By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
Luna is the Spanish word for moon. When spoken with its proper accent, the word rolls smoothly off the tip of the tongue. It is a beautiful word that I don’t often have the opportunity to use, so each time I see a full, opulent moon I whisper to the night, “La luna es bonita.” – “The moon is beautiful”. So it shouldn’thave come as such a surprise that I would fall for a plant whose name is derived from the Latin word for Moon. Lunaria, also known as Honesty or Money Plant, belongs to the Brassica Family, which includes common garden vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage. Once a cottage garden favorite, Lunaria is more commonly grown today by the flower industry for use in dried flower arrangements.
Perhaps this plant was given the Latin name Lunaria because of the way its seedpod’s translucent membrane radiates like a glowing full moon as light passes through it. Or, because it reminded the name-giver of the festive paper lanterns so often used in Latin America. Either way, when a friend with whom I had been trading vegetable seeds online offered me seeds of a plant called Lunaria, I immediately knew that I had to grow it in my own garden.
So it was that on a grey spring day the seeds arrived tucked tightly in a small origami envelope upon which was written the word “Honesty”. I did not then know anything about this plant except that it produced silvery seed pods. By that time the spring garden chores were piling up on my list and I neglected to do my homework before planting every one of the flat, round seeds directly in the garden bed.
I chose to plant the seeds in what was supposed to have been a perennial flower border, but whose poor soil and shady nature had thus far thwarted all of my loving efforts. In my eyes, the bed was a sad, wasted space of dreams gone wrong and with more important tasks at hand and no other prepared soil for flowers, I half-heartedly scattered the seeds thickly about the long, curving bed and roughly scraped them into the soil with a hard-tine rake.
To my utter amazement, the little Lunarias germinated immediately and prolifically. Every day handfuls of seedlings came up and soon I had more plants than I knew what to do with. Eventually I was forced to devote several hours to a hard-core thinning of the thick stand of Lunaria seedlings if I wanted any of them to reach full size.
What had begun as a laissez faire attempt to grow something – anything – in the clay soil under the shade of the big oak trees had turned into a most promising venture. Every day I stood before the bed in awe as the remaining plants grew rapidly into lush mounds of velvety, heart-shaped leaves.
As the summer wore on the Lunarias changed very little. I was slightly disappointed, but I admired their ability to thrive through a terrible period of drought. At least something was growing there. By fall I had dismissed (and neglected) the Lunarias entirely, showering my attention on other flowers in the garden.
Fall made its welcome way to our hills and we began preparing our gardens for their winter naps. We removed all the dead or dying stems and foliage from the perennial plants and laid down a thick layer of the now-copious oak leaves as mulch. The Lunaria trudged on, seemingly oblivious of the coming weather.
By the time the first winter freeze arrived, everything in the garden had dozed off…everything except the Lunaria, which actually seemed to have taken on a new attitude. I watched them closely now, waiting to see how cold it had to get before they finally succumbed to frost. And to my amazement, they never did.
Instead, they happily cruised through our roller-coaster winter weather and laughed at the twelve inches of snow that blanketed the ground for three weeks in December. Their only response to this adversity was a change in leaf color, from green to an intensely deep shade of purple.
As winter at last gave in to the first shaky moments of spring, the Lunaria sprang into action, putting on many new crisp green leaves with purple undersides and veining. By the time the dogwoods and violets were in full bloom, the plants had begun a truly magical transformation. The change began slowly at first, with the low clumps sending up short stems laden with tightly wrapped buds.
At last the flowers opened and their display of four-petalled reddish-purple flowers arranged in loose panicles, much like those of phlox, was more than I dreamed of. Alone, each flower is made up of four slightly wavy petals punctuated with dark purple veins that lead the eye towards the heart of the flower. Together, massed in the flower beds, the brilliant flowers floated above the dark green foliage, bringing much needed light and depth to the cool shady beds.
Eventually the blossom stems grew well above the lower leaves and by the time we picked our first salad greens, the purple sprays of Lunaria were putting the daffodils to shame. Everyone who came by the house stalled in front of the butterfly-laden blooms with one question on their lips, “What Is That!?”
The previously unassuming plants surpassed all my expectations and when the lower blossoms began to give way to green, pea-sized seed pods, I thought for sure the show was over.
It wasn’t. For the Lunaria continued blooming profusely. They bloomed on past the daffodils and the daisies. They bloomed beyond the fragrant blackberry and peach blossoms. They bloomed so long that, as I was tending the new corn seedlings, I could look up and watch ruby-throated hummingbirds hovering above the still-profuse flowers. I don’t know exactly when the last flower finally faded, but it was somewhere between the day the flea beetles destroyed our eggplant seedlings and the return of the violet-blue barn swallows.
I had no idea what would happen next. My research into these amazing plants had been shallow at best. But I instinctively understood that the plant would now put all of its energy into producing what I had originally thought was the objective of growing them in the first place – the seed pods. So I waited.
After about six weeks, the large round green pods seemed to have changed very little, when at the end of the day I noticed a semi-transparency to the pods as the sun set behind the plants. I could see enough light through the thinning skins of the pods to make out the dark shapes of rows of the flat seeds within.
As the season wound down, some of the pods began to develop odd-looking purplish spots. I wondered if this was normal or if perhaps they had come down with a disease. I asked around and got a mixture of answers, so I decided to do what I had done from the start and simply wait and see.
Slowly the purple splotches dulled into a muted combination of purple, brown and green. “Ick” was how I described the color, while a friend kindly proposed the word “mud”. Either way, the Lunaria had turned into something nearing unattractive and I began to doubt my decision to leave the seed pods to mature on the plant instead of cutting them back as one gardener had suggested.
One day I decided to peek inside one of the pods to satisfy my own curiosity. Separating the outer skins of the pods from the inner membranes was quite a delicate project, but I finally got it open. When I saw the magical play of light through the radiantly luminescent disk, I lost all control.
I wanted to see more. I wanted to see them all at once shimmering in the light and went after the pods like a madwoman. My husband came by, catching me in this bizarre reverie. With a voice that carried just a touch of concern, he asked the ultimate rhetorical question, “You aren’t going to do that to all of those, are you?”
I was suddenly reeled back to my earthly garden and the hot sun and realized that I had been at this crazy project for over an hour and had only exposed a handful of opalescent disks. I was much too far ahead of the plant’s point of maturity and many of the disks had been torn by my too-anxious hands. So I did the right thing; I put on my patient-gardener hat once again and waited some more.
When at last the pods were truly dry I walked along the bed gently ruffling the pods with my hands and the outer coverings fluttered away like moth wings, spreading their hoard of fertile seeds back to the soil and revealing my long-awaited prize.
I stepped back to take it all in just as the sun was setting. From that innocent packet of unknown seed to this shimmering garden full of winking and dancing full moons. I stood in awe and whispered, “La luna es bonita!”
The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs is a no-nonsense guide jam-packed with no-nonsense information on growing, harvesting and using 35 of the world’s safest and most flavorful herbs. In addition to the 35 detailed herbal monographs are entire chapters on growing, harvesting and using kitchen herbs to spice up your favorite dish or create healing herbal remedies. This is one book you will turn to time and time again!
Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.