Steve Cotler

Steve Cotler

Flowers Bugged Me

zinniaEverything grew easily where I grew up. In the long Southern California seasons of sun and moderate warmth, there was no challenge.

I suspect, looking back, that such gardening ease actually produced a glory of flowering plants, but there are only two in my childhood memory: zinnias and nasturiums. When I was eight, I planted zinnias in the east-facing side yard alongside the house. I remember them as pink and very large. The nasturtiums, brilliantly orange and yellow, grew wild, sheltered under overgrown anise, in the dirt between the Southern Pacific right-of-way and the old dairy building that became a discarded Coca-Cola bottling plant that became a synagogue. There was, I think, no flower on the anise, but the feel of its stems stays with me. Thick, fibrous, taller than a boy’s shoulder. Dusty, interconnected by old spider webs. High on the plant were the thin, tender shoots that could be wiped on a shirt and chewed with temperance for the intense taste of licorice. And there was the oily smell of seeds crushed against each other in two palms rubbed hard.

Nasturtiums were weeds beside those tracks, spots of color that held a secret reward passed by boys’ whispers. Frequenters of today’s trendish restaurants where designer salads vie for you’ve-never-seen-this-leaf-before palates, know nasturtiumthat nasturtium flowers are edible, as well as brightly colored and peppery, but boys in my neighborhood knew more: the thin, straw-like funnel that hung below the flower held a sweet nectar that could be sucked out by plucking the bloom and biting off the bottom. One out of every four, however, held a live bug, usually an ant, and from that census came a pause before self-gratification and eventually, attention to the trail ahead.

In flowers, there came an understanding that life is full of bugs.

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