The curl of possum tails around branches evokes for the author the unsettling sentience of climbing plants and things that grasp. By Margaret Simons.

Tendrils in the night

A runner bean plant climbs up a wooden trellis.
A runner bean plant climbs up a wooden trellis.
Credit: AngieC / Alamy

Gardening puts me into a dreamlike, meditative space in which my mind joins things that are not, in fact, connected.

Or rather, they are only connected by being in my mind, and my garden, at the same time. Sometimes this is dreamy in the saccharine sense. Sometimes it is a nightmare.

This week I have been thinking about curly-wurly things. It started one evening when I was distracted from Netflix by the liquid eyes of two ringtail possums staring at me through the living room window.

Possums are pests in suburban Melbourne. Settlement, household roofs and the planting of deciduous trees has provided them with many more places to live and much more food. Meanwhile, we have destroyed the habitat of owls, who are their principal predators. The result is a constant plague. No gardener who has lost plants to possums can continue to regard them as cute.

Some people trap them, but I am told that is a waste of time. They are territorial, and more will soon arrive to fill the vacant patch. And if you empty the trap in a nearby park, you are failing in morality and courage. A possum out of its territory will be picked on and starved, leading to a painful and slow death. If you are going to trap a possum, you should be prepared to kill it too – but that is illegal.

So I have learnt to live with the little buggers as they make highways out of my fences and shit all over the brick paving. They have a nest in the melaleuca tree that arches over my backyard from the neighbours’. They leap from there to my roof, or to my sundeck. They eat the ground bean plants, some kinds of lettuce and all brassicas except kale, but leave the citrus trees, spring onions and garlic mostly alone.

This determines what I grow in the backyard and what I have to squeeze into the narrow strip of land that divides the front of my house from the street. I have given up on possum deterrent sprays, the hanging of CDs from tree branches, the erection of bird netting and putting up cut-outs of cats and foxes. None of it works, or not well enough to be worth the effort.

But back to curly-wurly things. As I watched those liquid eyes, they dove downwards. The possums, in unison like synchronised swimmers, had wrapped their tails around the tree branch and were now looking at me upside down, their fat little bodies suspended like pendulums, their pink paws dangling.

I could see the wrapping of the tails – two loops each around the branch. And as they swung, the tails tensed and relaxed, like an extra arm or a kind of python.

I thought nothing of this as I cleaned my teeth, but there must have been something about it that disturbed me, because that night I dreamt of possum tails. Strong, prehensile furry loops grasped my hands, wrapped around my fingers, squeezed and would not let me go. Pink paws felt my cheeks. Liquid eyes stared into mine.

If I don’t write dreams down, I forget them, so that too had faded by the next day, when I was out in the garden examining the progress of the tomatoes I planted a few weeks ago, the kale that has been attacked by cabbage white butterflies and their nasty fat green babies, and the beans (at the front, outside the reach of the possums) that are climbing their supports.

And there it was again. Curly-wurly things. The beans were about to flower – the blossoms gathered like little furled baby fists. But above the nascent blossoms were the tendrils, locked in perfect, evenly spaced coils around the garden stake – grasping, somehow knowing where and how to climb. They were perfect. Far too perfect.

The sight of this broke open my dream of the muscular possum tails and poured it into the waking world. Curly-wurly, smart things that could do what I could not. That were smarter than me, perhaps. That had access to understandings I was denied.

That evening, I asked Google how bean plants know how to climb and learnt they, and other climbing plants, have the sense of touch. It is called thigmotropism – thigmo meaning touch, and tropism the act of growth.

It means the beans, and other climbing plants, can change the direction of their growth in response to the touch of a solid object. Charles Darwin wrote a book about it titled On the Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants. He studied a potted plant that he kept in his bedroom while he was ill. I hope he didn’t have a fever, and therefore nightmares.

He wrote about “spontaneous revolutions of the stems”, the torsion of the stems and species that revolve in an “anomalous” manner.

And he concluded: “It has often been vaguely asserted that plants are distinguished from animals by not having the power of movement. It should rather be said that plants acquire and display this power only when it is of some advantage to them; but that this is of comparatively rare occurrence, as they are affixed to the ground, and food is brought to them by the wind and rain.” He described plant tendrils being placed “ready for action, as a polypus places its tentacula”, likening them to the tentacles of an octopus, or a fungus, or a bodily growth.

In the Harry Potter books, the Venomous Tentacula is a magical green spiky plant that tries to grab living prey and has a venomous bite.

Some climbing plants also have the ability to taste. The japonica plant tastes oxalate, a chemical it contains in high quantities. If it tastes it on a supporting structure, it will recoil and grow away, “knowing” it has encountered another of its species and that it will not be sturdy enough to provide reliable support.

In the garden that day, my possum-tail dream haunting my thoughts, I fertilised the beans so they will unfurl those fists and grow their pods and continue to climb.

After my day of gardening I retreated to my favourite chair to watch Netflix again, and there it was. Another curly-wurly thing.

Months ago, I put a spider plant in an old teapot that had a broken lid and put it on the windowsill. Now, scarily fast, it had grown into a series of graceful arabesques, loosely embracing the pot in perfect symmetry.

It looked very attractive. I should have been pleased.

Then, once again, I saw those liquid upside-down eyes and the twitching muscles of the possum tails.

I hammered on the window pane and sent them looping and swinging away.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2023 as "Tendrils in the night".

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