The moth vine casts its shadow over the garden, from which the author manages to salvage a benediction. By Margaret Simons.

The moth vine encroaches

A moth vine growing wild in a garden.
A moth vine growing wild in a garden.
Credit: John Donovan de Vries / Shutterstock

Trouble, fear and pain, the cause of which I will not share. My fitful dips into sleep felt like being awake, only in a world where worries grew monstrous. My wakefulness felt like sleep, my thoughts both frantic and dulled. I thought I could hear the thudding of my heart. Too hot, too cold, too much of everything. The world was intolerable.

An hour before sunrise I gave up on sleep, pulled on trackpants, leashed the dog and set out in a padded coat that hid my lack of a bra. Not that anybody cares, I told myself, whether a fat old lady wears a bra in the predawn light. Who do I think is looking? Who do I think cares?

My teeth were unbrushed, my breath formed clouds. I had the feeling of a witch, a crone, a creature on the escape from night-time horrors, or perhaps the generator of such horrors. A fleet of hot air balloons were suspended over the Melbourne skyline like teardrops.

The fears and phantoms shrank a little as I strode up the hill. In the leash-free park the dog found her friends and ran in a pack. Anyone who thinks that dogs can’t smile has never owned one. Every day, or most days, she does this yet her joy never diminishes.

The wisdom of dogs is without pretension or self-awareness. If Yoda had been a dog, he would surely have had more straightforward grammar. She doesn’t tell me to live in the moment. She models it.

And so home, to the garden, the horrors now at my back and of more manageable proportions. I had two tasks in mind.

First, there was the moth vine that had crept up my neighbour’s fence.

Some people mistake the moth vine for choko. The moth vine grows everywhere in the backyards and laneways of inner-suburban Melbourne, looping through other trees, festooning fences and the sides of buildings. The mythology that the outhouses of the past were always covered in choko vines makes it easy to assume these are the survivors among them.

But chokos are firm and bright and edible, albeit tasteless – a great vehicle for butter and a security blanket against starvation. Moth vines are quite a different matter. Their fruits are soft and furry and, at this time of year, delicate. When you handle them, they explode, releasing hundreds of seeds that go everywhere. In spring the plants pop up between the bluestones in the back lanes, and on the banks of the drainage canals and the creeks. At first they look harmless; before you know it there is a great clambering vine 10 metres tall.

The sap of the moth vine is sticky, white and plentiful. It stings the eyes, irritates the skin and can make breathing difficult. In summer, the moth vine has a pretty flower, which is why it was imported from South America as an ornamental plant. Insects can get trapped in the wedge-shaped openings of the flower. They die there. The vine’s milky white sap is also poisonous to humans and animals.

The moth vine is not a carnivorous plant. It kills not out of need but because it can. Some people call it the “cruel plant”. The only correct thing to do with it – and please do this whenever you see one – is to put on thick gloves, protect your eyes and rip it out by the roots. The moth vine is the stuff of nightmares.

My neighbour does not garden and her backyard is full of moth vines. Nor does she accept offers of gardening help. All I can do is cut them off at the fence line when I see them about to invade. This one got away, and was festooned throughout the mandarin tree, its pendulous fruits threatening my little backyard sanctuary. It seemed the physical manifestation of my night terrors. With the sun just above the horizon, I hauled out the stepladder, opening it gently to avoid noise that might wake the neighbours. I put on thick gloves, climbed to the top rung and hacked away with the secateurs, throwing the sappy severed vines and fruit into a pile on the brick paving below.

I shoved the remnants in the green bin, praying that the composting process for council organic waste is hot enough to kill this triffid and its furry seeds.

My heart was dark again. Moth vines are meant to do well with climate change. They are everywhere.

Then, I contemplated the mandarin tree. Ever since I threatened it with an early death some years ago, it has given a bumper crop each year.

I picked a couple and ate them there, standing all sweaty and smelly in the cold. The fruit still had dabs of green on the skin, but they were sweet – and in two weeks, when they are at their peak, I will be overseas. If I left them on the tree they would go to waste or feed the possums.

The day before, walking the dog, I had passed a pile of kitchen items left on the footpath by a neighbour with a sign “free to good home, or any home”. I turned over and rejected the rusted cake tins, the bendy forks and the clouded Tupperware. But there, amid the rubbish, was a perfect one-litre mason jar, complete with lid. I took it home.

I made coffee and googled “preserve mandarins”. I read they can be kept in a simple syrup, with the only difficulty being the need to remove all the internal pith and the skin on each segment before putting them in the jar. Was life too short to peel a mandarin segment? I decided it was not.

I also read that you can dry the peel in the oven, and add it to cups of tea or negronis, or grind it to make a spice for cakes.

I went out to the garden and picked a bucket-load of mandarins. On my way back to the kitchen I passed the bay tree and thought of the taste of mandarin and the whispering, spicy fragrance of bay leaves. I snipped a branch.

With more coffee on the stove, I made a syrup with sugar, bay and star anise.

Standing at the kitchen bench, I peeled the mandarins, spread the peel out on a baking sheet and put it in the oven. Oil from the skins had made my fingers slippery, and the smell was extraordinary.

And, suddenly, there it was. Quite unlooked for. The sun was up, the moth vine down and I was happy.

This – the smell of mandarin oil and bay and coffee, the satisfaction of making something good from things I grew and things I found, the sight and sound of the dog stretched out snoring on the couch.

The everyday benediction.

This, I can share.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2023 as "The cruel and the kind".

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