I met “Ermawn” in Montreal over twenty years ago. And also met my first marihuana plant a couple of weeks later in his condo “grow room”.
I was home for my annual summer break from the sweltering hot and oppressive monsoon season in Bombay, where I lived most of the year. As the rains swept up from the southern tip of India, I would begin packing and arranging my ticket away from the looming floods, building collapses, epidemics of cholera and typhus and endless days of relentless rain. Three whole months of it!
My summers were spent in a charming little condo about fifteen miles out of Montreal. I had a piano, a nice collection of books and was only steps away from the best farmer’s market on the island. Inside the Marché de l’Ouest were wonderful patisseries and charcuteries and food bars. Outside were produce stalls heaped with the most succulent fruits and vegetables you could imagine. The farmers all welded their implements deftly over delicious apples and pears and cucumbers and offered the customers perfect slices on the tips of their knives. I got to know several of them quite well, including a beekeeper who was bent on persuading me to leave my India home and hearth and join him in his apian world of hives and honeycombs.
This particular year, I arrived at my little condo, exhausted after a long flight from Frankfurt. The neighbors had decorated the common hallway with streamers and Alice who lived next door and had my spare key, had even filled my fridge with necessities and placed a pretty African Violet on my coffee table. It was a lovely homecoming with lots of hugs and promises to visit everyone the next day. As I closed my door and prepared to head for the bed upstairs, a last tap on the door provoked me to open it.
Alice was standing there with a mischievous grin on her face. “Spiro is home and we’re having a few people over in about half an hour …. they’d love to see you. Just pop in for a few moments,” she urged.
How could I refuse? Spiro had lived in an ashram in India for three or four years, Fred who lived down the hall was born in Bombay and I knew they were all craving stories from India and tales of my year’s fiascos.
I raced upstairs. Grabbed a washcloth for a fast sponge bath and slipped into shalwar kameez , a casual tunic and loose pantaloons worn by women of all ages in India. They’d like that, I knew.
When I arrived, the party was in full swing. I could smell a faintly herbal smell I associated with Spiro ….. marihuana. At that time I had very little interest in the herb. It was widely available in India and the resin, or hashish … was used in some of our religious celebrations. One of which including drinking sweetened milk spiked with saffron, cardamom and hashish. I’d never tried it. Mostly because I was fearful of unpasteurized milk. But I remember my little cousins as well as all the adults, sipping a cup without any deleterious effects I could detect. They’d all found it funny that the “American” wouldn’t touch it. They simply didn’t believe that my excuse could possibly be the unpasteurized milk.
But occasionally in Montreal, when Spiro had passed a joint, I’d accepted with about as much alacrity as I accepted a glass of wine to toast my host at a dinner. It seemed the polite thing to do. But chocolate remained my drug of choice.
Alice motioned me to a seat next to a very attractive man who looked a little out-of-place in a party in suburban Montreal. For one thing, he had a mane of silver-gray hair falling to his shoulders and for the other, he wore a very odd amulet or something around his neck.
He leaned over and offered his hand. ” I am Ermawn and I’ve just recently moved into the Condo block across the street, ” he announced in quite ordinary Canadian English. I was puzzled by his odd name, which sounded Celtic. I wondered briefly if he was a witch or warlock or something equally exotic. He caught my confused expression and clarified. ” It’s spelled the same as “Herman”, but you drop the “H” and extend the long vowel. Like “Hermes”. People always pronounce that “H” and it’s actually silent.”
My brain immediately began to classify this odd man. He was obviously eccentric … which could be good. And he was obviously pedantic … which would almost invariably be bad. Initial impression … just a tad below neutral.
As the evening progressed, some joints were passed and a wonderful feast of dolmades, souvlaki, moussaka and various cheeses and salads was laid out on Alice’s dining table, with the desserts … trays of baklava and loukoumades … deployed on the coffee table. Ooh la la. We grabbed our plates and tied in.
