Orange Hot Chili Pepper

Plant Stories is a place for us to share our botanical tales. Our goal is to bring a bit more happiness and joy to the world by sharing the Plant Stories that make us giggle, bring an occasional tear to our eye, or simply delight us. Please share your Plant Story with us by filling out this form!

Author: Wes M., Petaluma CA

The year was 2001. I was 16, working my first job at a pizza joint and learning the ways of the kitchen.  Of the many lessons learned on that job, which proved to be true in all the kitchens I've worked in since, the fact that cooks will always mess with each other is a certainty. Also, and this one’s important: if you’re going to be a cook, you gotta know your ingredients.

You had to know somebody to get your foot in the door at this particular pizza joint, meaning one friend would get another friend hired, until there were several little crews among the mostly teenaged kitchen staff. There were the thug kids and the football crew, and then there was my crowd, the punks. We had spiked and dyed hair, a mess of piercings, and loved to play music that unequivocally drove everyone else crazy. Somewhat surprisingly, though, we all got along fine. We had the kind of camaraderie that's battle-formed in the trenches of a slammed kitchen on a busy Saturday night. I say this so it’s clear that the pranks we’d pull on each other weren’t malicious, they were merely the natural outcome of cooks being cooks.

The kitchen manager had been there for years, and was probably the only one to take the job seriously. He had a garden at home and would occasionally bring in some fresh herbs and whip up a truly bomb marinara sauce. One day, he came in with a handful of little orange peppers he’d grown. He wasn’t sure what, but he wanted to use them to make something memorable. My buddy, Rabbit, and I didn’t know what the hell they were or why they were such a big deal, nor did we believe that such a small quantity could make any difference in a sauce.

It turns out, however, that these were habanero peppers. He explained that these little suckerswere hot as hell itself. One usually couldn’t find them at your run of the mill grocery store, so he grew his own. He also explained that the real heat was in the veins and in the seeds, where the oil was stored, and not so much in the flesh of the pepper.

Rabbit and I suddenly had a newfound admiration for these tiny peppers and were more than a little curious to try one. We cut one up into tiny pieces, wearing latex gloves to avoid getting the oil on our hands. We each tentatively took a nibble of just the flesh, and that tiniest morsel did not disappoint. In fact, it was easily one of the spiciest, most painful things I’ve ever eaten. I could tell from the tears in Rabbit’s squinted eyes that he felt the same.

This painful taste test took place about an hour before our coworker, Browner, was due to come in for his shift. Browner was a Senior, was on the varsity football team, and was a mountain of teenage testosterone. The opportunity here was undeniable: we simply had to use these peppers to mess him up. There was no doubt and no hesitation, only an organic understanding of obligation.

The beauty of it was that we didn’t even have to try all that hard. We explained to Browner that these were the spiciest peppers to be had, and that we’d each eaten a whole pepper already (an exaggeration, to be sure). And while we had recovered, we didn’t believe he had the fortitude to perform such a feat. It was no accident that we omitted the detail about the spicy oils being concentrated in the veins and seeds, which one should avoid eating. The challenge to his manhood was really all it took.

He plucked one out of the bag, examined it, and came to the same conclusion we had: it didn’t look so intimidating. He popped off the stem, and tossed the whole thing in his mouth. What ensued was far better than anything we could have envisioned.

The reaction wasn’t instantaneous. He chewed for a minute, and was swallowing right as the effects were setting in.  We stood, watching with wicked grins, as his neck and then his face turned bright red. He gripped the cutting board with white knuckles and grimaced so hard the veins in his overlarge neck bulged. Tears somehow escaped his clamped eyelids and streamed down his face. He was clearly doing all he could to keep it together, and to his credit, he probably lasted a solid 15 seconds or so before the heat surpassed his threshold, at which point he came undone.

The slew of profanity was biblical, and there may still be a dent in the steel hood covering our oven, an innocent bystander to his wrath. We gawked at the spectacle with glee in our hearts, satisfied with our accomplishment. We were still having fun at that point, but it wasn’t over yet.

