January 23, 2020

How One Plant Changed the World

The sign you have arrived at Hummingbird Farm Greenhouse in Turner

Janine Pineo Photo | The sign you have arrived at Hummingbird Farm Greenhouse in Turner

Note to Readers: Puttering Around is a new feature on Garden Maine. It is the place where Janine waxes on about things when the mood strikes.

• By Janine Pineo •

Some plants sing to your soul.

The very young flower spikes of Salvia 'Indigo Spires'

Janine Pineo Photo | The very young flower spikes of Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’

You don’t understand how this came to be. You think of the plant’s admirable traits and try to rationalize your devotion. You may decide to catalog any bad qualities to even things out. If you can find any.

Then you realize you would go to great lengths to keep this plant in your life.
Such is my love for Salvia ‘Indigo Spires.’

I found this plant a number of years ago at Everlasting Farm, the genius of Gail and Michael Zuck. Michael had a few of these plant loves, one of them salvias of all shapes and sizes and colors.

I was somewhat dismissive of salvia, my opinion formed when looking at the usual gawdy spikes of bedding plants offered in most greenhouses.

These were not those.

If there is one thing I have learned – albeit slowly and sometimes forgetfully – you cannot judge a plant until you have given it a chance to grow.

I cannot fathom what I would have been missing if I had not taken home a few pots of ‘Indigo Spires’ all those years ago.

I am not talking just about plants. I speak of the journey I have been on as a result of falling in love with this plant. A few other plants have tagged along for the ride, but the leader of this company is clearly ‘Indigo Spires.’

Thus, when Michael told me a few springs ago that he and Gail were retiring and closing the greenhouses, I started to panic. Worry not, he advised, he was passing along his treasure-trove to someone who used to work for him and had started her own greenhouse, Gretchen Fennelly.

The moment she and I met, we clicked. Yakking about plants that first day, it was like we had known each other all our lives. And when she realized that she could fling unique ones at me and I would catch them, well, needless to say we got along swimmingly.

But last year, a number of factors added up to bring Gretchen and her husband, Nate, to decide that they had to close Forest’s Edge Garden.

Panic ensued.

This time, I knew in my bones I was close to losing ‘Indigo Spires.’ I had searched online previously for a source and found only one. The cost would be high, and I had no idea what kind of shape the plants would be in after they had been mailed to me, nor if they would even offer them annually.

What could I do? What should I do?

Enter Cindy Tibbetts. I had found Cindy via Facebook through her and her husband’s business, Hummingbird Farm Greenhouse, located in Turner. After a visit to their website last spring, I decided to order some clematis.

Cindy, you see, is in love with clematis.

The greenhouse filled with salvia treasures

Janine Pineo Photo | The greenhouse filled with salvia treasures

She has found a niche doing mail orders for the dozens of unique clematis she grows, all tough little numbers that will thrive in Maine. Or elsewhere. That is the glory of mail order : She can ship these beauties across the country, wrapped up all snug and cozy.

After I got my first pair in the mail, I ordered some bars of soap, what keeps Cindy busy in the off-season. (Try the Land O’ Milk and Honey and fall in love with Splash of Sunshine.)

And we started talking a bit, emailing. I decided to write a column about clematis, which I have not had the best of luck with over the years.

When I got her on the phone, I knew. I asked her, “Why clematis?” and this is what happened:

“She laughed and said, ‘People obsessed don’t need reasons, do they?'”

Not long after that, I was winging my way to Turner with a backseat full of plants, including a slew of salvias and my favorite basil, columnar basil, which never goes to seed and grows like a shrub.

I had decided nothing ventured, nothing gained and asked if she would consider growing these unique plants that were next to impossible to find because they could only be grown from cuttings. I promised that if I was physically able, I would return and buy a whole big bunch of them.

She agreed.

The visit was a delight. We talked, walked and gawked (at least I gawked) while I threw the tennis ball for Buster, the dog that is one giant running machine. We had some iced tea, and I left the stock plants in her capable hands.

Over the past few months, I was treated to occasional updates, letting me know things were doing OK. Then all went quiet when Brian fell ill and I worried from afar over the two of them, praying he would be well.

I finally heard from Cindy, happy to learn Brian was recovering and, by the way, the plants were doing great.

I asked her to set aside eight each of ‘Indigo Spires’ and the columnar basil. I likely would get more, I said, but didn’t want to tie up her stock if she could sell it elsewhere.

Then, on the Friday before Memorial Day, I got an email from Cindy that started with: “It’s all your fault!!! I’ve fallen head-over-heels for the silly things.”

I laughed. And told her I would likely see her on Memorial Day.

One of the sights to see on the way to the greenhouse: the mighty Androscoggin

Janine Pineo Photo | One of the sights to see on the way to the greenhouse: the mighty Androscoggin

The drive to Turner was spectacular, the world bathed in sunshine after a week of gray skies, rain and cold temperatures.

When I arrived on Bean Street, the dogs came barking to announce my arrival. When I opened my car door, Buster put his feet on the running board and dropped the ball under my feet. I complied and threw the ball for him.

Then I spent a lovely afternoon strolling about the greenhouses, drooling over beautiful plants, many of which were out of the common way, and filling box after box with these treasures. By the time I was done, I had a car full of plants, including more than a dozen of my ‘Indigo Spires.’

This building is the North Turner Community Club.

Janine Pineo Photo | This building is the North Turner Community Club.

Oh, and eight columnar basil.

It was a delight to talk and talk with Cindy, to see Brian puttering around, and to spoil both dogs. My heart was singing by the time I finally climbed back into my car and headed toward home, more than 120 miles away.

Yes, I would go far for this salvia, ‘Indigo Spires,’ with its crazy corkscrew-like flowers that by season’s end look like a burst of fireworks. The bees, the butterflies, the hummingbirds – all are drawn to this plant.

But after all these years, ‘Indigo Spires’ has become more to me than just a beautiful plant.

It is an emblem for the wild journey we call life. Rugged and hard to find, it attracts those who are willing to take a chance on a plant that is easily overshadowed by showier blooms in spring.

It has changed my world.

Directions to Hummingbird Farm Greenhouse: It is a lovely drive through the heart of Maine to get to 202 Bean St. in Turner.  The map is here.

A Maine farmhouse along the road on the way to Hummingbird Farm Greenhouse

Janine Pineo Photo | A Maine farmhouse along the road on the way to Hummingbird Farm Greenhouse