The Elephant on the Patio




Beautiful and silly, these elephant ears. Do your ears hang low, do they wobble to and fro? Close my eyes and I can see the elephant that inspired them, wrinkly brownish gray, standing in the middle of our concrete-slab patio with improbable grace. They are sanguine creatures, thick-skinned and self-content, yet sensitive, good at family. Orphaned baby elephants cannot sleep unless someone cuddles next to them.

This plant needs cuddling, too. Every time a young outer leaf emerges, it turns yellow a day later. I snip these leaves off fast, unable to bear their sick sight. There is nothing worse than caring about suffering you cannot relieve, and this plant has plagued me for weeks now. She is healthy, shiny, huge, but every few days another leaf goes limp. I am losing her bit by bit, and I am tempted to shove her to the corner rather than obsess for the rest of the summer.

Instead, I fuss like a nervous mother. If I could, I would swaddle the giant plant in lambswool and cradle her in my arms. Such inappropriate love would probably suffocate her. That was one of the most depressing realizations of my early adulthood: that love is not an automatic solution; that people can love and still hurt whoever, whatever, they love. Well-meaning, we humans are, paving our way to hell with every misguided remark or gesture.

Dead weight bends the leaf’s stalk into a deep bow, and the yellow tip skirts gray concrete. The leaf is mottled, still splotched with green, and the new bright yellow-tinged brown at the edges. A piece at the stem has torn—such violence, like a ripped t-shirt after an assault. But who attacked? Or is the damage coming from within?

Either way, it is my fault. The other leaves are gloriously huge, branching like small flat trees, the curved ribs pale at the top and dark on the sides. A lower leaf catches shade from the leaf above it, doubling its ruffled edge; below the shadow, a bright curve of green. The texture is almost leathery—how appropriate. A tiny ant navigates what must seem like a mountain ridge, and a fly rounds the pot’s faux terra cotta rim like a ballerina, placing its filament legs just so. A cloud passes, turning the top leaf the gray-green of dull jade. How big it is: a lily pad for a crocodile. Smaller leaves encircle the bigger stalks like teenage groupies, and the smallest leaves poke their way into the space between the big stalks the way a toddler tries to be part of her parents’ hug.

The plant, call her Ellie, is tropical, exotic, stolen from the rainforest by greedy admirers and carried to a climate not her own. Though she was one of those desired and cosseted immigrants, like a princess or a nuclear physicist, she cannot feel at home here. How much does she remember, this elephant? Thrust first into baked clay from an alien soil, she is now tightly encircled (by my lazy, shameful choice) with a synthetic material that is hot and wobbly and impossible for her to recognize. When she cannot stand the strangeness one more minute, she blanches a leaf, lets it droop or singe or wilt, because attention must be paid. It is the only compensation for a lost birthright.

Ellie’s family name is Araceae. One of her cousins, Illustris, has dark, almost black leaves with bright green veins. If I ever figure out how to placate Ellie, I might try one of those, too. Or Mojito, which has leaves flecked with black, or Elena, who is chartreuse, or Metalhead, who is iridescent. Such richness in nature, taken for granted and now diminishing faster than we can believe.

I have watered this plant copiously, backed off watering, fed her miracles, scooted her huge pot inch by inch toward more light. I feel like an ardent suitor who cannot win my love’s heart. Cheeks flushed with heat and shame, I reach for my phone again. Earlier, I googled and found this sage bit of guidance: If elephant ear leaves turn yellow, it could mean that they need more sunlight, or it could mean they need less; more water, or less; more fertilizer, or less. Now I try again, find a better article, and scribble ideas in a garden notebook.

Dappled light, she likes. I rise and scoot her back a few feet, tugging the canna lilies along with her. She also prefers acidic soil and lots of fertilizer and does not mind being puddled in water, so I dump on rhododendron food and douse her with the hose. A greedy diva, this Ellie. But we all need what we need, and I so want her to thrive. She exists on a bigger scale than I usually allow myself, in the garden or anywhere else. Taller than me already, she towers over the canna lilies, lending them a shade they may not want. They are hungrier for light than she is—they eat theirs straight. But kindness cannot always be customized.

At least they shelter each other, their jumbo pots nudged close to keep them stable even in the King Lear storms unleashed of late. Ellie and the Cannas—perfect name for a band. The sun drops lower, outlining the biggest stalks and making a nimbus around the fuzzy pompons waiting to bloom into lilies. Ellie hides her envy. She may never bloom at all. But her presence lends them grandeur as well as shade.

Without warning, the sky darkens, and the wind pushes my notebook’s pages back at me. A storm is brewing—I picture Macbeth’s witches stirring up newts and blind-worms, bat wool and owlets’ wings. Poor Ellie. A tiny piece of rainforest stuck half the world away, no canopy for shelter, wind loud in her leafy ears and drying all her moisture. Her leaves are agitated now, not graceful, and they take on an eerie glow in the weird light. No joy left, just a dim illumination, dull and opaque. Danger is rarely transparent.

When lightning tears the sky, I grab my phone and notebook and head inside. The storm passes. The next morning, instead of a new yellow leaf, I find a tight green scroll shooting up the center of the plant, a leaf ready to unfurl and from the look of it, already huge. So much can seem a miracle when you look closely. Was it the acidic fertilizer? The rainstorm? I vow to stop writing off my failures and research every damned plant in the garden, all these small wonders I have shoved into the earth with only a strip of plastic—an estimated height and a circle either yellow or half-yellow half-black—to guide me.

Never give up on anything that lives.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.