Browner ran to the three bin sink, and began spraying water into his mouth with the high pressure hose. The manager walked in around this time and immediately realized what had transpired. He mercifully told Browner that water actually increases the heat and that if he wanted any relief, he should try milk, which contains fat and can neutralize the burn. Browner seized a jug of milk from the fridge, ripped the top off, and began guzzling it down. It overflowed out of his mouth and ran in streams down his jaw.

Now, the human body is a pretty smart machine. It knows when something is going horribly wrong, and it knows what to do about it, whether you want it to or not. Browner’s body knew that it had ingested something it absolutely never should have, and it knew that it had to expel the invader post-haste. That Browner had attempted to down a gallon of milk in a matter of seconds probably didn’t help. While I'm sure Browner didn’t want to projectile vomit milk, his body felt it was the best possible reaction, and so that’s what happened.

Eventually the ordeal ran its course (in the kitchen sink...), the crowd which had gathered to watch the spectacle dispersed, and the shift carried on. Much to his credit, Browner worked the rest of his shift, wet shirt and all. He wasn’t even that angry. But we certainly weren’t about to divulge the fact that we’d only eaten a tiny portion of a pepper, or that what we’d eaten was the mildest part of the pepper. He never found out.

The moral of this story is simple. Know your ingredients. Respect the pepper. Plants are powerful things.

The Allergic Reaction

Plant Stories is a place for us to share our botanical tales. Our goal is to bring a bit more happiness and joy to the world by sharing the Plant Stories that make us giggle, bring an occasional tear to our eye, or simply delight us. Please share your Plant Story with us by filling out this form!

Author: Brandi of Sunshine & Succulents

If you haven't yet read our last post, The Cambodian Treehouse, you should check it out because it's a good intro into this Plant Story. Why? Well, apparently I was allergic to something that I stumbled across on our treehouse journey in Cambodia. Very allergic. I'm not sharing photos because this one is way more fun if you use your imagination.

For someone who had never had hives in my life - hell, I had never even had seasonal allergies - waking up in the middle of the night because my hands were itchy was incredibly confusing. I was 20 years old, and my then-boyfriend (now husband) Wes and I had just returned from a month-long trip to Thailand and Cambodia. We were taking a couple days to settle back in and visit family, show them photos, etc. before heading home to our house in San Francisco. While crashing on Wes' dad's floor that first night, I woke up at 3am because my hands were insanely itchy. I went to the bathroom to try to find some lotion, thinking my skin must be really dry. That's when I realized that I had hives on my stomach and all over my hands. My sleepy brain vaguely remembered that one should take Benadryl when having an allergic reaction, so Wes and I left our warm blanket floor-nest to drive to the grocery store in the middle of the night to pick some up. I somehow managed to get back to sleep, despite the itching.

By the next morning, the hives were threatening to take over my legs. Luckily they were no longer itchy. But there were so many hives on my calves that my skin was basically one giant hive, with only a rare indent of normal amidst the raised redness that was now my skin.

We made it back to San Francisco that afternoon without a furthering of my strange symptoms, but when I woke up to go to work the next morning, my hands felt weird. After half an hour, I could barely bend my fingers because they had swelled up like tiny sausages. At the time, I did production work for a jewelry designer, so my ability to use my hands was incredibly important. I had to call in to work to get the day off with perhaps the weirdest medical excuse ever- sausage fingers. I swore up and down that, even though I had just taken a month off to travel, I was seriously telling the truth about why I couldn't return to work that day.

The swelling in my hands went down throughout the day, and I thought it was finally out of my system. But alas, upon waking up the following day, I discovered that my body was still rebelling against whatever foreign invader had my immune system on high-alert. My top lip had swelled to three times its normal size. I looked like a muppet. Or worse, I looked like a muppet that had had a bad lip job. I finally called the doctor.

