Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lady Slippers and Turkey Toes

I am blessed to have grown up in a loving, supportive, and somewhat eccentric (mostly in lovable ways) family, and my two grandmothers were among the greatest influences on my life. Though very different, each loved gardening, and they, along with my father and grandfather, passed this hobby (mania?) on to me. It's interesting to walk around our garden today and see the botanical inheritance they passed down to me over the years.


My paternal grandmother was quiet, hard-working, and loving; as children, we were not aware of just how difficult her life must have been. She had raised three sons as a single parent, all of whom achieved high levels of education and professional success, but she existed just above the poverty level for most of her life, laboring in a peanut packing plant until retirement. One of the things I remember the most about her extensive garden is the deep mulch of peanut shells in the flower beds. She loved being outdoors, raising most of her own food and actually plowing her garden with a mule which she housed in the woods out back, along with chickens and the occasional hog. Something was always blooming in her yard, which was packed with wisteria, crape myrtles, azaleas, plums, and a gigantic scuppernong arbor, under which we would stand in September, picking the big brown grapes, spitting out the seeds and skins, and avoiding the yellow jackets that frequented the area.

Mama Joyner, as we called her, loved flowers, too, and she had a big side garden devoted to annuals such as big, pink poppies, iris, and this beautiful single hollyhock, Althea zebrina, which seeds itself around my garden even now.

Among my prize possessions are several clumps of Crinum which we salvaged from the side foundation planting of Mama Joyner's home before it was sold after her death in 1993. I think they're what's now being sold as "Carolina Beauty", an old hybrid of C. americanum and C. bulbispermum; at any rate, they're rock hardy, multiplying into enormous clumps and producing spikes of anise-scented blooms whenever the weather is sufficiently warm and wet.

I wish I'd spent more time with all of my grandparents, but especially with Mama Joyner. Quiet people aren't always appreciated in the moment, and as I've grown older I've come to realize just how much she must have known about gardening, survival, and life.

My grandmother Birdie, whom we called "Ma-Ma", is shown here with my Grandfather on one of their famous road trips. These always commenced with a big country ham, a pot of butterbeans, and a shovel in the "boot" of the car. The ham and butterbeans were for sustenance - heaven forbid we should be forced to eat in a restaurant, or pay restaurant prices! The shovel was for impromptu "botanizing" along the roadside. Much of her landscaping had come from highway medians, the edges of woods, and even, on occasion, the outskirts of an acquaintance's property. My grandfather, a great vegetable gardener in his own right, was used to being asked to pull over at the drop of a hat to investigate and dig up "souvenirs" along the way. Ma-Ma was great fun on these trips, and it's because of these experiences that I'm now able to identify most native flora and fauna while barreling down the highway at incredible rates of speed. On Sunday afternoons in the fall, winter, and early spring (never summer, for there were snakes abroad when the weather was warm!), she would lead us on long walks through the neighboring woods, cow pastures, and "hog wallers" to explore for "treasures" growing, crawling, and flying throughout the area. I never knew until years later how much my brother and cousins hated this - I was in heaven the whole time! At least they enjoyed it when, more than once, our fearless leader landed squarely in a cow pattie after scaling the neighbors' fence.

My favorite story about Ma-Ma is one that still irks my Aunt, after nearly fifty years. She awakened my grandparents late one night to announce her engagement and display her new ring, but her mother was less than enthusiastic (about the ring, not my uncle - she adored him, at least by the time I knew anything about it). Without a word, she hauled herself out of bed and trundled out to the back porch, coming back carrying a white kitten, part of a recently born litter. Her only comment was that the kitten in her hand was much prettier than the ring on my aunt's, and was a lot less expensive. I have to agree with her, there - I'll take watching more than a dozen cedar waxwings devouring ripe mahonia berries (last week as we were fixing dinner - spectacular!) over a new piece of jewelry anytime, which offers a possible explanation as to why loved ones find buying gifts for me so exasperating.

