He was giving these directions to the two new help exchange volunteers staying with us, a Belgian and a Korean. I was worried.
Little did these unsuspecting volunteers know that, in doing this work, they would be contributing to one man’s slightly crazed and deeply disturbing obsession. The next day, the Belgian and the Korean began digging.
Not native to New Zealand
I never knew what agapanthus were before I moved to New Zealand. You see them all over here, but they’re actually native to South Africa. They can’t survive the freezing winters in the any of the places I’ve previously called home.
Agapanthus have long, strap-shaped, evergreen leaves and their flowers are big balls of blue or white on top of tall stems. They’re incredibly easy to grow. In fact, they have a tendency to spread and sprout up in every nook and cranny imaginable, sometimes actually choking out native species. Because of this, some people in New Zealand consider agapanthus a weed. Not CJ.
In CJ’s world, agapanthus are a thing to be revered, treasured and, dare I say it, loved. And I don’t mean love as in “I love chocolate.” For CJ, agapanthus love is a bit more like, “I love my small, helpless child and would cripple and maim anyone who tries to hurt her.”
Except this small child is a plant. And not only is she perfectly capable of surviving a nuclear holocaust with no help from you, but once you bring her into your home she’ll start choking all your other darling children and replacing them with freakish alien space pods à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
I’ve seen what they’ve done to our hydrangeas.
Some of our friends think I’m joking about CJ’s special love of agapanthus. To them I say only this, “Take a blowtorch to those weeds while CJ is around and see what happens. Go on. I dare you.”
So far, nobody’s taken me up on that.
Throughout the week, CJ and I came home from work each evening to find the Belgian and the Korean had made yet even more progress on CJ’s mad plan. The long line of agapanthus besides the trees was extending farther every day. It was a like some kind of botanical death march.
Agapanthus morning tea
Once, when we’d gone to visit friends for morning tea, we were having pleasant chit-chat when CJ complimented our friend Ruby on the agapanthus in front of her house.
Now, Ruby is from Thames and she’s the only person I’ve ever heard refer lovingly to her family as ‘redneck bush pigs.’ She’s not one to mince words.
“Oh, I hate those damn weeds,” she said to CJ. “Every year I go running around like a blue-assed fly trying to deadhead their nasty seedpods before they spread. I want to dig them out and burn the whole lot.”
CJ nearly choked on his tea. “B-b-b-burn them?” His mind was clearly racing. He had to do something. Finally he said, “Can I have them?”
Ruby shrugged. “Sure. If you want them.”
CJ set down his tea. “Can I borrow a shovel?”
“Now?” Ruby said.
So, while we sat there eating Tim Tams and sipping on Gumboot tea (AKA cheap English Breakfast), CJ ran outside and started digging out agapanthus. He was a man on a mission.
If you’ve ever dug out established agapanthus, you know they grip the ground with strong, clenched fists. But CJ was undaunted. He heaved and hoed, digging with Ruby’s shovel and then prying at the roots with a crowbar. Soon he broke into a mighty sweat. We could see him out the window, making a mess of Ruby’s front lawn.
I apologized and she said, “Hell no! It’s a huge help. Glad it’s him out there sweating like a heffalump and not me.”
Then suddenly CJ stopped digging. We saw him walk back towards the house, and when he stepped inside he looked a bit sheepish. “Um. Sorry, Ruby. I broke your shovel.”
Soon CJ was back outside digging away again, and the pile of Agapantus at his side was getting larger. Frankly, I wanted no part of this impromptu Agapanthus Rescue Operation, but I felt bad seeing CJ work so hard. I must love him, because I went out and started throwing those horrible weeds into the hatchback of our Nissan Pulsar.
Suddenly I heard a strange CRACK and turned around. CJ had broken his second shovel of the day.
There are times when a laid-back Kiwi attitude is a really good thing. Like when your guests for morning tea start compulsively digging up your lawn and then go breaking the only shovel you have, plus your neighbor’s too.
Ruby started laughing hysterically. She screamed at CJ, “Mate, you’re as mad as cut snake! They’re going to lock you up soon!”
CJ stayed behind and used the crowbar to pry roots free while I drove Ruby to the local hardware store, hatchback half full of agapanthus, and bought two brand new shovels.
Suffice it to say we stayed longer than expected that day, and when we left Ruby had large holes in her lawn where once she had had agapanthus. At least she and her neighbor had nice, new shovels.
End of the line
The botanical death march with the Belgian and the Korean was just last week – years after CJ dug Ruby’s agapanthus out of her front lawn. But CJ’s fondness for those plants has remained just as strong.
CJ was thrilled. Every night he was outside watering them as we were setting the table for dinner. I joked with our guests. “He’s out there talking to them. ‘Are you okay? Do you like your new home?’”
Only after his babies had received their nightly watering could CJ bring himself to come in the house and sit down at the table for dinner.
As we ate, I felt a little uneasy knowing those agapanthus had multiplied and were now standing in a guard formation alongside the trees in the backyard.
In our house, I’m the only one truly in touch with what those demon plants are up to. First it was the hydrangeas. Next, I’m convinced, they’re coming for me.
What do you think about agapanthus, also known as ‘Lily of the Nile’? Are they gorgeous, or are they weeds?
This blog post, in an edited form, has become Chapter 21 in my upcoming book ‘Moon over Martinborough: How an American city boy became a Kiwi farmer’. The book will be released by Random House New Zealand in June 2013.