I have always had a relationship with plants. All the women in my family were gardeners and I had my first garden when I was about four year old. But it wasn’t until mid-life that I began to sense that this woman-plant relationship might be more complicated than I realized. Blurred boundaries. Intimacy. Weavings underground. My dreams were full of vines that hugged the earth and spiraled like serpents sliding on bellies through deep green forests. I could grow plants that others could not. Was it the attention I gave plants? Love? I saw them as friends, as equals. I loved touching and caring for them.
When I saw my first passionflower blossom at a neighbor’s house I practically swooned. I fell in love with the flower and its scent. Not the generous type, I had to beg for a cutting for two whole years before this woman finally relented. Thrilled, I brought the cutting home. It was spring. I put it in water. To my joy it rooted in a few weeks warmed by the April sun, and within three months I was able to pot the cutting.
One year later I had a giant vining wonder with masses of blooms. As soon as I had a mature vine I took cuttings for a second one. After that plant began to flourish I began to grow these vines for other people. My motives were twofold. I am by nature generous (some would say to a fault); I love to share; sharing is fun. And I wanted to erase the selfish attitude that my neighbor embraced that might still be attached to these plants. Plants, after all, are a gifting from nature. They do not belong to us; if anything we belong to them.
Twenty years later I am still in love with my passionflowers and they know it. I am still enthralled by the beautiful vines, astonished at the way I can actually see how they move their tendrils towards the sun; I am still swooning over flower fragrance or marveling at the complexity of the flowers themselves.
In the intervening years these vines have taught me more about honoring the spirit and soul that resides within each plant, and by extension all plants. They have also taught me to pay closer attention to a plant’s behavior in relationship to myself. It is amazing to me in retrospect that I have been so stupid for so long. Plants are such powerful teachers.
For many years I gave my passionflowers away indiscriminately, hoping to mend fences with bullying neighbors who betrayed me. A terrible mistake. The plants always died. I gave them to friends that weren’t really friends – people who used me. The plants died. I am a slow learner. It never occurred to me that I needed to stop giving passionflowers away to just anyone.
When I left for New Mexico I had my two vines in tow. I gave one seventeen year old passionflower to a woman out of (too?) deep gratitude for our friendship. When I returned north I thought I was going to sell the house and move to Abiquiu permanently. Another Abiquiu neighbor, this one a man who I also believed to be a friend (never a romantic relationship), offered to drive me back to New Mexico but the night before we left he kicked my dog, almost knocking her out. Oh no, I was making a terrible mistake – my gut was screaming -Not more violence. But it was too late to undo. My house had been shut down for the winter.
After a hair- raising trip across country I moved into his house temporarily. I lived in shock daily. My healthy passionflower was now struggling hard to live. Her leaves withered, turned brown. I couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t die – not after all these years, but she did. And I knew why and didn’t want to know. She was showing me in the only way she could that my life was in peril. I became ill. My dog developed an intestinal disease. This is when I learned that some people are capable of making you sick.
I took new cuttings from the passionflower that I gave to the woman who was my friend. They wouldn’t root. For months throughout the spring they struggled during the time they rooted most easily, and then, finally one took. I felt profound relief. Living without this vine was just like losing an arm I thought grimly to myself. I was so grateful I didn’t care that it would be a year before I had flowers – Just having a healthy plant was all that mattered.
When I returned to Maine with my passionflower during Covid I was facing the same problems I had before I left. I had a collapsing house foundation and I needed help during the winter. Contractors kept backing out.
In May of that year I met a young man who loved trees like I did who offered to help me during the winter. We spent many hours in what I believed to be honest conversation. Although it took months, I finally rooted a passionflower for his mother along with a couple more to share. I never made the connection between the trouble I had rooting passionflowers in NM where I had no roots, the trouble I was having getting help with my foundation (roots of the house) and my friendship with this young man.
That fall his father offered to repair the extensive cellar damage the following spring. Finally, help was at hand. My gratitude towards these two, father and son, knew no bounds. In retrospect I see that I wove root connections that simply weren’t there with either father or son (gratitude can skew perceptions just as effectively as grief can).
That fall after I brought my adult passionflower indoors it developed a disease I couldn’t diagnose. My passionflower was telling me again that something was very wrong but I didn’t know what it was.
On the surface it seemed like all was well.
Winter passed with my young friend visiting once a week with us sharing ideas and stories.
My passionflower was doing so poorly that I was afraid she would die.
In the spring we had an argument. I discovered that my friend had lied to me about a lot of things. With -holding information is a psychological hook for me and when I called him on his lies of omission – his dishonesty – he apparently took such offense that he refused to speak to me ever again. I ended up taking responsibility for everything (inappropriately), wanting only to reconcile with someone I cared for deeply. An old story.
I instinctively put my passionflower outdoors as soon as I was able hoping that she would recover.
His father kept his word, although it was terribly difficult having him work here when his son and I were so estranged. The stress for both of us was exhausting. The work dragged for a couple of months and was left unfinished. When I tried to talk to the father about his son, I wept. I told him I had the emails that passed between us; that I was baffled. An argument was not the end of the world. He said he had never seen his son behave the way he had with me. This remark seemed ominous but it gave me a clue.
Still, it would be months before I understood that projection must have been the issue. As the outsider and without a genuine root connection between us I was vulnerable to taking on whatever qualities my friend could not own. Whatever had been pinned on me (like the donkey?) belonged to him and not me. My part in all this was that I accorded him honesty (as someone who would want to work out differences as he had said so many times) when deception reigned. Obviously, I expected more than he could give.
Deeply depressed, I took to the forest embracing a flowing river and a plethora of plants along with many old trees, and eventually began to heal from this latest trauma. How many times had I been here before?
My sick passionflower mysteriously recovered.
This fall when I brought my passionflower in the house it was healthy and so full of blossoms that for weeks I was submerged in scent! I felt such relief because I was finally grounded – honoring the mystery that permeated this relationship – When my plant next spoke I would be paying close attention. We were linked beyond space- time through the miracle of embodiment. This plant had become the sister I never had.
Last fall I met a woman that is in her late 40’s who offered to help me if I ran out of wood this winter. I stack it on the porch because I can no longer bring it down by wheelbarrow in the snow. She just called to ask me when I’d like her to come over again.
The last time she visited in late December she asked about my passionflowers, and when I showed her a blossom she said, “I love all plants; my house is full of them.” I had finally learned my lesson. This time I let the passionflower make the decision. Yes, my green friend gestured with one of her spiraling tendrils. This woman would care for my beloved like I would.
After the visit I promptly clipped a cutting and put it in water.
Even though it was December the month of lowest light and the worst time of the year to take a cutting, it sprouted a root within a week!
Postscript: I can’t remember when I learned that the actual flower on a passionflower vine was called “the crown of thorns” but the naming stuck after I heard it. Apparently priests in the late 1500’s gave the passionflower this name because it reminded them of the crown of thorns that Jesus wore.
Sara is a naturalist, ethologist (a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Maine.