Herman and I talked a bit about India and I was surprised that he also had spent some time in Nepal. By the end of the evening, sated by the wonderful food, exhausted after the long flight and maybe just a bit mellowed by the joints, I agreed to join “Ermawn” for a tour of his condo and a light lunch on his patio the following week. Lunch seemed to be safe and a whispered check-up with Alice earlier in the evening had confirmed that he was quite disinterested in women, which thirty years ago was the polite ephemism for anyone who was gay. I would be quite safe from an awkward situation and it would be nice to meet a friend who wasn’t preoccupied with children and housework.
What Alice forgot to mention was that Herman had a passionate interest in horticulture. And that his primary concentration was not landscaping his tiny courtyard.
A week later, after an exquisite patio lunch of delicately herbed salmon, fresh-from-his-oven biscuits and an array of fresh vegetables which looked like ikebana on platters, Herman produced an elaborate hookah.
Made of gleaming brass ornamented with a variety of agate cabochons, it stood about two feet tall and looked exactly like the smoking pipe from “Alice in Wonderland”. But this one had four colorful silk covered hoses deployed around its base instead of the usual single one. Obviously it was intended for multiple smokers. “Choose your color,” said Herman as he reached for the purple hose. I chose the red one. It seemed the polite thing to do.
Herman poked at a brownish clump of material in the bowl and muttered, ” Skunk … one of the best …” as he lit it. He inhaled a couple of times and then motioned for me to follow. I inhaled tentatively. It seemed not much different from the joints Spiro had passed around at the party the week before. Only a little stronger.
We sat for an hour on the patio, watching the sun softening and dipping behind the hedgerows which contained our townhouse community. We talked about India, the beauty of winters in New Delhi and even the smell of monsoon rain on the dusty streets of the cities. Finally as the embers in the hookah started to die away, Herman motioned to me to come inside. I hesitated a moment and then remembered Alice assuring me that Herman would be the most unlikely of neighbors to initiate a seduction scene. So I followed.
“That was my own which we smoked ….” he announced. ” It is the best I have ever grown. I got the seeds from Amsterdam …’
It took me a moment to realize that he was talking about the clump of marihuana leaves in the hookah. And by that time he’d gone halfway down the stairs to his basement. I followed. It seemed the polite thing to do.
I was unprepared for what I saw when he opened a thick door at the bottom. Rows of plants were arrayed on long wooden tables under a canopy of lights. They glowed under the illumination as if they contained neon gas in their leaves. Emerald green. They seemed to be growing in definite groups. Some only a couple of inches high while larger ones were as tall as Herman himself. The larger ones seemed to have big clumps of tiny leaves on the tips of their branches.
Herman extended one of them towards me and gently squeezed the clump releasing a rich and pungent odor. Not unpleasant but very distinctive. A concentrated version of what he’d placed in the hookah.
Then he began to explain the process. The lights and the perfect positioning above the plants, each one adjusted on a pulley so it could be raised and lowered. The reflective foil on the walls and ceiling. The ventilation ducts, humidity controls and timers. So many details that after few moments, I switched my attention to the plants. Rather pretty things with those jagged leaves which looked vaguely like slimmed down maples. A vision of the Canadian flag with a large red marihuana leaf poised in middle flashed through my mind. I started to giggle.
“Okay okay ….. I have gone on for much too long. I forget sometimes that not everyone is so involved with gardening …” Herman finally said. He proffered a big smile as he led me towards the stairs.
I realized that he had indeed gone on too long when we walked out onto his patio. The sun had disappeared behind the hedgerow and it would be dark in half an hour or so. Herman leaned down to examine a rose-bush in the small flower bed, which I now realized concealed the basement windows and his grow room from passing eyes. He nipped off a lovely pale yellow and coral rose with his fingernail and handed it to me. ” Peace “, he said. And then added … ” The rose’s name. It’s an old variety.”
Then he looked down at a couple of weeds which had invaded his flowerbed.
” Damned dandelions. You pull them out one day, and the next, they’re right back.” He flicked them onto the cement near the door. Then he stopped and bent down again and yanked out another weed. He turned it over in his hand and examined it for a moment. Then he tossed it onto the dandelions.
