Primrosing at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden

 

It’s primrose time, so last weekend I drove from Ithaca, New York, to Boston, Massachusetts, to attend the annual Primrose Show organized by the New England Chapter of the American Primrose Society.

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Informative poster at the Primrose Show at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

 

Primrose is of course a noun, the name of a small, compact perennial much beloved of gardeners. But primrose can be used as a verb, to primrose. One can go primrosing, as I did at the show, and one can be primrosed, which can also occur as I came home with four flats of plants.

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First-place winner in the “5-Mixed” category.

The organizers of the show hoped to inspire interest and enthusiasm for all members of the genus Primula, commonly known as primroses or primulas. The events included a display of prize-worthy specimens, a coloring table for children, a sale of plants from plant nurseries as far away as New Brunswick, and lectures by a Scottish nurseryman, Ian Christie of Kirriemuir, south of Aberdeen. Shows direct attention to details of a plant that even gardeners, distracted by the overall scene of their garden, might never notice. I remember as a young horticulture student attending my first Royal Horticultural Society Vegetable Show. I came to a standstill, shocked before a display of carrots draped over black velvet. My attention was riveted. I remember the carrots.

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Polyanthus (primrose) showing lovely floral palette.

The primroses at this show were demure by contrast, simply presented in clay or plastic pots on tables without velvet. One young couple with a child in a stroller paused before the first-place winner in the auricula category. After looking very closely, he said to his wife, “I get it. It’s all about the flowers.”

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An auricula (primrose) flower.

He did get it. Auricula flowers are some of the most unusual in the plant kingdom. Then there was a woman who rested her flat of purchased plants on the table with posters explaining the different kinds of primroses. She looked at the posters and looked at her plants. Then she asked her friend, “Did I buy any primroses?” Her friend said, “No, you didn’t.” “Really, no primroses?” The friend said very definitively, “You didn’t buy any primroses.” The woman sighed and said, “Oh well, next year.” Choosing among an array of beautiful spring flowers for sale can be bewildering despite informative posters.

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The common primrose (Primula vulgaris) probably colored by a member of the New England Chapter of the American Primrose Society.

To attract the youngest and most impressionable members of the public, primrose society members set up a coloring table with crayons and colored pencils and drawings of different kinds of primroses. The young colorers received a free polyanthus, a kind of hybrid primrose. The plants given away had nodding flowers in shades of yellow and orange and red. I watched as a child protectively clutched her polyanthus primrose as her mother pushed the stroller away from the coloring table. Later I met them outside in the garden and the little girl was still holding the pot.

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Formal planting at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden with woodland walk at the far right.

Outside I found that Tower Hill Botanic Garden had a woodland walk designed to engage their youngest visitors. There were pictures of illustrations from a classic children’s book published in 1906, When the Root Children Wake Up. In the story the Earth Mother comes to wake the root children, who will animate the Spring. She gives the little root girls pieces of colored fabric to make dresses to match the spring flowers they will carry to the Earth’s surface, while the little root boys are sent off to wake up the ladybugs and beetles and bumble-bees and other insects.

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Illustration from When the Root Children Wake Up. It’s time for Spring.

It was written and illustrated by Sibylle von Olfers (1881-1916) who was born into a large family that lived in a castle near Konigsburg. She wrote and illustrated her fanciful children’s books for a younger sister. After becoming a nun in 1906, she worked as an art teacher. Ten years later she died of lung disease.

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The boys dust off the bugs.

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The girls carry up the flowers. Primrose follows Daisy at the right.

The botanic garden decorated the woodland walk with small houses of the sort that little fairies and gnomes might like. One young couple without children paused in front of one of these charming structures. The man who was wearing a black leather jacket pulled out a camera and took a photo, saying to his girlfriend, “This is adorable.” We all appreciate visions of other realms.

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Dwelling for woodland  fairies.

Among the primroses that I brought home was Primula carniolica, commonly known as the Slovenian primrose. Having lost a seedling of this last year in my unruly garden, I was anxious to try again. This specimen is robust, so I will not lose it. The Slovenian primrose is endemic, meaning native, to a very small area in the Slovenian Alps. Found in grassland, woodland, and high cliffs, it prefers a limestone substrate, summer moisture, and shade. When you grow a plant from a faraway place, you feel connected to its exotic geography and try very hard to mimic its desired conditions. It is considered scarce—in the wild and in cultivation, all the more reason to strive to do one’s horticultural best.

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Robust leaves of Slovenian primrose.

