My mother had the most beautiful gardens in the neighborhood. Almost every day she would tend to her flowers, which is why I have such strong memories of them. I decided to take one representative plant from each color—violet to red—and highlight a story around each.
LILACS (Syringa vulgaris)
As a kid, my favorite color was purple. Not the deep royal hue of a king’s crushed velvet cape or even the aubergine sheen of an eggplant, but the soft, delicate pastel color of lilacs.
My entire childhood bedroom was draped in shades of lilac and lavender—the wallpaper, the lamps, the curtains, and even the bed…Ahh, my “purple pillows”. I would wail for them when we traveled, like a hungry baby bird would cry for a meal of worms from its mother…
Outside my bedroom we grew lilac bushes (Syringa vulgaris), whose periwinkle panicles bloomed every May. When a warm wind would waft through my open windows, the sweet scent of the blossoms’ bosom sated my lungs. It’s as if the nature of my very room was itself gifted with the sweet scent of lilac.
When my mother and I moved from my childhood home, the only thing I asked if we could take were the lilac bushes…We couldn’t. So there they remain, a memory deeply lodged in what has become a childhood impression and a lifelong longing for lilacs.
FORGET-ME-NOTS (Myosotis scorpioides)
The first time I came upon forget-me-nots (Myosotis scorpioides) was in the creek behind the home I moved to as a pre-teen. By that time, I was fully obsessed with insects, so I would go there to turn up river rocks, looking for the mayflies and stoneflies that would press themselves flatly against the slimy surfaces of submerged stones.
As you can imagine, the brightness of baby blue flowers among a muck-colored creek is quite noticeable, if not charming. They stand out without trying—much like the blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl in school, who knows she’s beautiful, but shrinks in her seat to try to escape the ogling eyes of lascivious young lads. The forget-me-nots don’t stand tall: instead they seem to spread out appressed to the mud and shoot their five-petaled baby blues skyward.
Out of all flower colors, true blue is rather uncommon—and as one might expect—quite complex in nature, as there are many different avenues one can take to tweak a flower’s anthocyanins to produce something so brilliant as the cerulean petals of a forget-me-not.
It would be a monumental act of discipline as a child to leave such a beautiful flower behind—discipline that I did not have…so I carefully pulled a clump of flowers (though not all) by the diffuse roots, which laid happily reclining in the riparian muck. I transplanted them in the small hodgepodge garden behind my house, where they grew happily, contrasting and yet complementing the yellows, oranges, pinks and reds that predominated the garden palette. Earlier this year I bought a few clumps from my local garden center, @cresthardware, to plant along the edges of the rain garden at Espiritu Tierra, my community garden. I’m hoping they set seed and spread, but we’ll have to wait to see in spring.
“Forget-me-not,” they implore.
“Don’t worry. I never will.”
HAY-SCENTED FERN (Dennstaedtia punctilobula)
Whenever I entered the woods behind my house, I would always pass through the feathery fronds of hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula). I loved the way they tickled my bare legs. The slightest disturbance would release a soothing scent akin to baby’s breath, which would hang suspended in the still air.
When I left my childhood home, one of the first things I did was pay a visit to the new forest behind my house. I trekked up through the tall timothy, past the lichen-encrusted rocks, and there—just below the birches—was a clump of Dennstaedtia flanking the forest. It’s as if they knew I would miss my old stomping grounds and were inviting me into their home. So I passed through their familiar caress, inhaled their recognizable scent, and realized I was home all along…
FORSYTHIA (Forsythia sp.)
I cannot tell you whether the Forsythias that lined the border of our property were planted by my mother or not. Whatever the case, they had been there since my earliest memory, and never failed to put on a show each spring for as long as I could recall.
“Put on a show”, of course, is an understatement. It’s not as if they tap dance lightly onto spring’s stage. No, no, no. . . .Forsythia are a phenomenon: a literal flash mob of magnificent proportions, a bugle announcing that winter’s time needs to come to an end. The Forsythia’s spirited, sun-yellow flowers are so eager to please, they cannot even wait for their leaves to break bud. And even if a late frost sweeps across their stage, the firework display of yellow and gold is barely stifled.
Once the orchestra ended and the rest of the spring flowers finally decided to show up for rehearsals, my mother would take the tree pruners out from the garage. She’d be intent to sculpt the rowdy Forsythias into a more stately shape each year, shearing the euphoric stems that had dared to stick out too far. I would watch the long stems drop one-by-one onto the grass. It seemed a dramatic way to end such a rhapsodic show, but given the way the Forsythias came back every year, I imagined that’s how they wanted their performance to end.
TIGER LILY (Lilium lancifolium)
“You have to bend down and take a whiff of that flower,” I’d say to an unsuspecting friend.
It was a good thing that the bright orange tepals dotted in black of the summer-blooming Tiger Lily (Lilium lancifolium) begged any onlooker to have a closer inspection, otherwise my victim would see the wry smile forming on the corners of my lips.
At the apex of flowering, a Tiger lily’s perianth curls back as if in yogic bow pose, exposing its sweeping filaments and ample anthers toward the ground. Its flower head, so heavy from the summer sun, nods and bobs in a stiff wind, hanging off tall, lithe stems with lance-shaped, alternating leaves. Butterflies are most attracted to the flower’s ostentatious tiger suit, delicately hanging upside down on the anthers like aerial ballerinas.
