The stories of our plants: cosmos bipinnatus
Come spring and the grocery store here starts giving out a small kitchen garden “starter packs” of seeds for every 15€ or so of groceries purchased. Marketed as moestuin maatjes1 in Dutch, each pack includes a couple of tiny cardboard pots (about 4-5 cm deep), a tablet of soil and different varieties of seeds. All you need to do is fill the pots with moist soil, sow the seeds about 0.5-1cm deep, keep the whole package moist and wait for the seeds to germinate. They even include tiny placards that you can cut out from the packaging and place them in the tiny pots to remind you about what you had planted and when.
This annual spring time grocery store ritual must’ve been going on for several years but we never paid much heed to it before. The pandemic revived some atavistic agrarian need in us last year. When the cashiers at the grocery store started offering moestuinje packets around March this year, we took them with both hands.
The wife and I sowed two packs of seed each and waited for them to germinate. In anticipation of the seeds needing a bigger pot after a few weeks, we procured potting soil and clay pebbles. During one of our long weekend walks, we saw a set of empty outdoor planters that someone had left at a bench outside their home for anyone to take for free. Not wanting to cut our walk short or lug them along for our walk, we decided to pick them up on our way back. However, by the time we returned an hour or so later, they were gone. We picked the only one that remained - a small plastic pot with an outer metallic bucket painted bright pink.
A couple of camomile seeds I had sown, germinated some 7-8 days later. Another 5 or so days after that I transferred the two saplings to the planter we had procured on our walk. The growth of the plant stalled shortly thereafter. The cotyledons didn’t give way to true leaves and started withering away. I thought I had over watered the plants to their death. One Sunday morning, as I looked closely at the plant to diagnose what was going wrong, I saw the shoot of the remaining plant move a little. Since this wasn’t beanstalk from the English fairy tale it couldn’t be growing fast enough for me to spot it by merely staring at it for a few seconds. Nor was I on any medication that’d alter the way my mind percieved passage of time. So clearly, another rational interpretation was called for. A few more seconds of close inspection revealed my problem - a larva was gnawing at my plants’ roots and tender shoots.
And so the first batch of seeds came to nought. I let the pot lie fallow for a few days in the balcony while I thought about what I would plant next. We had one moestuin maatje with cosmos seeds lying around and I figured the plant’s beautiful pink flowers might go well with the planter’s outer metal shell and so that’s what I eventually planted.
It’d be a long wait before I’d see the first flower.
Save for a handful of warm days, the summer in Amsterdam this year has been mild. So much so that it has felt like protracted spring. Encouraged by the long days and gentle weather, three of the four cosmos seeds I had planted began to germinate. One of them wilted away after a week but the remaining two started to thrive. Their thread-like2 leaves look delicate and like the mother of a child studying in a boarding school worrying about the child eating right, I wondered if they had enough chlorophyll to photosynthesise sufficient food for the plants. The plants also grow quite tall for something this delicate.
After three months or so of regular care and one round of light application of liquid fertilizer, the first buds began to appear on one of the plants. The stem that seemed to be effortlessly supporting the plant’s 30-40cm height while braving Amsterdam’s windy days, began to buckle a little under the weight of the buds. One of the buds grew to the size of a large blackberry and made it clear that it’d be the first one to blossom. But it gave no sense of what colour the flowers would be.
The anticipation was driving me crazy. A short sampling of my stream of consciousness:
Should I make tiny incision and take a peek inside? No. Would there even be incipient petals that’d give away the colour? No idea. Should’ve paid more attention to botany lectures in school. Should I be throwing the equivalent of a gender reveal party? Not unless I wanted to be locked away in a padded cell.
I did none of the above things and just waited patiently. Each morning, while I wait for the water in the kettle to boil for our tea, I check on the plants in the balcony. A week ago, I was overjoyed to find a large, white cosmos flower where one of the buds had been the day before! While my grand plan to match the colour of the flowers to that of the planter had been scuppered by the flower’s white colour, it was impossible not to run around the house with the pot held like Rafiki raising Simba - for it was the outcome of weeks of worrying, care and waiting (mostly waiting).
Also, the second plant is yet to flower. We might still have a match…
Update: Between the time I took me to start writing this and post this, the second plant has begun to blossom. The flowers are pink!