On the weekend of my birthday every year we would drive a couple of miles to the banks of the Blackwater River where it's crossed by Joyner's Bridge (all of the land in the vicinity was once owned by my family, having been sold off piecemeal over the intervening century and a half) where we would look for patches of "Turkey Toes", the native perennial lupine. Every year we tried to dig one up for transplanting, and every year it perished within a week, no doubt due to the loss of its tap root. The sandy, acid riparian soil perfectly supports their growth, even now, but this plant remains a failure for me whether grown from seed or plants purchased at our local native plant sale. Instead I grow Baptisia australis in my garden, and occasionally make a pilgrimage to Southampton County in late April to see the lupines.

On Mother's Day, we would drive a mile or two in another direction to see great swaths of pink Lady's Slipper orchids, Cypripedium acaule, blooming at the edge of the woods. I still feel pangs of guilt when I remember digging one and using it in a native plant terrarium which I had been assigned to create for a seventh grade science project, but it's some consolation that I got an "A" on the project and was later named outstanding science student of the year (it didn't take much in those days - I sealed the award by announcing one day that "Pelargonium" was the scientific name for the geranium in the classroom window.) What I now realize is that C. acaule requires very specific soil conditions in which to thrive - again with that sandy, acid soil. I do keep one (nursery propagated) plant now for sentimental reasons - it's shown here growing in a container of acidified, sandy soil, along with last year's ill fated Lupine perennis - but other species are much more successful, and this plant is not blooming now, so its decline is probably imminent.

When Ma-Ma and Grandaddy came to our house for my birthday in 1996, they arrived with a big galvanized bucket full of "Turkey Toes" and yellow Lady Banks' roses, perfectly complementary in color and more precious than anything else they could have brought. Ma-ma passed away that fall, but she's with me every time I walk out into the garden. In the winter as her favorite Camellia, (probably "Debutante"), blooms on the side of the house, I can hear her telling anyone who would listen that her gigantic shrub had frozen "to the ground" three times in the last 50 years, then snapping off branches to root in her rusty sand bucket out back. Her big, double white Peonies (probably Festiva Maxima) are blooming out back right now, as are the antique bourbon roses we rooted from the plant in the ancient family cemetary (pictured above). A descendant of her favorite coleus plant goes to school with me every fall, where its progeny line the windows of numerous classrooms as children watch roots form inside clear plastic soda bottles.

We carry those we love with us in our hearts, but it's also nice to keep them with us in the garden. It's one of the things that keeps me grounded as I deal with the day-to-day difficulties of life, and much cheaper than therapy - or a diamond ring.

2 comments:

Molly said...

Oh you bring back childhood memories! Both my grandmothers had big gardens, too. Grandma Myrt had daylilies, daisys, lilac, tulips, roses... a good cutting garden. But the piece d'resistance was the heirloom peonies. She had gotten them from her mother, who had gotten them from her grandmother...

My granny Hazel liked flowers, but her vegetable garden was her pride and joy. We ate fresh corn, carrots, squash, beets, beans, rutabaga, turnips, and potatoes.the best of all was when she would take us out in the field and we would find our own little green pumpkin. She would carve our names into the skin. By autumn, those etchings became scars on bright orange orbs that would become our personal jack-o-lanterns!

I now live 1200 miles from my Southern Minnesota roots and from my children's grandparents. Tomorrow is Mother's Day and it is with great sadness I sit here now and wish that we could be closer to my folks so my girls could have similar stories to tell their children.

I think I need to go garden now...

Zephyr said...

Thank you, Jeff, for this post. How marvelous your heritage is. What a lovely essay...one of the best that I've read on the connections we can have in our gardens.

I'm still on island and right now I'm hiding from the sun (it's mid day) and waiting for mys ister to arrive on the next ferry and just finished posting a bit more on my blog and catch up reading other's blogs and feel privileged that I got to read this.

I worry that like me...and Molly...too many of us live too far away from our roots...but that's not the true heartache...which is, in my opinion, never having gleaned the love of the natural world and garden "mania" from anyone beloved.