Near-death experience is a fascinating but rare phenomenon with humans. It is common with plants, at least in my garden.In earlier centuries it was so common for people to be buried before it was expedient, that sometimes bells were hung above the grave with a rope fed down to the coffin. If they changed their mind, they could ring the bell. Hopefully some teenage couple would be hanging around the cemetery for some reason, hear it, and be able to concoct some plausible excuse why they were there and go report the bell.
Plants don't have bells. They depend on us to watch for unexpected signs of life in what for all purposes looks like a dead plant.
Some garden perennials are just late sleepers. Every May I get questions from people who think their hardy hibiscus, the rangy plant with the gigantic flowers, or their hosta is dead. It's probably not. It is this indolent habit that makes plant markers so important.
With hardy hibiscus, I leave last year's dead stems in place until new growth emerges so I know where they are. With hostas, it doesn't really make much of a difference. If you dig them up and throw them out, they will likely re-sprout in your compost pile or garbage can. They are hard to kill. This is a plant that really needs a bell.
Another tenacious survivor is the daylily. I brought a clump of ancient lemon lilies when we moved here years ago, threw the clump upside down out back, and forgot it. A year later I saw the sprouts coming up through the bottom. It is still growing out there someplace.
Shrubs are more problematic. They die, too, but sometimes not reliably.
They don't have a bell, but they have cambium.
Here's a little trick known to every gardener who kills as many plants as I do. Take a jack knife and scrape - don't cut, scrape - a small patch of outer bark off near the base of the plant. If the layer underneath, the cambium, is greenish, the plant is wick. If you come from Yorkshire or saw "The Secret Garden," you know that means alive even if it doesn't look it.
If the cambium is tan or brown, that means it is dead, at least in that spot. Don't give up yet. Scratch a couple more places. Still brown?
Don't give up yet. Many woody ornamentals will re-sprout from the roots even if the entire top is dead.
I have a redbud tree that has died twice. So far. The first time a snow load split it to the ground; it fell in two mirrored pieces, just like in the Roadrunner cartoons. I intended to pull it out and plant something else, but by the time I got around to it, only a few months later, it had sprouted from the base, and it quickly grew into a graceful three trunk tree. Which was killed again a couple of years ago when we had a long fall followed by a mild winter followed by a brutal cold snap. One branch leafed out. It looks strange, but you have to respect that kind of will to live.
Plants in pots are much more susceptible to near death, primarily thanks to the ineptitude of gardeners like me. I never assume a plant is dead just because it tells me it is.
There are some things you don't want to do. Don't fertilize it, thinking you can boost it back to life. It can't use the fertilizer, which will just turn to harmful salt. And don't water, at least not very much. It's not growing, there are no leaves to transpire, so it isn't sucking much water out of the soil.
In fact, the best thing to do is to put the pot out back someplace and ignore it, presuming it is really dead. You might be right. In a few weeks take a look. If it is sprouting, probably low down on the plant, cut off the stuff you are sure is dead and start over. You have witnessed another miracle.
o Duane Campbell, a nationally known agricultural expert, can be reached at R6, Box 6092, Towanda, PA 18848 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org for questions or comments.