The Easter Basil

Life is beautiful — even for plants.

Life is pretty amazing. And I don’t just mean the human experience between birth and death that we call life, either. I’m talking about the sheer physical and biological act of sustaining life. And I’ve got a vibrantly green, three-inch basil plant in my living room that shows how marvelous it is.

This plant literally bursts with life — every inch explodes with baby leaves. If this plant had feet, it would be doing the cha-cha and jitterbugging and tap dancing all at the same time. If it could sing, its tiny voice would fill the room with the Hallelujah Chorus. This plant is fully, deeply, exuberantly alive.

Which is a miracle, considering it was all but dead a few weeks ago.

I’ve doted on my basil plants ever since I got one three years ago as a gift. Whenever that first plant got big enough, I’d snip off the healthiest looking branches and coax them to root on their own. I’d carefully coat the still-living stalks of the cuttings with a special chemical that would make them grow roots. And I kept going until I had five of these plants living in my apartment.

But they all started dying last December. One after another, they succumbed to the cold leeching through a nearby window. By the time I realized the temperature was the culprit, it had killed three of them and maimed the two others.

I rushed the wounded plants to my parent’s house at Christmas. Between my mom’s horticultural skill and my dad’s plant center (his homemade haven for plants resembles the offspring of a coffee table and a tanning bed), the injured plants soon started growing again. But despite their few newly-grown leaves, they had a long way to go.

The main stalk of the worst-off plant looked black and dried-up, like a three-inch twig someone had stuck in a flowerpot. At its very top, a six-inch-long green arm of a branch thrust out at a right angle and curved upward. It, too, was bare up to its very end — where the last inch erupted into big, healthy new leaves.

The scraggly plant kept growing after I took it home, miraculously wicking water and nutrients through that dead stalk. Soon, it had grown so much I was afraid its twig of a stem would snap under the weight. I had to make another cutting. Fast.

I carefully cut a few inches off its top, leaving enough big leaves to keep it alive. I didn’t have the chemical to force it to root, so I submerged the bottom of the stem in a glass of water. I had never gotten a plant to root this way, but it seemed like the only option.

The tiny cutting was not happy. Water from its glass kept overflowing and leaving the stalk high and dry. I was frantic — I knew it would die if it stayed out of water for long. I took the cutting out of the water and tried planting it in old seed-starting potting mix. I thought that if I kept it wet enough, the cutting might finally grow roots and save itself. I was wrong. Terribly wrong.

After three days, there were still no roots. Instead, the end of the stem was starting to rot. Its once-beautiful emerald leaves drooped like overcooked spaghetti. Even its stalk was going limp. The plant was dying. If it wasn’t dead already.

But I couldn’t give up. I put it back in water, this time in a container (a used spice bottle I found in the recycling bin) that made it easy to keep the stalk underwater. But that was all I could do: if the plant were going to survive, it would have to bring itself back to life.

Imagine being half-dead. No, scratch that — imagine being three-quarters dead. Imagine that somebody has cut out your lungs. And now imagine wanting to live so badly that you literally will your body to grow new ones.

That’s the kind of will to live this plant had.

Roots! It was growing roots! I had started a half-dozen of these cuttings before, but I had never watched the miracle of DNA where stalk cells start to multiply and turn into root cells. Within a week, the submerged end of the stem had grown about 50 hearty little root strands, each one about half an inch long. I planted it rich, wet potting soil and set it near a lamp.

The stalk became firm and stretched towards the light. The limp leaves grew crisp again. I couldn’t see the roots anymore, but I knew they were healthy, too — they were sending water and nutrients to the dozens of tiny new leaves cropping up all over the plant.

Every year around this time, I think about what it means to resurrect yourself. I try to fathom the experience of dying for three days, and then pulling yourself out of your grave by faith and sheer force of will. This year, I think I understand for the first time.

Article © 2003 by Michael Duck