Irene Virag's Garden Party

I'm Irene Virag -- a writer, a gardener, a cancer survivor. I think ideas are like plants. They need nurturing to grow. And gardeners share both. So welcome to my blog. It’s all about what’s happening in my garden and beyond.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Slugs in Love -- Not for the Squeamish

A lot of you were intrigued by yesterday’s column. Based on the volume of emails and the comments of readers I ran into in the outside world, I thought you might want to see more photos of the goings on I witnessed on the screen door of my bedroom. In the interest of satisfying your scientific curiosity, here they are, along with the column.

At first glance, it looked like a giant leaf. Maybe that was because I had just woken and my eyes weren’t fully open. It clung to the screen outside the sliding glass door of my bedroom.

I took a closer look and … well, before I go any further, I should issue a warning: The following is s-rated, intended for mature gardeners able to deal with earthy matters concerning slime, sex and –ugh, feh and yuck! – slugs.

To return to the narrative, the leaf was animate, consisting of two of the gastropods known as slugs. I’m no slugologist but I’m pretty sure they were great gray slugs as opposed to, say, banana slugs or red slugs. They were huge with dark spots running like stripes along their gray-brown bodies.

As I stared at them, I remembered a passage by one of my favorite garden writers, Celia Thaxter, who wrote: “It seems to me the worst of all the plagues is the slug, the snail without a shell. He is beyond description, repulsive, a mass of sooty, shapeless slime, and he devours everything.” The slug does just that – munching at will with tiny tooth-like protrusions on its tongue called radula. It even eats other slugs – when they’re dead.

The only mistake Celia made was referring to the slug as “he,” which I’ll explain shortly. At first the slime buckets on my screen stretched side by side, then they gradually curled together, one abov
e the other.

By the time I woke my husband up, they had entwined themselves around each other while they dangled from a thin string that looks like, and is, mucus. If you’re a slug, mucous is very important – it keeps you from drying out, allows you to wriggle safely over sharp objects and offers protection against predatorswho have difficulty dealing with it and helps species like great gray slugs from sliding down vertical surfaces.

My husband, who has an instinct for these things, did a double-take. “They’re getting it on,” he said, except he was a little less delicate. I had suspected as much but didn’t want to think about slugs in love. Or even in lust. I don’t say this out of prudery, but because I don’t want to feel any tender mercies about these all-consuming plant-eaters.

Anyway, there they were twisting and dangling. Now – and don’t say I didn’t warn you – things got a little kinky.
Slugs are hermaphrodites, they have both male and female reproductive organs.

And spurred by scientific curiosity, my husband and I watched as the mating pair extruded their genetalia, wrapped them around one another, and exchanged sperm in a poof of blue.

Soon they retracted everything and hung from the thinning cord. I have since learned that some slugs take part in a practice called apophalliation, in which one does a Loreena Bobbit on the other – thus forcing it to remain totally female for the rest of its days. And yes, some slugs can fertilize themselves.

Any gardener who gets down in the dirt is privy to the intimate details of pistils and stamens, of pollination and reproduction. As well as the goings-on of feathered and four-footed creatures. Amorous squirrels chase each other up and down trees and along fences throughout the spring, birds nest and rabbits carry on like, well, rabbits. As long-time readers know, swans have mated against my glass front door and snapping turtles have laid eggs in my yard.

But nothing could have prepared me for the great gray slugs engaged on my bedroom screen.

As their slimy cord stretched, my tale became something of a morality play. Pretty soon, they would fall, push off and produce eggs – hundreds of them. My husband and I often carry spiders and crickets out of the house and are currently refraining from cutting the grass around a colony of ground-nesting bees. When safeguards fail, we share our lettuce with rabbits and our squash with squirrels. Our garden as well as our lawn is organic.

But when it comes to slugs, there is a consideration that is both personal and cosmic. Would we turn hundreds of slugs loose upon our yard and the world? You bet your sweet patootie we wouldn’t. I’ve corresponded and talked to people who dispatch slugs – often in the dead of night – with knives, scissors, homemade spears, sharp spades, ammonia, salt, vinegar and beer. Or who trap them and throw them into the middle of the road and let motorists do the rest. I even read about someone who stabs slugs with a screwdriver. And a fellow who came to install central air-conditioning recently told us about a friend who swallowed a slug to win a $50 bet.

We did nothing like that. We gave the slugs a choice. We put a bowl of beer beneath them. They didn’t absolutely have to fall into it. If they had any sense, they’d swing left or right and miss it.

Most gardeners would agree that my story has a happy ending. They fell right in.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Remembering Judy Zuk

Just a couple of weeks ago, I spent a lovely summer day at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, enthralled by the water lilies and the roses and the crape myrtles. I’m so glad I did.

Today I learned that Judith D. Zuk – who led the garden with grace and elegance for more than 15 years – died over the weekend.

Judy was my sister in the sorority no one wants to pledge – the sisterhood of women scarred by breast cancer. And she was my friend in the way all gardeners are friends – connected by our love of the earth between our fingers, by our wonder at a sprouting seed and the miracle of the bulbs.

I met Judy my first week on the job as Newsday’s garden columnist. When it came to horticulture, I was as green as a tree leafing out in spring. But the president of BBG walked around the garden with me. That’s the way she was. And from that moment, I never missed a chance to visit.

Judy called me when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And a few years later, I called her when she was diagnosed. My scars healed. Hers didn’t – her cancer metastasized and eventually claimed her life at the age of 55.

But not her spirit. You can see it and feel it in the 52-acre public garden where she cultivated her passion for plants. Where under her watchful eye, innovative programs took root – such as Brooklyn GreenBridge, a community-based effort that teaches composting and conservation and shares seeds and bulbs throughout the borough, and Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment, a themed public high school that weaves academic subjects and environmental issues. And where gardens in every nook and cranny were restored and enhanced – the Children’s Garden, which is the oldest in the nation, and the Lily Pool, the Fragrance Garden, the Cranford Rose Garden and the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden.

And where the magnolia garden was named for her when she retired in 2005. Judy loved magnolias and the plaza in front of the Administration Building blooms in spring with the magnificent flowers of 17 different varieties.

One of them is Magnolia x Judy Zuk. Its golden yellow blossom touched at the base with a hint of plum was created at BBG and named for the woman who was the fifth president in the garden’s 100-year history.

I thought about Judy when I walked through the magnolia plaza on my recent visit. I promised her I’d come again in the spring when her favorite flower is in bloom.

As it turns out, I'll be at the garden before then. I'll be there for her memorial service on September 23.

Photo credits:
*Portrait of Judith Zuk by The Lindner Studio, courtesy of Brooklyn Botanic Garden
*Magnolia x Judy Zuk by Patrick Cullina, courtesy of Brooklyn Botanic Garden
*Judith D. Zuk Magnolia Plaza by Leeann Lavin, courtesy of Brooklyn Botanic Garden

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