” Didn’t sprout when I soaked the seeds ” he observed.
I looked down at it. It was clearly a small and sickly marihuana plant. I picked it up.
” Well don’t you want to grow it?” I asked, thinking about the plants so nearby in the basement grow room. Surely these seeds must be valuable.
” Nah nah …. waste of time. When I soaked them, I picked out the ones which didn’t germinate and tossed them into the garden. It’s too weak.”
Suddenly I felt a strange compassion for the little plant in my hands. All the others had germinated quickly and been carried carefully into the growing room where they were being pampered with an incredible array of lights and fertilizers and fans and timers. Meanwhile this poor little plant had been tossed onto the pile of weeds.
” Can I have it? ”
“Silly … don’t waste your time. I’ll give you a good seed in a couple of weeks. I’ve already ordered some from Vancouver ……”
“No ….. I want this one,” I said.
Herman shrugged his shoulders and threw his hands in the air in mock exasperation as he led me out to the walkway between the townhouses.
As soon as I got home, I rummaged around for a flowerpot. The only one I had was way too big for the tiny plant but I reasoned that it would grow into it. I put a half-dozen stones in the bottom for drainage and dug out enough earth from the tiny flowerbed by my back door to fill the container. Then I gently washed the little plant and carefully pressed its roots into the soil. I carried it upstairs to my spare bedroom, pushed the ironing board close to the window and pulled the curtain liner across so the morning sun wouldn’t be too strong. “There now ….. you’ll be fine, ” I assured it.
The next evening I walked over to Herman’s to give him a small box of chocolates and thank him for the lovely lunch. And to inquire about the best way to care for my new charge, which looked a little wilted and woozy. The transplant had clearly been traumatic.
Herman clearly sidestepped between politeness and exasperation. Finally when he realized I was determined to save the orphaned plant, he capitulated and handed me a half-dozen books on growing marihuana indoors, outdoors, clandestinely, hydroponically, under halogens, in the woods, in grow rooms and one remarkable treatise on how to grow in metal drums suspended from tree branches in the remoter areas of the Provincial Parks.
But as I thanked him and balanced the pile of books in my arms, he disappeared downstairs for a few moments and returned with a box of Miracle-Gro, a bag of some yellowish powder and a little bottle. He meticulously labeled each one, muttering the chemical names as he printed them in large letters on Post-it notes.
“There you are …. these are the basics. You’ll find them in that red book. They’ve worked the best for me. Just read carefully and make sure you dilute everything properly.” He rolled his eyes at me as he tucked the bottles and powder into a bag and hung it on my wrist. “You know …. I’ll be getting good seeds next week and …..”
He stopped seeing the expression on my face. I had clearly adopted my little plant and wasn’t going to be swayed by the prospect of a healthier seed.
I should have sensed right away when I got home with an armful of books and all that fertilizer, that raising my little orphan wasn’t going to be as easy as watering an African Violet twice a week. It wasn’t.
The little marihuana plant required carefully diluted doses of Miracle-Gro …. not too weak, not too strong. Since I wasn’t using a controlled grow room, I’d be straddling the fence between outdoor and indoor cultivation by growing in my one sunny window. Which meant of course, I’d have to watch for sunburn, opening and closing my curtains at the appropriate times until late afternoon, when the little plant could rest comfortably.
Then after a few days, Herman gave me more instructions, plus another book on outdoor growing with a huge chapter on “seasonal” flowering. One more detail which I had to master. Apparently these fussy little plants required shortened daylight hours in order to flower. And without flowers, they wouldn’t produce what Herman said were “buds”. It was those precious buds which we had been smoking, not the pretty big leaves.
Ooh la la, this was getting complicated. And then I learned that even with ideal light conditions, I’d have to mix another concoction to encourage the plant to flower. The substance in the little bottle Herman had given me was methyl hydrate and I would have to blend it with an assiduously measured amount of the yellow powder to make a solution.
