The December Drearies

Flowering Coleus

It has been a dreary start to December with temperatures 12 degrees below normal on average and a number of cloudy days.  It even snowed briefly last Friday with just enough slickness to it that cars careened off the road all over the city.  We live on a hill so that getting down or up on such days can be a dicey proposition.  In such conditions it’s nice to see flowers wherever you can and the coleus that Beth took a cutting from more than a month ago has obliged by putting up lovely lilac flowers.  If coleus were difficult to grow or expensive to acquire I’m sure we would go overboard trying to acquire it from exotic nurseries.  However, it is ridiculously easy to grow from seed and widely available in nurseries so I confess we often fail to give it full coverage in describing its impact in the house and garden.

Coleus was one of the first plants we ever intentionally grew back in our student housing days at UC Riverside.  We were fascinated by the different variations in leaf color and propagated a great many of them.  As time went on, we moved to more challenging plants and neglected the coleus as too common.  The last few years, however, we’ve been rediscovering the impact of coleus in the garden.  As an annual it grows quickly to 2 – 3 feet tall and can be kept thick and bushy in containers or in the soil.  The cut leaves last a very long time in indoor arrangements, sometimes to spectacular effect.  Perhaps if we thought of them in terms of their new botanical moniker, Solenostemon hybrids, we would give them more respect.

As I was working at the computer on a particularly rainy afternoon yesterday, I looked out to see a good-sized hawk sitting on the fence outside my window.

Worm-eating Hawk

I apologize for the poor quality image which was taken in poor light and through a rain spattered window, but what I found remarkable as I followed this hawk about the yard is that the hawk had no interest in the hundred or so birds and many squirrels that were flitting about our feeders.  Instead, he was actively harvesting the worms that were surfacing because of the water in ground.  It was very much like a robin on steroids.  Perhaps worms are seen as epicurial delights in the world of raptor dining.  Note to self — the camera should be kept in bird picture ready mode at all times, not left as though one had just taken multi-second timed exposures of coleus flowers in the house.

December is when we tend to review our donations for the year and, like Santa Claus, decide which charities have been naughty and nice.  Sometimes charities, the Nature Conservancy comes to mind, get tangled up in their own misplaced executive extravagances, and we have to punish them by withholding our giving for a while.  One place that we have never felt the slightest reservation about recommending is Able and Willing International Education Foundation.  We know the founders, Puma Mbuyu Wa Mbuyu and Ruth Snyder, who began this effort in the Congo with their own time and money in 1995.  Beginning from scratch they have built schools in two villages that now serve 661 students over all grades.


In the process they’ve brought electricity and an ethic of self-reliance to the area.  In Puma’s words, “More than simply constructing the buildings, AWIEF helps to establish the programs that enable schools to support to themselves.  In doing so, the organization seeks to model a healthy process of development that promotes self-reliance and helps to break the cycle of dependency on foreign aid.”  Nowhere else have we seen such a dramatic impact of our contributions put to effective use.

One comment on “The December Drearies

  1. Marianne

    John – just having a peek at the latest post and laughed to see what a small world it is – I started out at UC Irvine years ago – didn’t finish my degree there, but UC Riverside is close enough to mention it! I just lost my only coleus cutting from a variety I “pruned” at Busch Gardens 6 years ago and have managed to keep alive every year from cuttings. Very sad, but I suppose it means we’ll be heading to Williamsburg in the spring!