My doctor, kindly not laughing hysterically at my giant, giant upper lip, prescribed me some strong anti-allergy drugs. She then admitted that, despite all our advances in Western medicine, doctors have no way of knowing what has caused an allergic reaction. Apparently you can have a reaction to something up to two weeks after coming in contact with it! Her best guess as to the cause: I had brushed past a plant somewhere in Cambodia or Thailand that I was allergic to, and was just now having a reaction. A plant! After all my love for the wily green bastards, what I got in return was sausage fingers and a bad lip job.

Luckily the swelling went away fully within a couple days, and I've never had another incident like this again. But whenever I remember the hives, I still mentally shake my fist at whatever plant it was that made my life a hilarious hell for a few days.

The Cambodian Treehouse

Plant Stories is a place for us to share our botanical tales. Our goal is to bring a bit more happiness and joy to the world by sharing the Plant Stories that make us giggle, bring an occasional tear to our eye, or simply delight us. Please share your Plant Story with us by filling out this form!

Author: Brandi of Sunshine & Succulents

I once traveled into the backwoods of Cambodia simply because I saw a flier for a tree house that I could sleep in. True Story.

My husband (then boyfriend) and I decided to travel around Thailand and Cambodia for a month when we were 21. Neither of us had ever traveled in a developing country before, and this would only be our second major trip each (having both saved up and gone to Europe separately when we were 20).

After 10 days in Thailand, we took a boat to the Cambodian coast, and eventually made our way to the capital, Phnom Penh. While staying at our $2/night hostel, we came across a flier asking if we wanted to get "off the beaten path," and advertising a tree house hostel far away from the capital. Our eyes lit up. This was before the era of smart phones, and we had very little internet access. We had purposely avoided over-planning the trip so that we could experience some true adventures, and this sounded right up our ally.

The flier gave some vague instructions on how to catch a bus for the 8 hour drive to Sen Monorom, way out in the country near the border of Vietnam. It then provided a phone number to call once you arrived in the tiny village, so that you could get directions for the mile or so walk from town out to the hostel. So the next morning, we hopped on the bus. The first 4 hours were on paved roads. The last 4 hours were on rutted dirt roads. The only food stop along the way was at a roadside hut serving some kind of gristly stir-fry for 20 cents a serving, and we were pretty sure the main ingredient was either feral cat or feral dog- of which there were many wandering about. We never did find out for sure, but we were damn hungry so we ate our fill.

We arrived exhausted from the bumpy ride to find ourselves in a one-road town in the middle of nowhere, We made our way to the hostel, and discovered that it had only opened mere weeks prior to our arrival. We were the first American visitors. Ever. And while the Tree Lodge Cambodia website now boasts such fanciness as laundry service and free wifi, it was little more than a few huts and an amazing, yet rustic and wall-less, platform tree house with a little kitchen (the "restaurant") on the ground floor.

We met the proprietors- a British woman and her Cambodian husband, both in their 20's or early 30's- and they immediately offered kindness and hospitality to us weary travelers. We ordered some food, set up a little tent on the platform level of the tree house to sleep in, and settled in.

If you can't tell from the photo above, the structure is built around a large tree. Small wooden boards were nailed into the tree to provide a spiral staircase, around its trunk, leading up to the second level platform. All of the structures on the property were built by hand from trees that were on the empty land when it was purchased. The owners even had to create the road to the property from town, as it was just a large plot of land with no development whatsoever when they bought it.

The only other tenant on the property, aside from a few short-term travelers like us, was a young Korean artist whose name I've long since forgotten. He slept each night in his hammock, about 25 feet up in the air in a tree. He had also nailed wooden "steps" into his tree to climb up. He invited Wes and I both to climb up to check out the view, but the "steps" were so far apart, and my fear of heights so intense, I couldn't make the climb. Wes persevered while I watched from the ground, in fear of him breaking his neck.

