My Favorite Plants

Sunday, September 15, 2002

One of my best-received programs covers a great group of plants I love, with my stories about each of them, and my garden ideas for their use and culture. The program changes every year as I shift my personal focus and slide collection to reflect more and more of 'my favorite plants.'

Herewith, one of the first of these talks:

This is not a talk about how to grow plants, ‘tho there will be some growing tips about the plants along the way.

This is not a talk about trendy perennials, ‘tho there will be some perennial plants in the group.

This is not a talk about design, but I reserve the right to comment on using these plants in the landscape and I guess that involves design.

This is a talk about my favorite plants...I want you to hear my stories about how my life is tied up with these plants. My fondest hope is that after you leave here, you’ll tell stories to someone else about your favorite plants, because I truly believe that’s every bit as important to the future of gardening as knowing when to prune or how to divide a daylily.

So, sit back, relax, you don’t need to take any notes. You’ll be surprised how much the stories bring the facts right to your brain and anyway, you probably know most of them. That’s why I’ve brought so few slides. This is a celebration of the people and stories connected with that most entertaining of pursuits, growing plants.

By the way, these plants have an order all their own, and it’s based on how the stories lead one to the next. There is no seasonal order, they’re not in plant groups, and I haven’t ranked them by popularity, even my own.

Fuchsia taught me a lesson and I love her for it. Twenty years ago my ex-husband and I lived in the San Francisco Bay area. Next to gardening, we loved baseball as much as most anything and saw lots of games at the two area stadiums... the a’s in oakland and the giants in the city. A few years ago, those san francisco giants played the oakland a’s in the world series. Lou and I sat watching, dreaming of our return to the area of great mediterranean climate, baseball, rhododendrons, dungeness crabs, and fuchsia...we had hedges of them there. At that moment, the tv screen went dark as the big one, the earthquake hit. We took it as a sign from god to stay south. The grass isn’t always greener, as it turns out.

Another great lesson came to me from Copper Iris. The mother of LA irises, these beauties graced the ditches of the old family place in south louisiana. We lived and attempted to farm there for several years and i often thought, somebody ought to be breeding these...shoulda coulda woulda...i shoulda gone back and gotten my phd, coulda at the time, woulda if i hadn’t had so much else to do...the farm and the family mostly. Now the well-bred louisianas have stolen the show from their old mom. And I try not to put things off that seem worth doing.

That same family place gave me nature’s greatest gift...exhileration at the glory of the natural world. I walked the place when we first moved there, collected wild plants and brought them back to identify and press. As the fall finally gave way to winter, i missed my walks for a week or so when heavy rains came in. I took off one gray day, went down the path by the field, started over to the allee, took one look and gasped: a possom haw in all its glory. Tiny red fruit, like mayhaws almost, covered twigs and branches darker gray than the day. I felt my spirits lift, and the image has brightened many a dark day since.

I’d have never made it to that farm without the gift of gardening I got from my grandmother and grandfather. I love eggplants because daddy tom grew so many of them when I was about 8 that he gave me a bushel or so of them to sell for summer money. I put them in my wagon and took them around the block, sold them all, and bought him a birthday present with the money...a package of handkerchiefs...remember those? Thus began my horticultural and sales careers. My grandmother gave me hydrangeas. I have pictures of my mother, myself, and my daughter beside these hydrangeas growing in different yards. We prune them in january and stick the cut stems into the ground next to the bushes. They root eventually and we have one to dig up, put in a wax milk carton, and send home with someone who visits. They inevitably bring you another plant back next time. And so i learned to give in order to get.

I often say my favorite plant is whatever’s blooming today. This week I decided I also love whatever’s fragrant near my window or along my way. The sweet olive outside my office window makes this list. And gardenias for conjuring up olfactory memories...one whiff and i’m five years old laying on sheets sticky with humidity, the bed right next to the window open for the attic fan to pull a breeze over me. In those days, mama used the water hose to blast sooty mold off the plants, but it always came back. I know why now...she didn’t kill the bugs that were making it. I’m partial to organics myself, so I use pyrethrin when such bugs bother. Last week I took a different street on my walk and the gardenia hit me before I saw it. If I were queen, Ii’d decree we should all plant gardenias near the street for passersby to enjoy.

I’ve found some of my favorite plants along the street in fact, the highway. Every summer of my childhood my mama took us to her aunt’s house on east beach in gulfport. we crabbed, and swam, and picked flowers by the road to arrange with the roses we cut off the back fence. Mostly gallardias, tiny ones growing in the sand, along with some pretty grasses with soft flowerheads that looked like baby bottle brushes. The roses were red, the gallardias orange and burnt fudge colored, and the grass suntanned. Despite all my good and arty education, my summer flower arrangements run to odd combinations, just like when i was young, and my little bitty aunt lived in a house that seemed way too big, odd combinations that worked quite well. We made cuttings off her roses when they stopped blooming midsummer; despite the folly in that, they rooted just fine.

My very first plant, the first one I was ever responsible for all by myself, was a begonia. It lived for years on my windowsill after my aunt gave it to me when i was seven and went to the nursery with her to buy shrubs. When I am tempted to think of her in her later, very difficult years, I try to cast my mind back to her that day in April when she gave me my first store bought plant.

The first plant I had to grow was this one, bougainvillea. It was my first grad school research plant, and I know it well as a result. Growing plants for research is rather like analyzing poetry...all that data collection can really take the heart out. but the bougainvilleas thrived in the hot, dry greenhouses, and I came to love them dearly because if you must count and measure something, it may as well be beautiful and these tropical babies certainly are. Overwatering is fatal to these, and repotting them too often slows the bloom cycle.

While I was doing all this research, I had lots of plants to give away. I know now that my parents couldn’t have refused my gifts anymore than they could have rejected my ceramic ashtrays and macaroni encrusted picture frames a few years before. But they did like some of them, and growing plants together indoors became part of their retirement life. Daddy had a stroke, and the winter was long as he recovered his mobility and his appetite.  He walked, staggered, limped, and walked some more until he made it to the street. He figured now he could walk, he could drive. S

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