Saying 'yes' to a day with Ciscoe Morris

A management consultant-turned Zen teacher plays sidekick to Seattle's inveterate plant-promoter and finds inspiration in a Venus flytrap.
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Ciscoe Morris.

A management consultant-turned Zen teacher plays sidekick to Seattle's inveterate plant-promoter and finds inspiration in a Venus flytrap.

In the Maitreya seminary where I was trained, we were taught to simply say yes to requests, without a need to find out the details of the request. In this way we would become more available to be of service to the world moment by moment. We were taught that the same yes would lead us along a path of happiness. It would feed our noble intentions.

This has led to some wild rides, I admit. Most recently, I was stocking Dusty Miller plants at the nursery where I work when one of the managers approached me to ask if I would be willing to be the sidekick to a local wunderkind, Ciscoe Morris, while he did a live radio show about plant care. In the Northwest gardening subculture, Ciscoe Morris has the status of a rock star. He used to be the manager of grounds and landscaping for Seattle University. Ciscoe is a certified arborist, a master gardener, and a teacher at many of Seattle's local colleges. He knows more about organic gardening than anyone I have ever met, and he is forever advising people, when they have a decision to make, to choose the environmentally friendly route. He is a slight, weathered ball of energy who has a way of solving gardening problems with an entertaining combination of compassion and chutzpah. His television shows, radio shows, and weekly public appearances can become mob scenes. Part of it is his knowledge. People can rarely stump him with their questions. The man is an encyclopedia of all things plant, shrub, and tree. Part of it is his obvious heart. He loves plants and he loves people. Part of it is his sense of humor. Yes. I said I would do the show. Only later did I learn that it was three hours long and that it was supposed to be a conversation between experts.

I freaked.

But I did it.

And even though, going in that morning, I prayed that most of the questions would be about petunias, geraniums, and ivy, my three areas of knowledge, when there wasn't a single question about any of them, I discovered I knew way more than I thought. We always do. And I had the time of my life, laughing with Ciscoe and acting as his bodyguard when he left. I was honored to see what he was really like one-on-one. What struck me most was how closely he paid attention to the questions asked. He made really sure he got as much information as possible about a gardener's situation before he responded. As a result he always had an answer, in spite of people going to great lengths to stump him. Halfway through the radio show, a woman walked up to our table, set seven leaves down, and said, "Help!" It was obvious that something was wrong with each leaf. Some were curled. Some were half-brown. Some had splotches. Even though we were on the radio, Ciscoe took time to really look at each leaf before he reacted. A half minute of silence on the radio couldn't compete with clearly seeing what was going on.

He proceeded to tell her exactly what was wrong with each leaf. Overwatering was killing her laurel. Bugs were eating a heuchera. The only person who even came close to stumping him that morning was a little girl who wanted to know how long Venus flytraps live. Her question wasn't an easy one. Venus flytraps are pretty complicated. They need a lot of moisture and depend on insects for their nutrients. In in the wild they live only in bogs in the Carolinas.

Flytraps look like big toothy smiles. When the smiles open you can see short, stiff hairs that are so sensitive to touch that if anything bends them, even a little, the smiley mouth snaps shut, trapping whatever it is. The mouth doesn't close all the way at first. There is a slight pause and then, slam!

Flytraps are also picky. If it swallows a nut, a small stick, or a piece of a McDonald's kids' meal toy, it will spit it back out by the end of the day. All this means that, to survive, flytraps need insects that are just right. Not too big, not too small. If they are too small they can fly back out of a plant's mouth. Too big and they force the mouth to stay a little open, which means that bacteria and mold can get into the flytrap. This is not a pretty sight. Basically, the plant turns black, rots, and falls to the ground. If you own one and want to hand-feed it, you need to make sure that the mouth really closes, and tightly, over its meal. Then you have to squeeze it in different places to make the insect move as if it were alive. That's what speeds up the digestive process. A lot of work for one tiny, toothy, smiley face.

With one "just right" insect, a flytrap can live for almost two weeks. They live best in old aquariums or fishbowls that are small enough to keep humid at all times. They need sun for at least two hours a day. Warm and moist, a plant can live for a long time. Even underwater if it has to.

But no hamburger. No tofu. And for sure no fish can pass through its lips. Ciscoe had no idea what the little girl knew about flytraps. He didn't know if she had one, was buying one, or was thinking about buying one. So he gave her a perfect Zen answer: "It depends." He told her some of the requirements, emphasizing that the main thing was to feed the plant food that was "just right." If she intended to have a healthy flytrap, she needed to learn about the plants first. Her mother would help. That way she could have two toothy grins that would last — hers and her plant's. And then, to thank her for having the courage to stand up and ask him a question, he gave her a huge flower in a pot. With that, yet another Ciscoe admirer was hatched.

From Plant Seed, Pull Weed: Nurturing the Garden of Your Life (HarperCollins, 2008). Geri Larkin reads at Queen Anne Books on May 29 at 6:30 p.m.  

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