 

My seedling had not flowered so I was not prepared for the beauty of the small blue flower. The “body” of the plant is sturdy rather than graceful. The leaves are smooth and hooded, arranged in an off-center rosette.  Elevated on slender stalks well above the stout plant, the flowers create a very different effect. They have an exquisite necklace of farina (a powder) circling the base of the petals and the cream-colored throat glistens, pearl-like. Many of the alpine primroses have a dusting or even a heavy coat of farina, which is thought to protect against cold and intense irradiation. The observer of primroses finds extraordinary details.

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Close-up view of the flower of the Slovenian primrose. It looks pinkish here, but bluish “in person.”

Primroses have a long history of medicinal use. Two common species, the English primrose (Primula vulgaris) and the cowslip (Primula veris), have sedative/narcotic constituents in the flowers, leaves, and roots. The Benedictine mystic Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) wrote in her Physica that the primrose was a powerful cure for melancholia:

A person whose head is so oppressed by bad humors that he has lost his senses should shave his hair and place primrose on top of his head. He should bind it on and should do the same thing to his chest. If he leaves these bindings on for three days, he will return to his senses.

Fortunately, most people, rather than wearing primroses on their heads, just have to look at them to receive some benefit. However, the greatest reward is found in growing primrose plants, as this Primrose Show at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden hoped to demonstrate.

 

 

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The uncertainty of winter: the primrose and the hellebore

The view to Stark's Ridge.

The view to Stark’s Ridge, where Lawson’s Knob overlooks Vinegar Hollow, Highland County, Virginia.

 

January 1, 2016

Apparently it is a fact that Monet thought the Christmas rose (hellebore, also known as Lenten rose; Helleborus sp.) and the primrose, Primula sp., belong together. See New York Botanic Garden’s “Monet’s Garden: Creation, Facts & Secrets.”  Monet was right, of course, because  he is reported to have said “I cannot live without flowers.” So, he surrounded himself with flowers– in order to survive.

I agree, though I have never been able to have a grand garden like Monet’s, but even a few flowers here and there are enough. Groundhogs in Virginia eat my snakeroot; beloved dogs in Ithaca sit on my primroses, though that has failed to kill them. So be it. My policy is share. No violence.  Right now I am looking at one hellebore and one primrose, and I am glad that I’ve gotten the pairing right according to Monet.

 

The primrose and the hellebore.

The primrose and the hellebore.

 

I am here again in Vinegar Hollow where Angus cattle, their black bodies and white faces are silhouetted against the copen-blue sky behind the Peach Tree Hill, three bluejays are splashing in the gutter, flocks of juncoes swirl over the sinkhole, and I see the unexpected shades of pink and rose in the garden. Unexpected for the first of January.

The primrose in the noon sun.

The primrose in the noon sun on January 1, 2016. This is a polyanthus, a hybrid primrose. Notice the circle of anthers resting in a golden yellow cup slightly raised above the petals at the center of the flower. This is called the rose-crown or the rose-eye. When this occurs in a thrum-eyed flower (anthers visible, stigma invisible), one has “the last word in Polyanthus elegance” according to Florence Bellis, renowned primrose breeder (APS, 1943, p. 35).

 

It has been unusually warm here in western Virginia as in most of northeastern North America. Last year when here in the hollow I reported about reading Antarctic explorers and braving a blizzard to experience the chill. It is has been spring-like here for a month. I am not surprised the hellebore is budding and even opening flowers. Every year it pops up in snow in the coldest of temperatures here in the hollow. The plant now has between 50 and 100 buds. If winter comes now, when all these buds, so delicately striated pink and white, are ready to open, what will happen? It will survive. Hellebores are tough.

 

Buds and foliage of the hellebore.

Buds and foliage of the hellebore.

 

 

The flower of the hellebore.

The one flower of the hellebore open in Mustoe today.

 

The primula will survive also, though its more delicate greenery will get glassy, frozen looking if very low temperatures come. But it will survive. Primroses are tough.

I think again (see previous blog called “Snow as Metaphor:  Revealing and Concealing”) of the very old 15th century Christmas carol “Es ist ein ros entsprungen.” Its centerpiece is a rose that blooms in winter. At that time “ros” or “rosa” was a generic term for flower. Although of metaphorical import here, it is important to remember that a literal flower is at the root of the metaphor. Some think that the song’s rose is a hellebore. But it could have been a primrose. “Roses” of all sorts do bloom in winter. A version that I like is sung by the Ensemble Amarcord. Or this one using the words of Praetorius. There are various translations of the original German. Here is one:

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.

