high brick walls of my courtyard. I
brush past encroaching piper auritum, a black pepper cousin with strange
white pipe-cleaner flowers. Its crushed leaves really do smell like root beer.

I've never seen any of these plants before. Their exotic architecture reminds me
that I am very far from home. I am stunned by my good fortune. I unpack my botany
texts and field guides, pour myself a sweet tea, and begin to learn this strange new
botanical tongue. My passport's been stamped; I'm staying awhile. I have a big
palm tree outside my front door.