Place Where You Live:

Richmond, Virginia

Virginia's Pawpaw Tree

Plants with ironic names, like May apples that fruit in April, marsh marigolds that populate ditches—trick me to divine an Elsewhere that could be anywhere but Richmond. Might botanical curiosities offer imaginary contact with the outside world?

Consider our native pawpaw, once cultivated by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Having cataloged the beautiful fruit tree as an ornamental, he sent seeds to his Parisian friends while serving as Minister of France. Though the pawpaw leans scrawny in the wild, like an exiled Comtesse bereft of her brocades, the large, hand-like leaves glow a sensuous silk-green. To attract its rediscovery as a food source perhaps? A diplomat for agriculture, I alight on the banks of the Seine, carrying a musette full of seeds.

Speaking of water, Richmond provides good growing conditions for the seaworthy hydrangea. Cruiser of moist, shady beds, the bush’s seed capsules look like a ship. Even to enounce hydrangea—a fusion of Greek word stems—is to betray Richmond’s whitewater river, the James. Dreaming of Ithaca, suddenly I’m sailing the blue-diamond Aegean Sea.

Forward east, I dock my boat on Japanese shores. My feet tangle in the unruly kudzu Virginians curse. “Vine that ate the south,” its bloom-smothering umbrage recalls the10th century jūnihitoe kimono, whose multi-layered silks could weigh upwards of forty pounds. Evocation of the Heian apothecary, kudzu today is brewed for tea.

Winters in Richmond chill of old Russia. In February, when red cedars and loblolly pines cozy under fox-collars of snow, Siberian white mink settles on my shoulders. Quick as Dr. Who’s time machine, I’m transported to Zhivago’s Moscow in a horse-drawn sleigh. The wind’s icy shrapnel lashing my unprotected face forebodes the Bolshevik Revolution.

English ivy, a mannerly alien species here, also teases the imagination. Intaglioed with Gothic tracery, the teal-green leaves levitate just above mystical loam. In the twinkling of an eye, I’m pilgrim at Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, whose ruins loom with crisscrossing vines like hosts of hands knitted in prayer.

It’s Richmond’s not-Richmond that grows on me. The invisible Elsewhere just out of reach of Google.