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:
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.