The shepherds heard the story proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of glory was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped and in the manger found Him,
As angel heralds said.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

O Savior, Child of Mary, who felt our human woe,
O Savior, King of glory, who dost our weakness know;
Bring us at length we pray, to the bright courts of Heaven,
And to the endless day!

The primrose on January 3, 2016.

The primrose on January 3, 2016.

In an interview the poet James Wright quoted from memory a passage from a letter that Tolstoy wrote to a pacifist group, where he talks about spring (in relation to religion). He writes:

I can only go back to myself. I look around myself and I see every year that, no matter what people do to themselves and to one another, the spring constantly renews itself. This is a physical fact, not a metaphysical theory. I look at every spring and I respond to it very strongly. But I also notice that every year the spring is the same new spring and every year I am one year older. I have to ask the question: what is the relation between my brief and tragic life and this force in the universe that perpetually renews itself? I further believe that every human being asks this question.

We can’t have spring without winter.

 

January 4, 2016

 

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Winter arrives in Vinegar Hollow with a dusting of snow.

Winter arrived with a dusting of snow, and tonight it will go to 13 degrees F. This feels right. I will cover the primrose tonight just to ease it into this sudden drop from 40-50 ish degree F weather to the teens.

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Snow continues its dusting throughout the day. Black locust in the center and old apple trees to the right are still.

 

January 5, 2016

Second morning at 4 degrees F. Three blue jays are back with a flock of juncoes. They have  spread themselves all over the lawn in the morning sun and eagerly peck the ground, perhaps finding seeds of the red spruce and the beech? There was a howling wind the night before that might have dislodged seeds. But this is just a guess. I have no idea what they are so excited about. They are tapping at the ground. The three blue jays retreat to the gutter occasionally to splash. It is hard to describe the beauty of the translucent white fan that the ends of their feathers make as they alight and depart. There is more white to the blue jay than one realizes. The primrose has shrunken within itself, the vigorous green departed, the vivid rosy pink now a troubled purple. There were no pollinators for it, but a primrose lover has seen a “ros” in winter.

p.s. The hellebore is a really extraordinary variety called Helleborus x ballardiae ‘HGC’ ‘Pink Frost.’ I lose my plant labels, or maybe I can blame it on the dogs, but this label I saved in my writing desk. It certainly can handle the ultra cold.

 

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The rural life: Vinegar Hollow in June

Cows eating their way to Starks Ridge.

Cows eating their way to Starks Ridge in the cool of early morning.

I arrive back in Vinegar Hollow to experience  a week of June in Highland County, Virginia, at the farm that my parents bought in 1948. Things seem tranquil on the first morning as the cows move slowly across the hills chomping at the new grass, but soon enough a news story develops.

Four incarcerated cows and a cat on a fence post.

Early morning: four incarcerated cows and a cat on a fence post.

When Mike came to feed the barn cats the next morning, he noticed ear tags that didn’t match those of his herd. Two cows and two calves, not necessarily belonging to each other, which is problematic for all concerned, had strayed through an open gate from a neighboring property the day before, setting off quite a kerfuffle in the home herd. There was a tremendous bellowing by the trough all day as the cattle tried to figure out who belonged where. In the evening the owners rounded up the strays  but couldn’t get them back over the Peach Tree Hill before dark so they spent the night cooped up, like chickens you might say, which did not agree with them. They had plenty of water in the trough, but the grasses on the other side of the fence smelled so sweet. Their longing for freedom intensified over night and they stared at me intently as I strolled with my morning coffee, hoping I was the one who would free them. I told them Corey and Miranda would come soon.

I remembered the time my sister and I slept overnight outside in our sandbox, which had been converted into a tent. We woke up in the early morning when the large head of a large deer poked through the blanket over the sandbox, sniffing, nuzzling, and terrifying us. It turned out be to a pet deer that had escaped its owner. This is what I mean by news stories on a farm.

Nearby I watch the daily progress of the wild cucumber creeping out of the gone-wild calf nursery. This enclosure, my mother’s old vegetable garden, has metal hoops that are covered in winter with canvas to protect newborn calves that have been booted out of the barn to make way for new arrivals–in the too-cold of their birthing season.

Wild cucumber vine creeping over the wall, tendril by tendril.

Wild cucumber vine creeping over the wall, tendril by tendril.

It's over the wall!

