Chickens and Coleus

A 40-year family tradition, started by a kit.

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In the early summer after my freshman year of college, on a whim, I purchased a kit for growing coleus plants. It was a rectangular plastic container, with a yellow bottom and a clear top. There were markings for six holes in the top. The bottom section was filled with vermiculite, a light, small-particle growing medium for plants.

We’ll get to those chickens.

I took the kit home to my mother and announced that I wanted to grow coleus. My mother nodded. We followed the instructions, which were simple. Get a pencil. Punch the sharp end through the six hole spots in the top, one at a time. Add water. Wait.

After three weeks, the multicolored plants broke the surface of the vermiculite. There were a lot of them, maybe one hundred, all very tiny, each with two minute leaves.

I went straight to the backyard to see my beautiful plants. But something was wrong.

I watched and waited for them to grow. They grew much more slowly than I thought they should.

My mother, being the family plant expert, came to me one day and said that we needed to transplant the coleus; they had become too big for the kit. We put them in planters and individual pots and set them out in the backyard. When the plants were put in real potting soil, they began to grow much more rapidly than before.

One morning after breakfast, my mother said, “Come look at your coleus.” They were each eight to ten inches tall, with leaves four inches across. The leaves were all different colors, some with symmetrical patterns, some with random patterns. There were combinations of vibrant red, purplish red, white, pink, yellows, and greens. I couldn’t stop looking at them. I was proud. What once were little seeds in a 99¢ plant kit were now regulation coleus plants. They were pretty, real pretty.

Now the chickens. My brother was a bird fancier and that summer he had some chickens in the backyard. The chickens used to wander all over the yard. They would do what chickens do: Peck and scratch.

One afternoon, I arrived home and went straight to the backyard to see my beautiful plants. But something was wrong. Every leaf on every plant had been torn. There were pieces of the leaves in the potting soil. They were ruined. All of them.

I went into the kitchen where my mother was making dinner and asked what had happened to the coleus. We went to the porch and looked at them. She guessed that it must have been the chickens.

I was so angry I wanted to kill those birds. But what would that do but hurt my brother, and he hadn’t done anything.

My mother said, “It’s a shame. But they’ll grow back.”

I put the planters on our picnic tables, so the chickens wouldn’t get them. My mother was right, they did grow back. And because the chickens had damaged the leaves, the coleus branched out and became much more lush than they would have been. I was proud again (but still wary of those chickens).

For the rest of that summer and early fall, I enjoyed those coleus. Each year after, my mother and I would grow coleus in the summer. Some times she would buy fancy ones at the local nursery, sometimes we would save the seeds and start our own just like the first ones. But we always had coleus.

When I moved across the country, my mother would send me photographs of the coleus. I grew some of my own in pots on my balcony and sent photographs of them back to her.

In early 2000, my mother began to show signs of dementia, which was later diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease. As the condition progressed, she slowly drifted away. An avid letter writer, she stopped. A baker and cake decorator, she stopped. When I called my parents each week on the telephone, my father talked, my mother listened. We didn’t talk about coleus.

Still, I planted some each year on my balcony. It kept my mother close to me.

When my mother passed away, I neglected to plant any coleus. This year, for the first time since my mother’s death almost five years ago, I planted 14 coleus plants. They have grown lush and tall in pots on my balcony.

When I look at them, I remember her letters, describing her coleus, and her photographs of them. I remember how we used to go out in the backyard just to look at them. I remember how she used to pinch the seedpods off the plants to let the colored leaves grow. I remember my mother.

Looking back at that spur of the moment decision to get that plant kit, I’m astonished that a little 99¢ investment turned into a 40-year family ritual. It was a bond that only my mother and I shared. I miss it. Most of all, I miss my mother.

I don’t think much about those chickens at all.


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