An unpleasant surprise greeted me one warm mid-summer morning. I was in the garden by 6:30am with the intent of beating the heat, and my plan was successful for about an hour. The day was to end so hot and still that even the birds were quiet. But I followed the shade as I worked. And shade was where I encountered the young rhododendron I had planted in early spring – and had forgotten.
Rhododendron albiflorum, Cascade Azalea, was a welcomed addition to my collection of rare or unusual native plants. In my searches for these plants, I had seen pictures of this rhododendron’s clusters of white flowers and wrinkly leaves. I liked what I saw and was pleasantly surprised to find a few 1 gallon plants for sale at my favorite nursery. Without hesitation, or concern about where I would find space for it, I brought it home.
I remember watering it well through spring and into early summer, but then something happened and it slipped my mind. I don’t remember what happened but I’m sure something occurred, otherwise, why would I forget about it? This worried me. “Maybe this is the start of Alzheimer’s,” I thought to myself. The disease is on my father’s side of the family – he has it. Not much remains now of the dad I grew up with. As is common with dementia patients, he has lost a considerable amount of mind-body connection and has almost no short-term memory. He forgets he has just eaten, and will ask when a meal is due within minutes of having had a meal. He seems unable to recognize that he is full. Often he fails to recognize the food he eats or what to do with the non-edible parts of foods. More than once he has brought the plumbing system at home to a halt by flushing odd things down the toilet – banana peels among those items. His wife is long-suffering, and sometimes she loses patience with him, but without her he would be lost. He may not know his daughters and has no memory of having had a son, but he no longer suffers from depression and the volatile temper that it would manifest as. He knows his wife, though, and is bound to her by a deep and sincere love. This he has not lost, and I am thankful for this gift.
Occasionally I lose my keys, my glasses, or a book, but I always find what is missing and most importantly, I know the purpose of each item. I don’t think I’ve flushed anything inappropriate down the toilet yet. And our family did have a busy spring and summer this year – our daughter came home from college, I worked many hours of overtime in May and June, took a short vacation, and tended pets for a friend – usual stuff. But to forget about a plant! I had not done that before – or if so, I’d forgotten.
So when I came upon the rhododendron that warm morning it was in a bad state. I had planted it in partial shade, as it requires, but it had not been watered for more than one month. The few leaves that remained were not just crinkled, they crumbled between my fingers. The soil around the plant was very dry, the root mass smaller than when I planted it, and one small twig did not show live tissue when I scraped away a small amount of bark. “I need to hire a gardener”, I thought. Refusing to give up on the little rhododendron, I transplanted it to a container where I could nurse it through the rest of summer. With ample water and a couple of applications of fish fertilizer, it rebounded. I wasn’t surprised that it recovered, however, because my faith in plants has never been shaken. Plants may not always perform as expected, or as desired, but their ability to adapt to environmental or cultural stress has never failed to amaze me. And as I rarely water ornamental plants during summer months, plants in my garden know stress.
As the rhododendron recovered I relaxed a bit and worried a little less about my cognitive state. At this writing, the plant is thriving. I will keep it in the container throughout winter to protect it in the event of a harsh season, and will plant it in the landscape next spring – where it will flourish because I will remember to water it! I envision it growing and blooming beautifully and becoming an important member of my rare plant collection.
And next spring, I will remember to make a list of those things I may forget.