It’s over the wall!

Still drinking my coffee, I watch the blue-black butterfly that comes jogging around the house every morning and afternoon visiting the same patch of scat, which has been rained on so often that it must seem fresh.  This is probably the black swallowtail mimic that has no tails, the Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis astyanax).

Red-spotted Purple on scat in garden lawn.

Red-spotted Purple on scat in garden lawn.

This individual has come to seem like my personal friend. I have chased around after it and found that its behavior fits that described for this species–it enjoys scat, gravel roads, and roadsides.

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The butterfly has made its way to our gravel driveway. Photographing butterflies is frustrating for the amateur. This is not sharp, but finally I see the “red” spots at the extremities of the upper wings. I didn’t notice them at all while observing the constantly moving “flutterby.”

Underside of the Red-Spotted Purple found by the side of the road by the apple orchard in Vinegar Hollow.

Underside of the Red-Spotted Purple found by the side of the road near the apple orchard in Vinegar Hollow. It was killed, mostly likely, by my car or Mike’s as very few others travel this road. Soon I started noticing dead Red-spotted Purples on Route 220 north and south to Monterey. Their penchant for frequenting gravel and roads is not healthy.

The Red-spotted Purple has found fame in the hands of writer May Swenson, author of the poem “Unconscious Came a Beauty” written  in the shape of the butterfly that alighted on her wrist while she was writing one day. It is a delicate poem full of stillness until the last line, “And then I moved.” She was fortunate to have this experience, and we are fortunate to have her poem. The hollow seems to be full of Red-spotted Purples this year, and there is much to learn about them. There are good observers out there, like Todd Stout, who offers a youtube video on identifying the hibernacula of this species. A hibernaculum is the overwintering curled-leaf-like home of the caterpillar, beautifully camouflaged to avoid notice. It is hard for me to imagine that I can ever learn to spot a hibernaculum, but I do know black cherry trees, a preferred host, so that’s a start.

The viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare), a member of the forget-me-not family.

The viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), a member of the forget-me-not family.

I am happy to find viper’s bugloss, my mother’s favorite wildflower, abundant along the cliff road, nestled against the limestone outcroppings, as impressionistic a combination of pink and blue as one can imagine. The pollen is blue, while the stamens are red. Margaret McKenny and Roger Tory Peterson in A Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-central North America describe it as “bristly.” Yes, it’s the right word. The flowers may look a little fluffy, due to their exserted stamens, but the plant rebuffs touching. It is definitely a porcupine in flowery dress.  “Bugloss” derives from two Greek words meaning head of a cow and tongue, the import of that being that the leaves are as coarse as a cow’s tongue.

Close-up of viper's bugloss, also known as blueweed, showing exserted stamens.

Close-up of viper’s bugloss, also known as blueweed, showing exserted pink stamens with slate-blue pollen .

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Close-up showing bristly nature of the plant.

My mother had a passionate attachment to viper’s bugloss, tucking little sprays of it into vases in her kitchen whenever she could. Maybe it was the blueness that attracted her, because she loved the indigo bunting and the bluebird as well, but I suspect she also sympathized with its bristlyness.

It rains every day, which brings the red eft out of hiding. Once years ago as a child I found one that had been stepped on by me or one of my family members near the garden gate as we arrived for the summer, one of its feet flattened, looking so childlike that I felt like crying. I watched this one undulate noiselessly to safety.

The red eft stage of the eastern newt.

The red eft stage of the eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens).

June is hay-making season, and the air in Vinegar Hollow is sweet with the scent of flowering grasses, native and nonnative.  I remember helping to make hay stacks in the Big Meadow in the old days when a pitchfork was the preferred tool. Then rectangular bales came along, which were easy to lift, though prickly, but with the advent of  the huge round bales of today the farmer needs sophisticated machinery to make and maneuver them into storage. Now I just walk among the grasses on the hills, admiring the delicacy of the myriad grass “florets,” trying to remember what I learned in Agrostology, the study of grasses, as a graduate student in botany at the University of Texas at Austin. I loved the course, but we worked almost entirely with herbarium specimens which took some of the romance out of the enterprise. A floret is a little floral package, which includes a very small flower lacking petals and sepals, but surrounded by two protective scales, the lemma and the palea. Much in the study of agrostology depends on the lemma and the palea. And the awn. The specialized vocabulary needed to described the intricacy of grasses is remarkable.

