For many years I have been the guardian of the Leaf of Life in my home. Actually lots of leaves of life, from several different strains. I have propagated them, brought them together and protected them.
Leaf of Life, or Kalanchoe Pinnata to give the plant its formal name, grows wild in Jamaica and in other hot climates, often by the wayside and almost as a weed. It doesn’t need much encouragement in its natural environment, but it sure does away from home. In the cooler conditions of the U.K., the plant is much more vulnerable.
So what is this horticultural wonder ? It’s an indeterminate, succulent plant; i.e. it grows up and up with no end point in mind and has thick, fleshy, water-storing foliage. It has a stalk that turns woody as it ages, waxy ribbed leaves, and a beautifully simple leaf structure with each layer at right angles to those above and below. The Leaf of Life even bears flowers, though I have never been privileged to see such a delight. They are said to come out for a day or even shorter than that, and I have never known what conditions would prompt an emergence. I live in hope.
This plant can be eaten, leaves and branches, and is almost pleasant on first taste but quickly turns bitter when you break into the juices. It also has medicinal qualities, and can help with a range of ailments and complaints including cough suppression, fever reduction and the healing of wounds. Some people boil it up and make tea. It doesn’t make great tasting tea, but psychologically, at least, it brings benefits this way too.
The Leaf of Life can link generations and cultures. The plants I have known and spent time with are the descendants of original specimens that came from Jamaica several decades ago. The plant thrives in very different climates and soils, and represents a horticultural, cross-cultural history to be proud of.
No single Leaf of Life is ever likely to be a truly individual plant. Over the years, I have merged subtly different varieties, identifiable by leaf shape and delicate colour differences. When the stalks come together and the greenery of the respective entities flourishes in the same pot, it is very hard to pick out any discreet plant. I trust Jamaicans will forgive me for adapting the national saying in gardening terms : Out of Many, One Plant.
The plant is perhaps at its most vulnerable as a cutting, a new life. But the cuttings, and the full plants they grow into, can take a bit of shock and hardship, even if I struggle to do the same. At some point, you simply have to let them go.
Once established, they rise to the challenge of a new environment. I tend to be overly cautious when it comes to releasing the plants into the garden and letting them take their chances with the wildlife and the weather. But ultimately, they always seem to grow best when you leave them alone. And even in the most sparse of growing conditions, life can find a way.
The Leaf of Life reflects vital aspects of humanity. We reproduce, we grow. We are fragile, and need help. But we also have inner strength and resilience. We work best as a collective, and have enhanced experiences when mixing with others. We may need some encouragement, some manipulation even, but that’s all good. We thrive best in the right conditions, whatever they may be, but we have a survival instinct that enables life to continue. And when we die, we are replaced by new life, new growth.
© Eddie Hewitt 2015