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Thursday, February 11, 2021

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY: KILLER WEEDS

 


 

By Margaret S. Hamilton

 

Last August, I was immersed in writing a short story about giant hogweed, a toxic plant expanding its range to the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Giant hogweed sap has deadly side-effects; the plants require professional eradication procedures, including treating or removing the soil in which it was growing.

 

E.B. Davis, our intrepid blog manager, alerted me to a submission call for SEEDS, the weekly newsletter of the Texas Gardener’s organization. Michael Bracken had requested 1000-word stories about horticulture, without using common tropes like a body buried in the garden.

 

I kept the core elements of my original “Killer Weeds” story and stripped it to 1000 words. Bracken liked it, but because marijuana cultivation was a key factor in the story, he wasn’t sure the topic was appropriate for his Texas readers. Whoops! I did a fast turnaround and made the gardener’s friend Bea a victim of her nefarious cousin. Bracken accepted the revised version and it appeared in the January 20th issue of SEEDS. Texas Gardener's Seeds (constantcontact.com)

 

As the story opens, master gardener Nan Bassett finds something amiss in what had been a native wildflower garden:

 

Nan stepped closer to the tall weeds, topped by what resembled dainty composite flower heads of Queen Anne’s lace. Easily twelve to fifteen feet tall, the white flowers formed an umbrella shape two-and-a-half feet across. Nan squinted at the hollow green stems, dotted with purple splotches and coarse white hairs. Her gut churned, and beads of sweat formed on her forehead.

 

Giant hogweed, which is on the Federal and Ohio noxious weeds list, is similar to other weeds, though its height and noxious sap causing burns and blisters make it stand out in the landscape. It prefers wet areas in ditches and stream beds. Because I routinely find cow parsnip and wild parsnip in my Cincinnati garden, in addition to Queen Anne’s Lace, I keep a comparison chart of giant hogweed relatives handy:

 

Giant Hogweed and Lookalikes: Giant Hogweed: Horticulture: APH: Maine ACF

 

Mindful of my Texas gardening audience, I set the second scene of the story in the garden of Bea’s family home:

 

Bea’s sister, who didn’t know a dahlia from a daisy, planted her display beds with rigid rows of petunias, begonias, and salvia, bordered by striped green and white hostas. Nan preferred Bea’s luxuriant herbaceous (perennials) border behind the garage.

 

The story ends happily for everyone except the marijuana-growing cousin.

 


 

 

Stripping a story (or chapter) to its core essence and then adding emotion, dialogue, and narrative will be a tool I’ll use in the future. Instead of rejecting the story, Bracken was kind enough to consider a revised version. It was the first time I had collaborated with an editor on anything other than minor tweaks and I appreciated his input. And I am now mindful of knowing my reading audience before I submit my stories.

 

Photos: Margaret Hamilton Turkevich, Shaker Trace Nursery, part of the Hamilton County, Ohio, Parks Department dedicated to collecting prairie and wetland seeds for habitat restoration.

 

 

 

 

13 comments:

Jim Jackson said...

Congratulations on having your story published. It shows how flexibility can win the day.

Annette said...

Congrats on the publication! And giant hogweed terrifies me since I'm along that Ohio-Pennsylvania border and live near wetlands. Keeping my eyes open for it.

Kait said...

Delightful!

Michael is a wonderful writer and teacher. Now I know he’s a wonderful editor. Read and loved the Giant Hogweed story. Quite the education as well as enjoyable reading.

KM Rockwood said...

Great reminder that flexibility is key, and that different reading audiences require different approaches.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Thanks, Jim, I scrambled to extract just enough from the longer story to make a credible 1000-word piece.

Annette, I'm terrified of giant hogweed. When I visited the seed farm, I met a woman with the burn scars from the sap-induced rash.

Kait, it was my first experience doing more than agreeing to "okay, whatever you want" to minor edits. I rewrote the last pages and resubmitted in two or three days. Whew!

Kathleen, it was the first time I had written for a specialized audience and I knew I had to get all the gardening details correct.

Barbara Monajem said...

Fascinating info. I thought having to deal with kudzu and wisteria was a problem. Yikes!

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Barbara, I lived in Atlanta 15 years and battled kudzu and poison ivy the entire time. I remember kudzu was being considered for conversion into a biofuel.

E. B. Davis said...

It does look like Queen Anne's Lace. In fact, I wondered why you put a picture of it up when you were talking about the Giant Hog weed, but then, I am not as astute as you are on plants. I so glad the whole thing worked out. I saw the notice on the SMFS email list. You did a wonderful job of making it a short short! I hope the Giant Hogweed doesn't come to Hatteras. The name alone makes me shudder.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Elaine, it's terrible stuff, imported from the Caucasus to England and Europe in the 19th century and then to the States in the 20th century as a landscape plant.

Giant hogweed likes moist soil and sunlight, and has been found in:
New York, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington State. I know it's a problem in England, too.

Grace Topping said...

Interesting that you could take your interest in plants and add what you've learned to your stories. It's a shame that such a pretty plant can be so awful.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I still have to find a home for the 4000 word version. How could a weed be such a menace? It's frightening to think that anyone could dig up a plant and transport it to Ohio.

Shari Randall said...

First of all, huge congratulations on this publication! And working with Michael - that's awesome!
Giant hogweed does look like Queen Anne's lace! I hope it doesn't make its way to CT. I"m already doing battle with some pokeweed and I don't need anymore gardening challenges!

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I have wild parsnip and pokeweed in my yard, and wear long sleeves, pants, eye protection, and rubber gloves when dealing with them. Noxious weeds, chigger mites, and this year, cicadas! I'm always doing battle with something.