While each floret may seem too modest to admire, many florets grouped together make stunning inflorescences. Grasses in flower argue for a special kind of beauty. Their feathery stigmas and dangling anthers float and shiver in the breezes, and entire hillsides seem to shift when wind moves through the knee-high grasses.

This week I fell in love, again, with a grass I know by sight but whose name I had never learned.  It’s downy, pinkish-purplish above and bluish-greenish lower down. Let’s call it the Mystery Grass.

My mystery grass, which turned out to be Nuttall's reed grass (Calamagrostis ....).

Mystery Grass. Mike said that he’s always called it feather grass and that it’s one our native grasses.

Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk, in her recent “On Nature” column for the New York Times, titled “Identification, Please,” writes that

There’s an immense intellectual pleasure involved in making identifications, and every time you learn to recognize a new species of animal or plant, the natural world becomes a more complicated and remarkable place, pulling intricate variety out of a background blur of nameless gray and green.

She’s right.

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A “blur of nameless” grasses flowering in June in Vinegar Hollow.

I decided to try to name  the sweet-smelling, soft feather grass. I have spent almost a lifetime identifying plants in Vinegar Hollow using Virginia McKenny and Roger Tory Peterson’s field guide, but they don’t include grasses in their book, though grasses are wildflowers. My father taught me the easy forage grasses, like timothy and orchard grass, so distinctive that they can’t be mistaken for anything else, but I don’t remember him naming the mystery grass.

Mystery Grass. Inflorescences open as they mature, spreading out their pollen to the wind.

Mystery Grass. Inflorescences open as they mature, allowing anthers to dangle, offering pollen to the wind.

Mystery Grass, showing the purple tips of the inflorescence.

Mystery Grass, showing the purple tips of the inflorescences and a few anthers just peaking out of florets.

Lacking a field guide, I set off into the vast world of the Internet, which after three or hours yielded an answer through a combination of sources: Nuttall’s Reedgrass or Calamagrostis coarctata (synonym Calamagrostis cinnoides). Reader: if my identification is incorrect, please let me know. If I’m right, I’d like to know that also. I never found the perfect source with a clear photograph.

Grasses are hard to get to know, especially as they change through the growing season, similar to birds whose juvenile feathers have different colors and patterns than the adult ones. My “feather grass” will look different at the  end of the season, when the seed has ripened. The soft purple will have turned to a whispery tan, and the shape of the inflorescence will change as well. During my search, as I tried to differentiate the “feather grass” from the other grasses common in Virginia, I collected other grasses for comparison. Falling back upon my training in agrostology, I made a multi-species herbarium sheet to reveal the unique morphologies of the inflorescences that in the field “blur” together so beautifully.

Grasses found in Vinegar Hollow, June, 2015.

Grasses found in Vinegar Hollow, June, 2015.

I have  other story lines here in the hollow to move forward as well. Two eminent trees, a sugar maple and a black oak, have dominated the farmyard at the end of the hollow for three generations or more. The black oak is all but dead. My father hired someone to put a lightning rod on the oak years ago, but age has overtaken it and limbs are falling steadily. Only a few slender branches have any leaves, and they are small. The granary nearby, full of valuable farm machinery, is at risk. Roy, who has lived in the hollow 91 years, says that it was in its prime when he was young. It is the kind of tree that people stand under and say, if only this tree could talk, the stories it could tell. In high school I wrote a poem for our literary magazine about the trees, which I always thought of as parental, the sugar maple like my mother and the black oak like my father. I had hoped to predecease them, but it has fallen upon me to take action. I met with the tree service this week to make the appointment for removing the oak. As I confronted my depressing role as executioner, I thought of W. S. Merwin’s remarkable piece of writing called “Unchopping a Tree.” No one should take down a tree with a light conscience.

There is good news, however. My husband and I have been protecting two seedlings of this oak in the yard under the electric pole. They must be transplanted this fall before they are too big to move and before the electric company decides to eliminate them. We are going to transplant both and hope that one at least lives for the next 300 years.

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Granary and black oak.

Black oak seedling.

Black oak seedling.