We spent a few days out in the sticks of Cambodia before heading on. Our nights were spent in the tree house, and our days were filled with adventures, including a minor motorcycle accident in a desolate area that left me with a nasty burn and which necessitated me leaving Wes and the broken down bike on the side of the dirt road while I caught a ride with a non-English-speaking stranger on his motorcycle back to town to get help (crossing my fingers that I'd even end up back in town...); tales of a tiger in the woods, and skull and crossbones signs along the road (which signify either that there are active landmines in the ground, or that there are still mass graves in the area from the horrible days of the Khmer Rouge), both in the vicinity of where Wes sat on the roadside by himself for 2 hours as I rode off to bring back help; and almost getting killed by a pack of feral dogs on what should have been a lovely evening stroll.

And one of the biggest, craziest adventures of our lives, which has left us with stories to tell for years, only happened because we saw a flier for a tree house, and we both knew that we just had to go there. The call of the tree beckoned, we answered, and despite the scar I still have from that motorcycle accident, we've never regretted it.

The Willow Tree

Plant Stories is a place to read about how plants make people happy. Our goal is to bring a bit more happiness and joy to the world by sharing the Plant Stories that make us giggle, bring an occasional tear to our eye, or simply delight us. Please share your Plant Story with us by filling out this form!

Author: Jessica H. of Sebastopol, CA
(no photos available for this story - use your imagination!)

When I was six years old, my grandparents lived in a house at the end of a cul de sac.  In my child’s eyes, their yard was beautiful: white alyssum lined the walk; juniper inhabited the planters; snapdragons provided color around the windows; red pyracantha and poisonous blue berries whose juice I could use to write my name on the pavement flanked the garage – the whole yard a Sunset magazine story waiting to be published.   My favorite, though was the gigantic weeping willow on the front lawn.  I loved the way it looked, relaxed and swaying, leaves blanketing the lawn. 

After my grandfather died, my grandmother, whom I viewed as a master gardener (she subscribed to Sunset, after all), moved into a small home, and eventually passed as well.  As a young adult, I made it a goal to own enough land to plant a willow like the one from my childhood both as an homage to my grandparents and because of their majestic beauty.  I eventually moved to West County, bought sizable land, deciding a willow would be perfect in the back corner.   Uses for the land though, have been for: a wedding, several graduation parties, numerous Halloween parties, and we’ve built an enormous pirate ship on the property just because we could.  Since the ship is still standing, the willow has had to wait.

Over the summer, I visited my father in his home’s modest backyard.  (His parents had owned the original willow tree, and his brother owns a nursery in Washington state.)  My father produced two potted cuttings from a pruned tree and asked if I wanted them.  I asked where they were from, and he said my uncle had taken a clipping of the original willow tree and planted it in the backyard years ago (my grandmother owned the house before my father.)  With overwhelming emotion, I accepted the cuttings with the hope that I can plant one soon after the frost.

Terrarium Therapy

Plant Stories is a place to read about how plants make people happy. Our goal is to bring a bit more happiness and joy to the world by sharing the Plant Stories that make us giggle, bring an occasional tear to our eye, or simply delight us. Please share your Plant Story with us by filling out this form!

Author: Brandi of Sunshine & Succulents

(For our inaugural Plant Stories post, I thought I might as well get really intense and share my own very emotional, and very long, Plant Story. There's a happy ending, I swear!)

Life is pretty good at throwing curve balls. I got hit with a pretty awful one when I was 28. It was January 2013, and I was going through a huge career shift. My business partner and I had owned a handcrafted gift shop for 2 1/2 years, but we decided to part ways; while she kept the shop, I was striking out on my own. I was ambitious and excited. While I was still a partner at the store, I had started teaching succulent terrarium workshops, and now I was hoping to turn succulent design into a full time gig. I spent January setting up my new business, which I cheerily named “Sunshine & Succulents." I was thrilled for my new adventure.

(I’m going to insert a warning here… this gets pretty sad before it gets happy again. Bear with me, if you’re interested in how this ultimately ties back into succulents.)

In December 2012, a week before my last few days working in our store, I found a lump in my breast. I immediately went to a doctor and was told that there was no way it was cancer- I was so young! But they scheduled me for an ultrasound in January to check it out. I wasn't worried because, after all, "there's no way it's cancer!" But by February 3rd, I had a "breast cancer" stamped all over my medical files. It felt like it was stamped across my forehead. I could almost hear “dead man walking” as I walked in a daze through life and the hallways of so many doctor’s offices for the following weeks.

