Camellia was furious. She’d done everything she could think of and still her tomato plants were wilting.
There were exactly 6 inch diameters around each rooting. The deep trough had been aerated at the bottom with treated soil at the top to maximize nutrients. Individual vine cages had been bought just tall enough in case the plants grew bigger than expected, but with a small enough braid that the wrens visiting the bird feeder would not fit through to snack on the budding fruit.
Yet there was no fruit to protect. The leaves that were supposed to be happily winding themselves around the cages were instead struggling for life. Camellia had checked water levels and soil PH several times. There was no spotting from disease, no yellowing from sun. Just dreary withering in each leaf. Every single factor had been considered, researched, and planned for! Her parents’ gardens were vibrant with life- how had she not inherited the green thumb?
“Betcha got bugs.”
“Ew! No! Why would you even say that?” Camellia screeched at her boyfriend through the phone.
“I’m just thinking,” Liam answered, “your dad had those aphids on his roses last year. Remember he tried to get your mom to order all those lady bugs to eat them?”
“Yeah…” Camellia kept pacing around her apartment, “I guess I should look.”
“Put me on speaker in case it’s something gross.”
“Aw you’re sweet to comfort me- but I’ll be okay.”
“No no, I want to hear your scream!”
Camellia hung up on his burst of laughter. She glared over at her tomato plants out on the patio. Would they really betray her and be housing disgusting little creatures? Unfortunately, there was only one way to find out.
She dug through the huge gardening tool box her father had given her we he realized half of his succulents and bonsais had migrated to her apartment. There were so many tiny tools in there that she did not understand the purpose of. Four different sizes of shears, several convertible spouts for a water can, something that looked like a basting brush? Finally she found what she needed: the bifocal magnifying glass (with attached belt clip, of course).
With her pug Moonpie snorting his support behind her, Camellia inspected each of her would-be tomato plants. There were a few sticky spots that she couldn’t figure out, but no noticeable bites, nor any hornworm caterpillars mascaraing as smaller leaves. Her father would be relieved there were no signs of aphid life either. So the confusion continued, until she flipped a leaf over.
She was very glad she hadn’t left Liam on speakerphone, because there was indeed a small screech when she discovered the tiny white eggs lining the leaf’s veins. She checked another, and another. Over half of her sad little leaves had their underbellies covered in the tell-tale dots.
So it was the 5th on the list of pests Google had provided- whiteflies. She hadn’t considered them as an option because her plants had not even made it to full fruit, and these pests normally fed on the fruit’s juice. Perhaps she had a neighbor growing a strawberry plant or something and her patio had just become the nursery. Ew. Her poor tomatoes were doulas. For bugs.
“Well, what are we gonna do about this, Moonpie?” The pug rolled on his back in response. Tummy rubs were his answer to most of life’s problems.
Camellia scratched the pug’s round belly as she thought. She knew there were pesticides and plant soaps that would take care of the bugs. She’d add those to her grocery list, but it might be too late for the tomato plants to be saved and it was too late in the season to start from scratch again. She’d have to pick up some half-grown plants to brighten her porch again so the sad little trough wasn’t empty until Fall.
It bothered her that she hadn’t thought to check under the leaves before. Camellia took after her dad in wanting to get to the bottom of a plant problem, to learn the aspect and signs of an issue to be ready for next time. However, unlike him, she did not have a large greenhouse in which to do her experiments. A smaller laboratory would have to suffice, so she plucked off an egg-heavy leaf and dropped it into a mason jar with a damp paper towel.
Sticking her face close to the side of the jar, she glared in at the tiny specs. “Oh we’re gonna get to the bottom of you little suckers. You’ll see.”
It took 8 days for the little jerks to hatch. Camellia thought she would see bites in the leaf from teeny baby jerk-bug bites, but the leaf remained whole. It did start to shrivel though, just as those on her tomato plants outside.
When Liam visited that weekend, baring coxcomb and a Gerber daisy to cheer up his girlfriend and her previous-tomato-trough, he looked in on the bugs.
“It’s like they’re sucking the life out of the leaf.”
“How do you always come up with the grossest option?”
“Well it does!” He plucked a leaf off the daisy and plucked it into the mason jar lab, “Like they all have tiny straws. Bet Google will tell you I’m right.”
“I’m doing this without google.”
Liam stood up straight, “Why?”
“Because I have smarty pants you,” she stood on her toes to kiss his cheek, “and it’s more fun to figure it out.”
He laughed and carried the daisy out to the porch for potting, “Whatever makes you happy.”
It made Camellia very happy to see the little crawling nymphs in her jar begin to molt over the following weeks. She offered them more leaves to work with so she could continue her observations. A notebook sat by the jar, and each evening after finishing her university homework, Camellia wrote up the changes she was seeing in the bugs:
Day 18: Buggers had not been as interested in the daisy leaf when they were younger (not as juicy?) but are now nomming on it happily. Going to add another leaf tomorrow.
Day 19: Holy crap, I’m glad I added another leaf they have gone right through it.
Day 20: Some of them have wings. About 5? Hard to count as they’re moving around a lot more now. Kinda grossed out, kinda proud of them.
By the next time Liam came to visit for the weekend, all of Camellia’s lab
rats bugs were winged and she was having a debate with herself on releasing them or not.
“They ate your plants- why would you want to let them out to maybe eat your other plants?”