“Gibberellic Acid,” Herman explained somewhat dryly as he indicated the little bag of power. ” It’s good for geminating seeds and even better for getting nice big buds. But you have to wait until the first flowers show …”
And that’s when I learned about the flowers. Not big showy red ones. Little itty bitty greenish yellow wisps of stamens with no apparent petals. Little innocuous fuzzy things.
But as the plant matured these little tufts would thicken into large clusters which became the “buds”. Laden with fragrant resin, they would be clipped and dried and eventually find their way into hookahs and bongs and rolling paper. Oh I was learning
Two months passed and the little plant grew at an astonishing pace. Each new leaf was larger than the last one and soon there were some with seven leaflets and one large one with nine. I transplanted it into a more commodious container. “One gallon pot for each foot of growth,” Herman’s books stressed.
I lowered the ironing board so my plant would get full benefit of the light. And although there seemed to be no sign of flowers, I decided on my own to mix up the Gibberellic acid solution and just add a bit. The result was astounding. The plant grew another foot and put out several new side branches. I transplanted it again.
September was approaching and I knew that the softer light of autumn would encourage flowering. At least that’s what all the books said. Growers working indoors began to adjust their lighting after three months to encourage flowering … they had the advantage of manipulating artificial seasons. I didn’t. So I relied on Montreal autumn sunshine and did close the curtains a half hour earlier.
I was getting a little impatient since I was due to leave for Bombay in the second week of September. By the looks of my plant, it didn’t seem that I would be reaping a harvest of lavish buds. But at least I could present it to Herman and he could make a space for it in his grow room. It was obviously much too large and lush to be orphaned a second time. I knew Herman would be enormously impressed.
Three days before I due to leave, I had a final visit and watering session with my plant which was now fully four feet tall. I swabbed the pot nicely and added a thin layer of topsoil. Then I clipped a couple of yellowish leaves near the bottom and tied one straying branch to the main stem. Oh it looked lovely.
Then I made my way to Herman’s house. I knocked on the door and waited impatiently for him to open it and be suitably impressed by my incredible plant.
After a few moments, Herman appeared and I handed him the pot. The marihuana plant towered over us both and Herman gave a huge smile and then after a few second of what I assumed was admiration, a deep chortle of laughter. Then he invited me in and I regaled him with the details of my last three month’s rescue mission. I explained I had to go back home to Bombay in a day or two and was giving him the plant to bring to harvest.
I was so pleased with the whole escapade that I didn’t really notice that there was amusement in Herman’s smile. A lot of amusement. And didn’t understand why he was laughing so hard as, at my insistance, he carried the plant downstairs to his grow room.
As we said goodbye, he assured me that he’d take very good care of it. But there was definitely something amusing him because he seemed to be controlling an urge to laugh. I smugly assumed it was merely a man’s way of covering embarrassment over being shown up so well by a woman. Particularly one with no prior experience in this particular horticultural exploit.
I flew back to Bombay, enormously pleased with my rescue mission and feeling there was some sort of life lesson there. I had no way of knowing at that time, there were two lessons waiting for me.
A year later, when I came back to Montreal I learned exactly why Herman had been so amused, In my eagerness to nurture my little plant, I had overlooked the fact that marihuana plants can be either male or female. Only the females flower. The males do not. So when the time for flowering comes and no flowers appear, the plant is discarded. Left alone it will grow thick and lush … and be utterly devoid of the precious buds.
My cherished plant was a very large and very healthy …. MALE!
To his great credit, Herman hadn’t been covering up his own wounded ego with amusement, he had been trying to salvage mine. After I went back to Bombay he had allowed my plant to remain in his grow room and tended it along with the others until it finished its allotted life span.
“I couldn’t throw it away, ” he explained. ” You had taken such great care of it and loved it so much I had to give it a chance to live out its life …”
And so I learned one of those life lessons. A lesson of a man’s compassion. For my feelings and even for the plant I’d nurtured.
♥ See “Little Katy” for my second lesson. That lesson became the cornerstone of my entire teaching career. And it all began with this little orphaned seedling.