It makes perfect sense that bloodleaf should be growing well in the garden that surrounds the classroom of Joe Montanez at Alfred Nobel Middle School in Northridge. Montanez has been a horticulture instructor for 35 years, a clear indication that teaching students about plants is, well, in his blood.
Bloodleaf (Iresine herbstii) is an excellent plant for first time gardeners. It is more forgiving than most plant species, growing well in sunny locations but tolerating shade, too, as demonstrated in the Nobel Middle School garden. Bloodleaf foliage does show different colors, however, depending on the amount of light it receives, showing off pink to scarlet hues in the sun while assuming darker, burgundy tones in the shade.
Bloodleaf is a classic illustration of an important botanical principle. When it comes to animals — and people, too, for that matter — nature or a person’s genetic make up is as important as nurture or environment when it comes to determining individual traits. With plants, however, nurture is all important. Leaf pigmentation changes in response to light as does flowering, which will be vastly reduced if not eliminated when a plant that favors lots of sun is grown in the shade.
Plants also distinguish themselves as compared to human beings when it comes to their response to the care lavished upon them. Among people, unrequited love and disappointment are not unusual. With plants, on the other hand, there is nearly always a direct correlation between the care that you provide and the positive feedback you receive. A well tended plant is happy, as gardeners say, growing to its full potential.
This lesson in plant care is not lost on Montanez as his focus is on inculcating generosity of spirit among his students, which number around 200 (divided into six classes) each semester. These students earn class points by working in the gardens at their own homes, much to the delight of their parents. Prominently displayed on a classroom bulletin board under the rubric “Character is . . .” are descriptions of six qualities found in those of outstanding character, including “caring,” defined by Montanez as “being kind, helpful, and generous to everyone.” Such a person will “find ways to help others without being asked.”
Another uniquely plant principle, unseen in the animal world, that bloodleaf readily illustrates is totipotency. Totipotency refers to the capacity of single cells to develop into complete organisms. Every cell of a plant, properly primed, has the capacity to transform itself into a full blown replicate of the original. That’s right. If you took a single cell from the root or from the leaf of your oak tree, and found the right combination of elements to inject into an incubated test tube holding those cells, you would soon see tiny leaves and roots sprouting from each cell.
Just as single cells can be transformed into whole plants, so much more so can larger portions of plants be cloned, too. Bloodleaf is one of the easiest plants to propagate. Four to six inch terminal cuttings of bloodleaf stems, with leaves attached, quickly root in soil or even in a glass of water. And keep in mind that bloodleaf is highly suitable as an indoor plant where ambient light is plentiful.
I arrived at Nobel Middle School by traversing Devonshire Street between the San Diego (405) Freeway and Tampa Avenue. I had not driven that way in years and was witness to a sad surprise. On both sides of Devonshire, what had been long stretches of green grass were now reduced to brown stubble or just plain dirt. Truth be told, more and more front yards throughout the Valley have suffered a similar fate.
In the opinion of Montanez, the ongoing drought and water rationing have become an excuse for laziness. Rather than finding a way of maintaining a lawn with three waterings a week – an achievable goal with proper turf variety selection, rotary sprinklers, regular aeration following by application of a thin layer of finished compost, and a tolerance for some brown out during the summer – lawn sprinklers have simply been turned off. Yet, after the lawn dies, nothing has come to take its place. Alternative ways of covering ground once occupied by lawns certainly exist. You could plant succulents or native plants or any of a variety of drought tolerant ground covers but. instead, nothing is done.
It’s as though the drought is being used as an excuse for neglect. Money can also be saved by withholding water from areas once covered by grass and by not having to pay a gardener to mow it. And no one can protest this turn of events, it seems, since it can all be excused by the drought and, especially, water rationing.
For Martinez, maintaining a garden is a matter of pride and that is another message he continuously drums into his students. It’s as though he takes the mission God gave to Adam and, by extension, to all who came after him, with the utmost seriousness. As stated in Genesis (2:15), “God took Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to maintain it.” God could have placed Adam in a boat next to the sea and told him to fish or placed him in a forest with a bow and arrow and told him to hunt. But God clearly wanted us in the garden and Montanez, with his persistence in passing down the importance of horticulture, together with its mandate for caring, is living proof of that.
Tip of the Week: One of the most elegant trees you can grow, if not too often seen in the Valley, is the queen palm, famous for its smooth green upper trunk. There are two queen palms (Syagrus romanzoffiana) growing side by side in the Nobel Middle School garden. Montanez planted them from seed twenty years ago and he clearly found the ideal spot for them, as they enjoy a significant measure of heat and cold protection thanks to a majestic pine tree that towers overhead. The reason queen palms are seldom seen in the west Valley is because they are somewhat sensitive to the occasionally extreme heat and cold experienced there, as opposed to the more moderate climate in places like Pasadena, Hollywood, and West Los Angeles, where queen palms are commonly seen fully exposed to the elements. The same could be said for Kentia palms (Howea forsteriana), a shade loving species I had never previously seen outdoors in the west Valley, that Montanez and his students grow to perfection under that same pine tree.