Southern families are bound by traditions and rituals. We all tend to do things when and how we have done them before. And the same is true with my own kin. Thus Thanksgiving dinner is commonly served at 2:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, and the main course is turkey. The Christmas tree goes up on the first Saturday in December, and it comes down during the first week of the New Year. The Halloween candy must be a combination of Milk Duds and Milky Ways—which is sort of my tradition, in case there are some left the next morning—and the bill of fare on the Fourth of July will invariably be barbecued ribs. And every year, sometime early in March but no later than the 15th, we trim the liriope.
I am using the imperial “we” here, of course.
If you are unfamiliar with liriope, then you must not be from around these parts. It is that bushy, leafy green stuff that you have somewhere on your property. You might know it by other names, such as border grass, lily turf, monkey grass, or weeds, but if you live in Georgia and occupy dry land, you are somewhere close to a liriope plant, right now. It is a plant that spreads like wildfire before a high wind. It grows in places that regular grass will not thrive, such as on embankments or in my front yard. Liriope is originally from eastern Asia, and the name actually means “little kudzu” in the oriental tongues. It is an indestructible growth. Drought won’t kill it, fire won’t stop it, worms won’t eat it, and your daughter can back her car over the same plant every single day of both her junior and senior years of high school with no apparent ill effects to either the liriope or the car tire.
Now, I come from way back in the country. How far back, you ask? I lived so deep in the sticks that we spelled country with a k. I hailed from so far out in the woods that we only got one television show—Saturday Night at the Movies—and it didn’t get there until late Sunday morning. I came from such a long way down the dirt road that I was the first member of the family to wear shoes on weekdays. And I have about ten more of these, but you get the idea, and it is time to move on.
Anyway, out there in the rural areas, we did not trim the liriope. We couldn’t eat it, and the cows didn’t want to, so it was considered a nuisance that we tried our best to eliminate. We bush-hogged it, poured burnt motor oil on it, and dug at it with the backhoe, but the green scourge scoffed at our efforts. We parked on it, built over it, and shot at it, and the Asian menace didn’t budge an inch. My brother once dynamited a patch, which seemed to slow it up for a few weeks. But then the plot caught its breath and began to spread faster, either because he had made it mad, or because the explosion had loosened the dirt and allowed the roots to stretch. It was a constant battle, and in all the days of my youth, the best we ever managed was to fight the liriope to an uneasy draw.
So you can imagine my surprise when, early in March of my first year of marriage, my wife approached me with a wicked-looking butcher knife. I was young at the time, not at all savvy and worldly wise like I am now, but even so, I thought that the whole “marriage thing” had been going a little bit better than that.
“What are you going to do with that butcher knife?” I asked warily as I tried to remember what it was I had done to offend her.
“It is time to go trim the liriope,” she said. “Want to come help?” It was a relief to discover that the love of my life was not a knife fighter, after all, even though she obviously didn’t know much about plant eradication.
“It’ll take more than that to kill it,” I told her, gesturing at the blade. Back home, two or three of the older stands of monkey grass—the ones with the really bad attitudes—were entirely capable of relieving an unwary gardener of a weapon and subsequently turning it upon them. “Wait a minute while I get a can of gasoline and some matches.”
“We don’t want to kill it,” she informed me. “We just want to trim it back so it will grow thick and healthy.” That was a new one on me, but since the dagger was for the foliage and not the new husband, I went along with her.
As I said earlier, if we ever do something once in my family, it becomes an immediate tradition. So now every year, early in March but never later than the 15th, I get out in the yard with the butcher knife and trim the liriope. Over time, I have explained to my gardening partner that using a lawnmower, a weed-eater, a swing blade, or even a pair of scissors would all be quicker methods of performing the job, but I might just as well have saved my breath. My wife’s mother trimmed with that butcher knife, as did her grandmother before that. For all I know, the implement came over on the Mayflower, and the Pilgrims used it to prune their Colonial liriope. And as long as there is a sun in the heavens and Liriope spicata in Georgia, apparently so will I.
Just between you and me, there is one plant out in the far corner of the back yard that has never been sheared. It is in a remote spot, hard to find, and it had gone its own way for several years before I ever discovered it. Now it lurks there, taunting me, and to my eye it seems to be bigger and healthier than all the plants I have faithfully whacked all these seasons. Still, rules are rules, and I would add it to the list and begin to cut it back except for one problem. I am sort of nervous about what might happen if it gets hold of the knife.