Ask Cactus & Tropicals sales department manager Brandie Balken to name her favorite plant, and she’ll probably give you a different answer for every day of the week.
“I could probably narrow it down to my favorite family of plants,” she offers, naming
Solanaceae, a family of flowering plants that includes such garden staples as tomatoes and potatoes.
But after thinking for a moment, Balken realizes she does have a favorite for now: datura meteloides, a Southwestern flowering plant that looks a lot like a supersized morning glory and which can be found blithely growing in many Avenues yards.
“Some people don’t love it because it can be a bit aggressive with its growth,” Balken explains. But she loves the “big creamy white bell-shaped flowers” – especially when they attract the local bees.
“I swear to God it’s like they get drunk, they crash around in the flowers and they don’t even notice you. It’s a magical moment you can get every night,” Balken enthuses. And then she laughs. “How nerdy is that?”
Yes, Brandie Balken is a self-described “plant nerd.” And looking at her childhood, it’s easy to see why. She is one of our first Fabulous People to have been born and raised in Utah – in the “little farming community” of Huntsville.
“It was actually pretty idyllic,” she recalls. “I lived with my grandma and we kind of had a little farm. We had goats and chickens and we grew a lot of our own vegetables which was a great introduction to the kind of career I want to have, because I was so passionate about plants garden and green living.”
Coming from what she says felt like the only non-Mormon family in the town, Balken also says she became “accustom to not being the norm” at an early age. However, she did not realize she was a lesbian until much later in life, after studying tropical plants in Costa Rica and volunteering with activist group Food Not Bombs during college, marrying and living on what she describes as “basically a commune in northern Arizona.” Fittingly, the political/environmental collective was named “Seeds of Peace.”
As a member of this collective, Balken participated in several actions, including one at the Nevada Test Site, the nuclear testing grounds where the controversial Divine Strake test was scheduled to take place and over which Newe (Western Shoshone) Native Americans say they have land rights. Seeds of Peace would often cook at these actions.
At one point, Balken participated in a small action with the Chaos Collective, an offshoot group of 13 women. It was here that she realized she was a lesbian.
“There was just a week of us cooking and singing around the fire at night which sounds socheesy but it was really remarkable for me,” she remembers. “Ot totally rocked my world. It’s that proverbial moment where you here the angels singing and I thought, this is it, this is how I want to spend my life. It was earth-moving for me.”
Upon returning home, Balken came out to her husband and the two divorced. After their parting she hitchhiked to California where she stayed with her mother and saved up to return to Salt Lake City – which she did on New Year’s Eve of 2006. Two weeks later, she got a job at Cactus & Tropicals, a local business she says she loves not only for its exotic plants, but its commitment to social responsibility and the local economy as well as its supportive environment.
“I’m grateful to work at a place where I don’t have to pretend I’m anything I’m not,” she says.
But the plants! Whenever the business receives a new shipment of “outside the norm” plants, Balken says she’s excited, because it’s an opportunity for her to learn more. And when she’s not in the hothouse, you can find her in her garden, which she modestly calls “a work in progress” and which is a bit reminiscent of her days on the collective.
“My biggest thing is to do more food production for my home,” she says. “That to me is so important. It’s amazing. You plant a seed and three months later it gives you food. She and her partner Lisa LeDuc have also planted several drought-tolerant plants, switched to a hand-powered mower for their small lawn and even incorporated rain barrels to help water the garden.
“Ten more years and it’ll be where I want it to be,” she insists.
When she’s not improving her garden, Balken is also active in local politics. She regularly volunteers with gay rights groups like Equality Utah and lesbian organization sWerve and is one of the hosts for KRCL’s progressive radio show Radio Active. This year, she and LeDuc also made headlines by becoming the first couple to participate in Salt Lake City’s Mutual Commitments Registry.
“I didn’t expect all the hubbub but there you go,” she laughs.
For Balken, progressive politics and plants have many things in common: like the datura meteloides, they just make the world a better place.
“I live in a world that is really progressive and open and it’s about justice and equality, so when you hear some of the things people on [Capitol] Hill say it can be such a slap in the face, like, ‘oh my God, people really do hate me!’ We need so much more [political activism] to make this world a place that is better for everybody.”