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Girdling the Family Tree


I need to unburden myself.

No, I’m not talking about figuring out what to do with the myriad of partially filled bags of soil amendments strewn about the garage.

I’m talking about my past. Aha! I knew that would get your attention.

You see, it’s not easy being a horticultural genius. It’s a curse as well as a blessing. The curse part of it comes from my family, of course. Those of you with cursed families know the drill. In my case, the curse comes courtesy of centuries of ancestors who spent untold hours swimming in questionable gene pools.

Since I can’t afford therapy (I’m still waiting for my MacArthur Genius Grant-do you think they lost my address?) I thought that by examining the lives of my brilliant though sometimes, um, peculiar forefathers and mothers I could achieve some kind of peace. One can hope, can’t one?

It is with that in mind that I present a look at how Nowaks through the ages have shaped the gardening world.

Nowacrates (489 BC-399 BC)

Not much is known about this enigmatic and, some say, phlegmatic man. What is certain is that he was a wiz with poisonous plants and was considered a mad apothecary before most people could even spell the word. He reportedly brewed the poison hemlock that the philosopher Socrates was encouraged to sip as a before-afterlife cocktail. Tragically, however, Nowacrates insisted on personally sampling the concoction to make sure that it was appropriately potent. Just as tragically, Nowacrates had already produced progeny before his untimely end.

“Jersey” Nowak (1755-1813)

There is confusion about this name, with some scholars claiming that the spelling should be “Jerzy.” However, legend has it that this Nowak always claimed he was named after the cow, so just let it ride, okay? He was cultivating a massive number of Amaranthus alba plants, and got distracted by butterflies…for several months. Hey, this is the guy who said he was named after a cow. Anyway, like many of us who put gallon containers on the side of the garage and forget about them, sometimes for years, Jersey’s plants dried up. If you know anything about this amaranth, it tends to form balls of dried branches and “tumble” away. Yes, Jersey Nowak invented Tumbleweed, which soon spread to 49 states, Canada, Mexico and Easter Island (yet another mystery from that strange land to be solved).

Telewizja kablowa Nowakowa (1389 - 1547)

The name of this remarkable woman translates roughly to “Cable TV Nowak.” No one has been able to explain this curious anachronism, so just let it ride, okay? What is important is her contribution to the world of entomology. Operating out of a tiny village near Krakow, Nowakowa is said to have created recipes for no fewer than 12,000 insect species. That, her role in the creation of Vodka and her consumption of it, are said to have been responsible for her longevity. Sadly, the entire insect cuisine canon was lost in a fire that was started when Nowakowa blew out the candles celebrating her 158th birthday. The resulting explosion could reportedly be seen from 40 miles away.

Trawa Nowak (1788-1871)

This amiable yet quixotic immigrant was the grounds keeper for the famous West Lawn at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate. The name “Trawa,” in fact, means “grass.” When his repeated efforts to import wildebeests to graze on the lawn were rejected, he focused on creating a new kind of turf that would grow low and spread easily. After much failure, he stumbled across a plant that had elegant scalloped leaves, lovely purple flowers and formed a perfect mat. Seeking to surprise Jefferson, he immediately had the plant, which he named for his first born, Charles, installed throughout the lawn. “Creeping Charlie,” as it became known, quickly took over the estate, sending the former president into a rage. Not only was Nowak banished from Monticello, but Jefferson attempted to have another amendment added to the constitution that would have declared Nowak a national menace. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Among the letters that James Madison penned to Jefferson is one that includes this line, “Just let it ride, Tom.”

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Girdling the Family Tree

I need to unburden myself. No, I'm not talking about figuring out what to do with the myriad of partially filled bags of ...


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