My life was suddenly on hold. I had so many impossible decisions to make about my body and my treatment plan. And all the while, I was mourning the loss of my twenty-something sense of immortality, the loss of my ability to plan for the future since I didn’t know if there would even be a future. I couldn’t even handle the idea of making plans for my 29th birthday, which was a month away, because I was so terrified it would be my last.

From a business perspective, I was also paralyzed. I had been working with a bride-to-be on her wedding arrangements, my very first client in my new business, and I sobbed while emailing to let her know I couldn’t do her wedding after all, because I might be puking my guts out from chemo treatments by then. All the plans I had had for my new business came to a screeching halt because I didn't know how sick I was going to be or what I'd be able to handle.

Throughout 6 months of chemotherapy, I suffered through the things we all associate with cancer: losing my hair, nausea, exhaustion. I also suffered from the invisible symptoms of cancer that those who haven't experienced cancer might not be aware of: the constant fear that the drugs weren't working and the cancer would come back; the random PTSD-like fits of uncontrollable sobbing that came on when I'd have sudden flashbacks of the moment I told my best friend that I had cancer; the morbid obsession with planning out the music that I'd want played at my funeral. I tried one-on-one therapy and group therapy sessions, but I've never been good at therapy and it often made me feel worse.

Me with my trusty red bandana, which I chose to wear instead of a wig.

Me with my trusty red bandana, which I chose to wear instead of a wig.

While getting accustomed to the new chemo-me, I started spending more time in the tiny 6x8' greenhouse in my yard. A store in Petaluma, B Street Mercantile, wanted to carry my succulent arrangements, and that was just the motivation I needed to get out of my sick-bed and start creating again. (P.S. they are still open, and still carrying my terrariums 3 1/2 years later!)

Therapy was awkward, but succulents- they weren't awkward at all! Creating arrangements with these tiny, weirdo plants that hate to be watered or fussed over- that was therapy for me. I had no interest in mindfulness or meditation or yoga classes, or many of the other things I was "supposed to be" doing according to the well-intentioned cancer advice-givers of San Francisco. But when I was in my tiny outdoor studio, surrounded by dirt, plants, rocks, funky planters, pieces of driftwood, seashells, bits of nature I picked up on walks and used in my designs, I found a kind of peace I hadn’t really known or appreciated before.

Some of my favorite tiny creations - weirdo succulents in minuscule handmade vessels.

Some of my favorite tiny creations - weirdo succulents in minuscule handmade vessels.

The most magical days were the rare ones when it rained, even just a drizzle, and the sound of the raindrops was magnified on the plastic roof while I crafted and planted away for hours, or the evenings when I turned on the Christmas lights in our yard and worked under the twinkling lights after dark. I can’t quite unravel the skein of feelings I was experiencing while working with my plants, but the peace I experienced came from some tangled combination of having a sense of purpose by making things with my hands to earn a living and of feeling productive despite my illness; of managing to find the creative energy to make so many beautiful things while I was living surrounded by the ugliness of cancer; of having tiny living things that depended on me and needed the care I gave them in order to survive; of being able to create "tiny worlds," as I imagine terrariums to be, that were brimming with beauty and nothing else; of having a space in which I could focus my mind on beauty, color, form, and life, allowing me to forget about death and cancer for a few brief hours.

And here I am, almost 4 years from my initial diagnosis, with 3 1/2 years of Terrarium Therapy under my belt. My body is currently free of cancer. I have a thriving business in which I get to share my passion for succulents with the public through the Succulent Terrarium Workshops I teach. I think I'm happier than I was before I got cancer, and that's in no small part due to the plants I have in my life. Succulents helped save me, and I repay that kindness by sharing my joy for them with the world every day.

Me, post-cancer, in my tiny greenhouse in San Francisco.

Me, post-cancer, in my tiny greenhouse in San Francisco.