Tiger lilies produce purple-black bulblets, polished to a high-gloss sheen, nestled in the axils of the leaves. As a kid, I found some satisfaction gently plucking them from their resting place and spreading them over the garden. If a bulblet was lucky, it would become a clone of the parent plant. It’s been said that Tiger lilies are sterile, which was always quizzical to me, considering that their pollen sticks (stamens) seemed to be generously dipped in the richest mixture of cocoa and cinnamon. The plants are not sterile, however; they just need to find a compatible species to set seed (L. maximowiczii seems to do the trick).
Turns out the noses of young boys and girls are physiologically incompatible to tiger lilies—and as the owner of said nose will eventually discover, ( upon close inspection of their reflection in a mirror), tiger lily pollen is a damn pain to remove.
TULIP (Tulipa sp.)
I was never particularly fond of tulips (Tulipa sp.). Or let me put it another way: they wouldn’t be my first choice of bulb to plant in my garden. (Of course, I said that about begonias too, but somehow I find myself surfeit with them in my home).
But this passage is not about begonias; it’s about the tulip. And more specifically, the garishly garbed carmine-colored sirens that my mother had growing in her garden. They showed up early in the season—flaunting their rouge-stained silky petals—working the same corner of the bed, year-after-year.
Don’t get me wrong: they were beautiful to look at—almost too beautiful…that they somehow became beautifully banal. “Oh a tulip,” one would shrug.
Their vulgar color was, however, a beacon for trouble. As a youth, my brother would unceremoniously decapitate them with one swing of a stick. If he didn’t get to them first, my mother would cut them off at the bases with pruning shears and stick them in a clear glass vase with water in the center of our kitchen table for all to pay a look.
Like a raffish harlot, they would be sickeningly alluring for a few days, but soon after, when their lipstick wore off, and their silken gowns faded and senesced..their tawdry nature would come through. It was in this somber state that I found them to be the most intriguing, the most beguiling—and therefore worth the poetry of my pen.
HOLLYHOCK (Alcea rosea)
I was one of the tallest girls in my class, so I was use to getting elected to grab books from the top shelf or being center in a game of hoops. Lots of the “little stuff” that I liked to look at in the forest behind my house—the fungi, the moss, the frogs, the bugs—meant I spent a lot of time on my hands and knees probing the earth.
There were very few herbaceous flowers that my mother grew that a tall kid could look “eye-to-eye”, save for maybe some sunflowers. That’s partially what made our hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) so special.
A whole legion of them—standing erect as the Queen’s guard—jutted out of a rocky outcrop near the front entrance of our home. If I stretched my arm straight up towards the sky, I could just about touch the tops of some of them.
Hollyhocks, are both gifted in height as well as in bloom: their bowl-shaped flowers form along tall, thick spikes. Their flower hues are many: cotton candy pink, red wine, and licorice black were the ones my mother loved to grow. Many of them had a contrasting splash of color in the center, which no doubt acted as nectar guides, given the way the furry bumblebees worked over the flowers like excitable teenagers in the back of their parent’s car. By the time they were finished, the yellow hollyhock pollen, which looked akin to cornmeal, would be dusted on all bee parts and flower parts.
This summer I noticed some hollyhocks for sale @chelseagardencenter. It had been quite some time since I stood eye-to-eye with a flower. . . We stared at each other for a while. But I grew uncomfortable there in the silence, so instead, I stretched my arm skyward, as I had as a kid—and bid the blooms adieu…we would meet again another day…
PEONY (Paeonia lactiflora)
There’s something erotic about the cultivated peony (Paeonia lactiflora)—not only for its warm, sensual scent but also for the confidence it exudes as a fuller-figured flower. They are like the Marilyn Monroe of the hort world: voluptuous, alluring, enticing. If he were still alive, Peter Paul Rubens would have painted the buxom blooms in all their glory, as he had the sumptuous nudes of his day.
The peonies at my childhood home were planted as pretty hedges along an escarpment that separated our property from the road. Their delicate demeanor seemed to soften the edges of such an otherwise wasted strip of land. When they where in full bloom in the spring and summer months, they beckoned to be petted and snuggled, like a pile of newborn kittens. I would stretch out my hand over their pillow-soft frilly tops, and lightly caress and nestle their blooms on my fingertips, as if I were playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on their petaled faces.
Though my mother never planted lilacs at our new home, she did plant peonies. I had to wait a couple years before they decided to bloom, but as soon as I saw their perfectly round buds forming, I may have very well let out a audible sigh of delight…
HYACINTH (Hyacinthus orientalis)
I used to hang out on the stone wall near where my mother planted hyacinth bulbs. I would watch her plant as I pushed around the bright red clover mites *(Bryobia praetiosa) that would patrol the stone walls as if it were their castle. To them, my mother must have looked like the maid planting their royal garden of all things tasty to eat.
She planted both ornamental hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis) and grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum). The Muscari were a deep purple-blue and seemed to spread in clumps; whereas the cultivated Hyacinth would bloom a raceme of flowers in pinks, purples and creams during the month of April. Like the fireworks display for New Years, their flowers never seemed to last long, but the scent of Hyacinthus orientalis was borderline intoxicating. In aromatherapy circles, it’s said to be an aphrodisiac, wooing all who pass by. Commercially, hyacinths are sold a’plenty, particularly around this time of year—their bulbs propped up on clear glass vases or displayed in pretty pots—with an unspoken promise of early springtime for us indoor dwellers.
I say every year I will stop buying them, but when bodegas sell them in full bloom on street corners and the air is redolent with the sensual scent of hyacinth, it triggers a desirous need to be near them. As a 12-year old I was asked what I wanted my middle name to be, and for that, I chose “Hyacinth”.