First-year mullein
First-year mullein

Get Plant Tough: What the Jalapeno Taught Me

We’ve all hit rough patches in our life. I’m going through one right now; hell, even as I write this I’m not sure how to continue. Fortunately, when I need to find inspiration I only need to look to my backyard. That’s where my garden is, and I can see one tough jalapeno who won’t stay down.

I admire plants. They are tenacious, hardy, and constantly seek to grow. Plants are unable to pick themselves up and step away from the scorching heat.

“Plants are unable to pick themselves up and step away from the scorching heat. They can’t run to the tap and get a drink of water. Plants work toward their growth with a steadfast, plodding approach.”

They can’t run to the tap and get a drink of water when thirsty.

Even when faced with parasites, predators, and predation, they simply endure. Plants work toward their growth with a steadfast plodding approach.

Examine the Saguaro Cactus of the Sonoran Desert, an iconic image of the American southwest. Although these spiny survivors can reach heights of seventy feet tall, it takes them ten years to grow their first inch. They are the plant-based inspiration for building a solid foundation inch by inch.

Mullein only grows in areas of compacted and unhealthy soil. It is a biennial, a plant completing its life cycle over a period of two years. The first year of growth establishes the velvet-leaved plant in an area, but the second year of growth allows it to reach towering heights of six feet or more. And when this plant dies, its massive volume biodegrades and replenishes minerals in the soil allowing other plants to take a firm footing. Talk about inspiration for making the most of a bad situation.

The Bristlecone Pine is the oldest living tree on the planet, and it thrives in harsh alpine environments. It favors poor soil and tends to develop a gnarled appearance because of the strong, constant winds it encounters on the tops of mountains. Bristlecone pines grow above the timber line; that is to say, they grow above an area where almost any other tree and shrub finds conditions to be inhospitable. These trees survive constant onslaughts from top-of-the-world conditions, but it’s a climate where only the strongest can survive.

But you don’t need to breach the deserts and climb up mountains to learn that plants are hardy survivors.

That jalapeno in my backyard is a perfect example. A few weeks ago I was harvesting peppers from the plant for my jambalaya. Maybe one day I’ll share the recipe with you guys.

When I reached one particular plant I was shocked to discover that the great majority of its leaves were missing. I was dumbfounded because earlier that morning I watered these plants and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.

A fast inspection revealed this bastard; the tomato hornworm.

This guy ate about 80% of an entire jalapeno plant in one day. After a bout of swearing and incredulous foot stomping (I exaggerate only slightly) I removed the caterpillar from its meal ticket. I was doubly frustrated because I grew these plants from seed.

Tomato Hornworm

Flash forward a few weeks. That pepper plant has recovered entirely. Not only are there new leaves sprouting from every once-nibbled stalk, it’s producing fruit again. A too-wet spring, scorching summer, and an insatiable predator couldn’t stop this guy from pushing new growth.

Plants, like people, have a way of bouncing back. My jalapeno plant suffered from the hornworm. When the problem was removed and the plant given a chance it continued growing and producing. It’s the same story if people remove a toxic element from their life and continue soldiering on.

If my jalapeno can suffer massive die-back and still bounce back to its full vigor, why can’t I?

Take a breath and repeat after me: “People can learn from plants.”

It may be a model of patience taught by the saguaro, of capitalization taught by mullein, or fortitude at the top of the world by the bristlecone pine, plants are an inspiration to the person willing to appreciate it.

The jalapeno plant pushing out new growth after devastating damage is inspiring. Here is a plant chomped down in its prime, and it continues to push forward with gusto. It’s not hard to draw parallels to more conventional sources of inspiration (Robert Downey Jr. and Bruce Lee come immediately to mind).

Give it some thought, and if you need more proof to why plants are badass and inspiring, grow a few of your own.

If there’s one takeaway from everything you’ve read it’s this; you can keep moving forward even when things are at their bleakest. Saguaro cacti, mullein, bristlecone pine, and jalapeno only know how to keep moving forward. Now that’s a lesson worth remembering.