Camellia stretched her legs out across his lap on the sofa. Liam was always reminded of a cat in a sunbeam when she did this. They’d gone on a short run and the entire two miles back, she had discussed her findings on the whiteflies and their interactions with her tiny eco system.
Her head back on the armrest and eyes closed, she let out a large sigh, “I just feel bad after seeing how long it took them to grow up, just to dump their whole jar in the trash or something.”
It was cute that she cared about her little bugs, after her determination to find their weaknesses just to destroy them. “What if,” he offered, “you asked the science department at your school if there’s anything they can do with the bugs?”
Camellia shot up, “That’s brilliant! They might have a purpose or something!”
“Or be crazy people that like to watch bugs and then accidentally get attached to them.”
Liam barely dodged the pillow launched at his head.
The next Monday, Camellia approached the Administration desk of the Biology department. She had barely been able to concentrate in her Contemporary Historians class that morning, afraid that someone would notice the jar of pests in her backpack. She thought that would not go over well in a class where she was the only student not in a beige cardigan.
“Good morning! I have a weird question…” She offered to the pepper-haired gentleman behind the desk.
“Then you’re in the right place, dear. What can I do for you?”
Camellia brought out the jar and explained her situation. The man stared only at the jar while she spoke, making Camellia worry that she was about to be led to the mental facility. But when she stopped, he finally looked at her, and a large smile spread over his face.
“So you’ve been working with these little guys for a few weeks, hm? I know just who you should speak with.”
He stood and led her down the hall, stopping to knock on the fogged-glass door of an office that boasted Dr. Rebecca Arrowood, Entomology Department Lead.
“Entomology?” Camellia asked.
“Study of insects!” The short brunette now in the doorway answered. “Hey Arthur! Whatcha got?”
The man -apparently Arthur- gestured to Camellia, “I think you’ve got a little larva here, Rebecca.”
“No they’ve nymphed and some of them have wings and-” Camellia started, but Arthur had already taken off back to his desk.
“Oh whiteflies! It’s that time of year! Come in, come in, let’s take a looksie.” Dr. Arrowood pulled Camellia into the office.
Camellia stood with her jar, a little stunned, and looked around the room. There were oil paintings of butterflies in every growth stage lining one wall. On another, a cartoon of a beetle-looking-creature on top of a large brown ball stated “Shit happens! Roll with it!” On the large desk were stacked shadow boxes with wings in every color and every shape with neatly written labels under each one.
The professor plucked the jar from Camellia’s fingers, “So you’ve raised these little ones?”
“Well not really raising, they were on my plants and I-”
“Wanted to see how they worked. Tomatoes or blackberries?”
“Tomatoes. Wait, blackberries?”
“They loooove to hatch under blackberry leaves. Lots of sap, easy to get to the fruit. Same as tomato plants.”
“Oh that makes sense. They didn’t really like the daisy leaf I gave them.”
Dr. Arrowood’s eyes lit up, “You tried to give them different kinds of leaves?”
“Well my boyfriend gave it to them, but I watched them and it took them until they were older to get interested.”
“You kept track?”
“I kept a journal…” Camellia pulled the little notebook out of her backpack and handed it to the professor.
Dr. Arrowood leafed through the pages. Her smile seemed to grow with each entry she read.
“Have a seat, sweetie, we have lots to discuss.”
Forty-five minutes later, Camellia skipped out of the building, waving at Arthur as she went by.
“See you soon!” He called after her.
She told Liam on their Skype date that evening how she had changed her major.
“The study of bugs? I like it.” His smile reassured her of the move her studies had taken that afternoon.
“There are just so many! And did you know there are more species of ants in the world than of any other living creature? And although spiders aren’t technically insects they’re still gonna teach us about them because they fit best there- which will be so cool. So since I already took the bio 101 class last year, I can go straight into the focused classes and she said in the first we’ll just get general info and…”
Liam listened happily, thinking insects would be a good study for his own little love bug.
Plantlet (noun): A small or young plant.
Some words are simple but just sound really nice. Plantlet. Plantlet. Say it out loud- doesn’t it feel good and cute and make you think of tiny pale green leaves streeeetching out for its first rays of sun?
Not to get too hippy on y’all, but really, we are all little plantlets. Even if you’re reading this thinking “Nope, my roots have been fully grown for a while!” you can still be a plantlet. You’re just a perennial- meaning that you come back fresh each year at your growing time to be a new and fresh little plantet that can grow into a new full flower/fruit!
The mint in my own patio garden is very strange looking. That’s because I mixed up the herb markers, and it is actually catnip. This became clear when the leaves flattened out and my cat wouldn’t stop rubbing herself up against the pot. Sometimes we’re not sure what something is until it grows a little, gets a bit more of its own shape. For Camellia, that was her studying future- from History to Entomology. Maybe for us, it’s where we work or where we live or whether to take music or swimming lessons. We just have to keep giving ourselves sun and nutrients until we grow big enough to be able to see where we are, what we need next.
Today it is sunny, and I took my little plantlet self to church for the first time ever without a member of my family (even the one time I went to a friend’s church, one of my brother’s was there too on a trip for Confirmation class). I was a bit nervous to go somewhere new, but I needed the nourishment to grow into whatever I am! Take yourself out in the sun today. Give yourself some clean cool water, and find the nourishment you’ve been needing.
It’s the growing season, y’all! Happy rooting 🙂