I suppose every gardener has had their share of misadventures. Things that didn’t turn out quite right or even went terribly wrong. Pruning off the good branch instead of the dead one, planting a “mystery plant” only to discover it was a pernicious weed, accidentally knocking the ladder to the ground while you’re on the roof cleaning the gutters, etc. I’ve done all those and more.
However, only once did I even consider calling 911 to help me out of a gardening situation, and that was years ago, when I decided to prune my turquoise puya (Puya berteroniana).
A Plant for Centenarians Plus
Don’t ask me why I was growing this plant. I must have found some seed on sale somewhere and felt the need to sprout it. (Even to this day, I’m pretty much incapable of not sowing any seed I come across.) It turns out to be a very easy plant to grow from seed as a houseplant in a sunny window.
It’s a terrestrial bromeliad. Think of a pineapple plant, with the same rosette shape, but with thinner and more numerous leaves … all lined with terribly hooked spines. Eventually, it does produce a spike of superb turquoise flowers, seeds, then dies, it’s life’s work over. However, it’s said to take up to 100 years to reach blooming, so that was something I was never expecting to see.
Removing Lower Leaves
Over time, my plant had developed quite a number of dead and dying lower leaves and I thought I’d do a bit of cleanup. I’ve found that with leaves that wrap around the base of the plant, the best way to remove them is to cut them fairly short with pruners, then split what’s left of the leaf lengthwise. That you can usually pull off one half of the leaf entirely by yanking in one direction, then get the other off by pulling the opposite way. So I boldly reached under the plant and began pruning and pulling, pruning and pulling.
I was watching out for the thorns, of course, but was inevitably scratched or hooked now and then. Then, suddenly, my hand really was hooked. Soon thorns had snagged my wrist too. I was stuck! I started to use my other hand to work the first one free, but soon it was locked in as well. In fact, the more I struggled, the more the thorns dug in. There was now blood flowing from various little puncture holes. I thought of trying to work my foot under the pot so I could push it way, but I was barefoot. Did I really want my foot tangled in as well? (At some point, there is a limit to being stupid!) What to do?
Do I Call 911?
I could have called 911 and indeed considered it. We had a push-button phone and I could have knocked off the receiver (this was back in the 1980s: no mobile phones yet!) and certainly could have dialed 911 with my toes or elbow. And the front door was unlocked, so no door to break down. But … how could I explain to the emergency responder that I needed help because my hands were stuck in a plant? Besides, my father-in-law was the local fire chief and certainly would certainly have come. Did I really want to drop even further in his esteem?
So, instead I sat down at the kitchen table, the potted puya resting in front of me, and waited until my wife got home about two hours later. She simply chopped the leaves off with the pruner. No finesse here: she paid no attention to the plant’s future state of health … and rightly so. Two hours of thought had gone into the subject and it was now clear I could easily live without a Puya bertoensis in my collection.
After the plant was finally free and in the garbage, we both worked on removing the leaves sticking to my arms and hands. At least the spines didn’t break off and remain in the skin. After a session of iodine painting and wound dressing, I was almost like new.
No Longer a Puya Hugger
It was more an embarrassing situation than a serious one … but I no longer prune spiny plants without wearing long-sleeved, thorn-resistant gloves … and nor do I do so when no one else is at home, just in case!