Slower Than Molasses in January

Garden plants can test one’s patience.

January 15 is the anniversary of Boston’s Great Molasses Flood of 1919. Just after lunchtime on that fatal day, a five-story-high storage tank in Boston’s North End, filled to bursting with 2.5 million gallons of molasses, popped its seams. A forty-foot tidal wave of molasses burst outward, crushing buildings, toppling the tracks of the elevated train, shoving houses off their foundations, and killing 21 people and any number of horses. By the time it slowed to a sluggish crawl in the January chill, a half-mile swath of Boston was waist-deep in molasses.

Clean-up took weeks, even with hundreds of volunteers—police, firefighters, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and ordinary citizens—collaborating to scoop molasses off the Boston cobblestones. Even after a fireboat in Boston Harbor had washed away the last of it, Boston’s North End smelled of molasses for months—some say years—afterward.

It’s not certain when “slower than molasses in January” first showed up as a synonym for excruciatingly slow. One of its earliest appearances in print dates to 1872 in reference to the foot-dragging pace at which the then-current Congress was dealing with government scandal and corruption (there’s nothing new under the sun); and in 1886, the phrase was used to describe the poky velocity of Milwaukee streetcars. The truth of the matter though is—at least when given a push from behind—molasses in January can move along at a pretty good clip. The Molasses Flood, according to calculations after the fact, barreled through the streets at a speed of 35 miles per hour, which is faster than any of us can run or ride a bicycle.

A prime characteristic of molasses is that it’s viscous—a quality that measures how fast something pours. Water, for example, has a viscosity of 1—that is, it sploshes out of a watering can or spigot with no trouble at all. Comparatively, olive oil, which is thicker and oozier, has a viscosity of 56; honey, of 2,000; molasses of 5,000-10,000; and ketchup—think of all the times you’ve had to pound on the ketchup bottle—of 50,000 and up.

Most viscous of all— at 230 billion—is pitch, a tar derivative that has made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the star of the world’s longest-running experiment. Started in 1927 at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, this consists of watching a sample of pitch as it drips out of a funnel—which it does at the rate of one drip every 7 to 13 years.

“Slower than pitch drips”—now that’s slow.

More commonly, we compare anything notably slow-paced and boring—say, golf games, traffic jams, or big chunks of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey—to watching the grass grow. On the average lawn, this admittedly isn’t very exciting: grass usually grows about a tenth of an inch a day, though if conditions are just right it can put in extra effort and crank itself up to a daily fifth of an inch. And if conditions aren’t right—or example, if the temperature is too high or too low—grass goes dormant and refuses to grow at all.

Even maximally growing grass seems nippy in comparison to what most agree is the world’s slowest growing plant: Puya raimondii, a towering member of the Bromeliad family and a relative of the pineapple. A native of Bolivia and Peru, P. raimondii, nicknamed Queen of the Andes, can reach over 30 feet in height—most of that its outlandish flower stalk. It doesn’t actually produce flowers, though, until it’s over eighty years old—hence its slow reputation—so if you’ve managed to acquire one of its rare seeds, don’t expect anything to happen soon.

Similarly slow is the saguaro cactus, a prickly behemoth native to Arizona, areas of California, and Mexico. It grows just an inch or so in its first ten years of life, and only produces flowers once it reaches the age of sixty.

On the opposite end of the scale, the world’s fastest growing plant is generally thought to be bamboo, some species of which can pack on a yard or so of height a day—or about an inch and a half an hour. (You can sit and watch it.) Alternatively, fastest grower on the planet may be duckweed, a teeny aquatic floating plant that thrives on the surface of freshwater ponds and lakes, often to the annoyance of pond owners and lake dwellers. Ducks eat it, hence its name. It consists of a single lentil-sized leaf and a wisp of a root, and it can double its mass in just one to two days.

This means that duckweed, in record time, has the potential for making a lot more duckweed. Think of the old rice-grains-on-the-chessboard story, in which a king agrees to pay a sage in rice: one grain for the first square on the chessboard, two for the second, four for the third, eight for the fourth, and so on, doubling each time for the full 64 squares on the board. It’s a cautionary lesson in exponents: steadily doubling, by square 64, the horrified king would have owed the sage 18 quintillion grains—or 210 billion tons—of rice. Given its growth rate, scientists point out that all that doubling duckweed is wasted as duck chow—and might also serve as an effective source of protein for people or as an eco-friendly biofuel.

So what about growth rates in the garden?

Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad picture books feature balanced, optimistic, and commonsensical Frog and downbeat and easily upset Toad, who flies off the handle when confronted with such life challenges as lost buttons, melting ice-cream cones, and lack of willpower over cookies. He also has trouble waiting for the mail to arrive and when he plants a garden—despite a lot of calm and sensible advice from Frog—he’s driven wild when his seeds don’t instantly sprout. (“NOW SEEDS! START GROWING!” he bellows.)

In all gardeners—you know it’s true—there’s always a bit of Toad.

For the chronically impatient, the fastest grower in the garden is probably mustard greens, whose peppery leaves can be ready to pick and eat in 20 days—or radishes, which can be yanked up and eaten as little as three weeks after planting. But speed-wise that’s about as good as it gets. Beets, broccoli, peas, and cucumbers all take 50 days or more to reach the picking stage; potatoes, pumpkins, melons, and Brussels sprouts can take 100. Gardening takes time. Some things are just … slow.

Even slower is Winter, which isn’t called the slow season for nothing. Once we toss the New Year’s silly hats and champagne bottles, it’s a long cold slog until Spring. Here in Vermont, the lake is frozen, snow drifts pile up along the porch, the roads are icy, and the cats have lost all interest in the frigid out-of-doors. We need boots to walk to the mailbox. It gets dark well before suppertime.

It’s a good time to curl up next to the woodstove and practice patience.

We’re going to need it when gardening season comes around again.


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