REMEMBER Nero Wolfe?
One of the great fictional detectives of the mid-20th century, Wolfe is an American Hercule Poirot, with a townhouse on Manhattan’s West 25th Street and a house number that would put him in the middle of the Hudson River.
Author Rex Stout’s sleuth is a man of enormous girth who never leaves the house and is kept magnificently fed by his private chef. Wolfe employs a gumshoe named Archie to do all the investigative legwork, while he putters for hours in his rooftop plant rooms, tending thousands of exotic orchids, with the assistance of an orchid nurse.
I was thinking of Wolfe the other day as I puttered in my little greenhouse, clipping a dried leaf here and there, pinching and potting-up stray stems.
There was a mystery afoot, which we’ll get to after this unnecessary aside . . .
The tropical plants are all in for the winter, should winter ever arrive. The weather here in Washington DC is, from what I’ve heard, like August in Maine, sunny and 80 at noon, cooling down just enough for a sweater at dusk. I’ve been to Maine only once, and it was cold and wet and miserable, like Scotland, where I spent a long-ago week under a quilt at a Salvation Army hostel feeding shillings into a space heater beside the bed.
Returning to today’s story. There was a column I wrote several weeks ago wherein I mentioned a plant that spent decades languishing in a pot by the front door, but quickly grew enormous and lush when moved to the curbside. I don’t recall where we got it, quite possibly it was a foundling that looked like it would do in the spot. I can’t imagine having bought such a boring plant.
Once it was moved, it also chose to flower, great panicles of disgustingly sweet white flowers that appeared each spring.
With the blossoms spent, it did make a fine framework for a flower arrangement. The slender but stiff branches and neat green leaves supported the heavy heads of hydrangeas and roses and such.
Over the weeks it let down a tangle of roots, so when it came time to redo the six window boxes in the front of the house I stuck the branch in one, then clipped five more stems to center in the others. The idea being that, come spring, they could be transplanted to Baby’s backyard in Raleigh, North Carolina, creating a fine screen at the end of the property—far enough from the house that the scent might be considered charming, wafting in on a stray breeze.
A sharp-eyed reader said she thought the plant might be a privet, adding that they’re cloyingly sweet and invasive, and she’s trying to get rid of hers.
My friend Karen Amy, a professional gardener, wandered by and confirmed it. Then, I looked it up. Oh my.
Southern Living magazine calls privet the “South’s worst weed.” It’s worse than kudzu, they say, “because kudzu needs sun to grow. Chinese privet, on the other hand, grows just about anywhere. In sun. In shade. In wet soil. In dry soil. In the city. In the country. On the surface of Pluto.”
Which at first sounds like a brilliant plant to have, but no . . . they say it should be banned, chopped down, decimated with Roundup.
This was dreadful news. Can you have a British murder mystery without a privet hedge? There’s always a body beneath one, a miscreant peering through the branches, a line of them leading to a sinister thatch-roofed cottage.
I puttered about in the greenhouse, popping jelly beans (I don’t have a chef), and called my British friend Maggie Hall, who divides her year between an apartment near me in Washington and a house in Whitby, where Count Dracula first landed in England, per novelist Bram Stoker.*
“Of course,” sniffed Maggie. “The privet, everyone has one.” Or words to that effect. Indeed, says Wikipedia, in the 1940s decorative ironwork was requisitioned for the British military for armaments and privet hedges were used to replace ornamental fencing.
The Brits know their gardens, for heaven’s sake; how evil could this shrub be?
Uh, pretty bad, they say: Though there are 50 varieties of privet and not all are invasive, it’s pretty hard to tell which is which until they wriggle around below ground and start springing up every which where and you never get ahead of them and they throttle every other plant in sight.
As far as I can tell, we don’t have an invasive privet. While it grows half again taller and wider each year, it stays in its assigned plot.
I trust it will behave as well for Baby. If it doesn’t, My Prince will be dispatched with an axe and Roundup to clean up the mess.
LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” loves mystery series almost as much as she loved plants.
* Maggie’s howling new book All Things Dracula: an A-Z of the Count Who Refuses to Die is available on Amazon. It’s a bloodbath of wit and wisdom.