On a quiet road in the village of Oregon there's a traditional white 1800s, two-story house with a shiny, dragon-red front door.
Beside the house is a trellised gateway, over-canopied with rampant moonflower vines. And, beyond the trailing vines is an unexpected sanctuary, nearly hidden from view. It’s surprising, especially as it is next door to a commercial building and a popular restaurant.
Step beneath those moonflowers and through the gate, and you’ll find a garden, but not an ordinary garden. No prim, fussy, hand-tended perennial borders grow in here. You will find a thriving grove of 12-foot-tall banana trees, Blue Hawaii taro (Colocasia esclenta) and voodoo lilies in profusion.
Feathering the nest
The back story: In these troubled times of COVID-19, lots of people have retreated into their own safe havens. In so doing, they found the motivation to finally tackle long overdue tasks around the house. Many realized that feathering one’s nest — really bringing it up to snuff — can make life in seclusion quite enjoyable.
My nest needed lots of feathers —and paint, and repairs, and restorations and renovations. After I did all the essential fixing-up, I turned my attention to the outdoor living area.
I wanted a secluded sanctuary, a comfortable place of R & R & R & R & R & … P, i.e., Retreat, Refuge, Rest, Relaxation, Reading and, when feeling philosophical, Pondering Life’s little mysteries. That was what all the work was about.
First I built a trellised gateway and planted moonflower vine seeds (Ipomoea alba) a species of tropical morning glory with 6-inch, pure white, fragrant night-blooming flowers. Other exotics followed, and the garden soon became a mélange, a wide, sometimes wild, mix of foliage and garden features.
The tropicals were planted right in with the more respectable traditional perennials still surviving in the garden — ferns, violets, iris, tulips, salvia, etc., and a few roses, of course. I thought natural selection would take over. Leave them to grow in harmony or duke it out for dominance. Let’s see what develops. I think Darwin might have been amused.
It did all work out ... somehow. The roses bloomed, and the violets, but the exotics really thrived! You know, stars command attention.
It's hard to ignore an Abyssinian banana Maurelii, whose huge purple and green leaves glow like stained glass when the sun shines through them, or a massive grove of brilliant light green bananas (Musa basjoo), a Japanese variety that is cold-hardy down to minus 3 degrees. Sadly, there will be no bananas; that requires up to 18 months of tropical weather.
Another star of the tropics is the Giant Thai Elephant Ears (Colocasia gigantean), with 30-inch-wide leaves and oddly beautiful white flowers that Paul Gauguin might have painted in his Tahitian period.
The Giant Thai really loved our hot, humid Sumatran summer this year. About those voodoo lilies, a.k.a., devil’s tongue or snake lily (Amorphophallus konjac ), I bet the pristine, virginal lily of the valley would blush scarlet if they knew who was sharing their flower bed.
In a more conservative mood, and inspired by Beatrix Potter, I reworked a small, very English, Mr. McGregor-like garden — domesticated herbs and veggies safely fenced in against the infamously naughty Peter and his nibbling siblings.
I didn't expect miracles, but got something very close — the garden flourished and became almost a real jungle. Lush greenery, towering evergreens and a rustic cypress privacy fence add to the sense of seclusion, retreat, refuge from that other, familiar outer reality …civilization, such as it is. In that sense it’s more of a jungle compound — keeping out the unwelcome, protecting and containing the good things.
Central in the little jungle compound is a covered deck that’s essentially designed for easy living. You know, “the good life,” the freedom to do whatever, whenever, be it sipping and nibbling, napping, studying French, or watching the birds. We’ve made a list of 20-plus species of birds, including two impudent mallard ducks who tried to take charge of the pond.
Teeming with wildlife
Instead of monkeys and pythons, in this jungle there are rabbits — lots of baby bunnies this spring. Two in particular, Benjamin and Babette, are now tame enough to take a piece of carrot from one’s fingers. They show up at the deck, morning and evening, for their treats, sometimes corn on the cob.
There are dizzy-busy chipmunks, the usual pesky squirrels, shy and occasional opossums and only rarely — fortunately — a visiting skunk, and, thankfully, no woodchucks,
We used to have moles and voles but, I think the chipmunks chased them away. And, sighted only once in all the years here, this very spring, an elusive wild mink.
There is a rustic grape arbor for al fresco lunches, shady and cool even in the afternoon heat. The opossums come for the grapes, as do the catbirds and cardinals.
The pond: Why are we so intrigued, so drawn to even the smallest pond? I guess that's one of life’s little mysteries. The pond boasts graceful black goldfish, with long flowing veil tails, that glide among the dwarf Egyptian papyrus and water lilies. A small splashing fountain helps muffle outside noises that might otherwise disturb the serenity.
Then there's the ever-popular bird-bath. You name it and it comes for a dip or a sip. The local sparrows take daily communal baths, all splashing, chirping, squabbling and having a great time like a bunch of rowdy kids. The bird-bath is surrounded by a vigorous growth of spearmint, with enough leaves for a thousand cups of tea — or mint juleps.
Nearly as exotic as the banana grove is a stand of hardy native smooth horsetail (Equisetum laevigatum), looking like slender, well-behaved dwarf bamboo. Horsetail was once prized by early settlers, and, by them, called scouring rush; a handful of stems, with their high silica content, made an ideal cleaning pad for pots and pans — a precursor of Tuffy and Brillo.
I believe that the introduction of the slightly wild, somewhat extravagant tropicals is what did the trick. That's what transformed an otherwise unremarkable garden into an unexpected, overgrown, lush little jungle.
But , there is one thing lacking, only one thing we're still hopeful of. Maybe, just maybe, Tarzan, Jane and Cheetah will swing down on a liana, or one of the moonflower vines, for a visit and a mint julep — or a banana daiquiri.
Till then, regards from the Jungle Compound.
• The author lives and gardens in the village of Oregon, and has been a member of the Lancaster County Garden Club for about 25 years. A longer version of this story appears at LancasterOnline.com/features.
If you know an interesting story, please write it in 600 words or less and send it toMary Ellen Wright, LNP editorial department, P.O. Box 1328, Lancaster, PA, 17608-1328, or email it to email@example.com. Please include your phone number and the name of the town you live in.