The lyre-leaved sage emerged with vigor the following spring. A true perennial, it returned in the same place it had been planted, and then some. Several descendants appeared nearby. They announced themselves in rosette bursts of dark green leaves alive with purpled veins. Started by seeds, I thought. Happy ones. Within weeks, tall stalks—dotted with rows of pale blue-violet blossoms—grew straight up from the leafy centers. Each flower had a triangular yawn with a wide protruding lower lip and thin top one. Noticing the sage’s effortless replication and early color among the other sleepy perennials, I let them sprout forth.
They went to seed sooner than I expected. I had a habit of cutting back what exhausted itself. My decision to leave these plants alone was a matter of curiosity. This plant had been in my garden only one year. I didn’t know what would happen. Cyclical study had not been my horticultural m.o.
On the cusp of summer, I sat near thriving echinacea, the hearty clerodendron, and spent sage. The sage’s narrow stalks were dry and brittle. Two little finches rushed into the stems. They gripped the stalks with their feet and leaned over to ones nearby. At the throats of dead blossoms were seeds. Dozens were still attached. The finches had a feast.
Had I read of this relationship, it would not have sparked the bright, simple pleasure of witnessing it for the first time myself.
* * *
For a gardener like me, red salvia is a perfect specimen. It spreads by seed, transplants easily, tolerates drought, attracts bees and butterflies, and blooms for months—late spring through fall. The brilliant blossoms snap fire in the air, against almost any background.
In all the years I’ve grown them, I’ve enjoyed their attractiveness in color and of critter. I cut them back when the stalks stopped blooming and turned brown. This promoted new growth. More color, more nectar. The seeds that dropped and germinated were allowed to keep growing. I left them rooted in the earth itself.
But this year, I planted some of the spring seedlings in the large pots on the patio. Typically, I filled those with fuchsia and red pentas, favorites among local beasties. The salvia went in because they were free—homegrown—and something different. When I sat in my office, on the chair that faced the patio, I liked the promise of long red-blossomed spikes for months to come.
Summer sun and air didn’t have a chance to dry out the pots. The salvia thrived under my care. This was a bittersweet stewardship. Almost every morning, I took my 16-year-old cat outside to walk on the patio. She was living with lymphoma, with tumors in her abdomen and behind her right eye. Ariel had spent her life indoors, protected, basking in the light filtered through windows. I felt compelled to give her whatever comfort fresh air and dappled sun could bring.
Too frail to run, she strolled around the patio or sat still gazing at the world through her strong left eye. I drank coffee, watered plants, watched the birds and squirrels with her. I tried to stay in the moment, in the presence of her life, in the beauty of our own back yard.
The salvia grew, bloomed, went to seed. No stalks were cut to encourage more flowers, although I had done so in the past. The profusion of blooms waned, as did the visiting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds (oh, they were a surprise). It was all I could do to simply keep the plants alive. I let things go as Ariel prepared to leave.
* * *
Several days after Ariel’s peaceful death, I rested in the chair in my office and looked into the yard. The coreopsis had no yellow flowers, only spent ones. Several areas required weeding. Young shrubs planted in spring needed more water. The fig tree had tripled in size.
The salvia had random speckles of red. I thought to myself that it needed a serious trim to bring back some life and color. There was time for one more push before fall. In that instant, a finch landed on a brown stem. It reached out and nibbled a stalk.
The finch ate the seeds.
I remembered the lyre-leaved sage and my delight of discovery. I didn’t know the red salvia gave food in another form as well. Then I realized the plants were in the same family, their stems and flowers almost alike. The connection between them had been lost to me until the bird arrived.
The finch continued to eat. The moment held complicated gentleness. My patience with the sage and my willingness to watch taught me about its cycle. Ariel’s illness stripped away all that was not essential, disrupting my patterns, leaving me open to what happens when things are left to be. There was a comfortable space between surrender and resistance.
Sitting there, I smiled even as I grieved.