The last news story is that the light on the pole lamp went out. Set on top of a tall telephone-type pole, it casts a broad illumination. My mother put it up years ago. She lived at the farm alone for many years and it must have given her a welcome sense of company, and, it would have lighted her chores at night. I never liked it because in the evening it attracted luna moths that would then cling to the pole, quiescent, during the day even as birds pecked them to shreds, and it casts too much light for sleepers who like a darkened room. I wasn’t prepared for the utter darkness that night when the pole light didn’t go on. I had come to the hollow with the dog and the cat, but without the husband, children, or grandchildren.  The stars and the moon can be very bright at the end of the hollow, but there are no lights from any other sources. My nearest neighbor, Roy, is over several folds of the creased hills that make up Vinegar Hollow. On this still, overcast night, there was complete darkness without and within, when I had turned off the house lights. Paul Bogard, in his book The End of Night:  Searching for Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, talks about how light pollution affects our relationship with the natural world. Lying in bed, surrounded by complete and utter darkness, I felt a little uneasy, but settled into it, perhaps like a Red-spotted Purple caterpillar in a hibernaculum. I let the darkness take on a natural presence around me.

Then I started thinking about the new stories of this week in June. The cows and calves, the red eft, Nuttall’s Reedgrass, the viper’s bugloss, the black oak, the tendrils exploring  the hereafter, and so on. I also remembered one of my favorite reflections about the rural life, made by Verlyn Klinkenborg in his Farewell column for the New York Times’ editorial page:

I am more human for all the animals I’ve lived with since I moved to this farm. Here, I’ve learned almost everything I know about the kinship of all life. The only crops on this farm have been thoughts and feelings and perceptions, which I know you’re raising on your farm, too. Some are annual, some perennial and some are invasive — no question about it.

But perhaps the most important thing I learned here, on these rocky, tree-bound acres, was to look up from my work in the sure knowledge that there was always something worth noticing and that there were nearly always words to suit it.

Klinkenborg kept faith with his column on rural life for 16 years. “Nearly always,” he says, there are words that suit. I pause over the “nearly always.”  The work of finding suitable words keeps pulling me forward.

Where have all the flowers gone–and their Monarchs?

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Monarch visiting thistle in Vinegar Hollow, Highland County, Virginia.

 

It’s a lonely fall for those of us who love being observers of the annual migration of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) back to Mexico, a 3,000-mile journey that is breathtaking for its scope and its beauty. If we could connect all the dots of all the trajectories and innumerable stops for nectar to fuel the journey, we would see a pattern, a living tapestry, so instructive of the importance of thinking ecologically.

I have recently been migrating myself, from Ithaca, New York to Harrisville, New Hampshire, back to Ithaca, and now south to western Virginia. Having heard that a 90% decline in migratory numbers was predicted for this fall, I have been looking for monarchs in old and new haunts. In Harrisville, I saw one monarch, in Ithaca three, and one in Vinegar Hollow. In past years,  significant numbers have accompanied me on my daily dog-walking rambles. Being with them, admiring their determined, zig-zaggy flitting, from blossom to blossom, I have felt part of the hero’s journey, the voyage home, a mythology rooted in biology.

Monarch on Verbena bonariensis in my garden in Ithaca, NY.

Monarch on Verbena bonariensis in my garden in Ithaca, NY.

Monarch visiting Verbena bonariensis in my garden in Ithaca, NY.

Underside wings of monarch still visiting Verbena bonariensis. It’s easier to write about monarchs than to photograph them, which is a dizzying experience.

The media have documented the decline in monarch numbers more authoritatively. The figure given since January 2014 is a 90% decline. For graphs, see the website of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and an article in the Washington Post by Brad Plummer. Plummer reports a conversation with Lincoln Brower of Sweet Briar College, one of the world’s foremost monarch experts, who outlines three causes for the decline:  deforestation in Mexico, severe weather issues (e.g., the 2013 drought in Texas), and herbicide-based agriculture. I remember a lecture given by Brower at Cornell a few years ago, in which he noted that efforts to create a monarch reserve in Mexico had in fact led to more poaching by illegal loggers than before its creation. All monarchs have to fly through Texas, so not much can be done to prevent a decline due to drought. It is important to know, however, that monarchs flying south need to feed heavily on nectar, some of which they store for use during the winter “hibernation.”  You might say that blossoms are their gas stations. The issue of herbicide-ready agriculture is big and contentious.

Citing the figure of a 97% decline, Richard Coniff in a post on his “Strange Behaviors” blog is pointed in stating that it’s now a question of Monsanto vs. the Monarchs. Since Monsanto developed Round-up ready soybean and corn seed in the 1990s, the widespread of this seed, which enables large-scale herbicide spraying, in the Midwest has wrecked havoc with the life-supporting patchwork of milkweed species hanging out here and there in fields and along roadsides. It takes four generations of monarchs to hatch and breed and feed on milkweed foliage, on their way across the United States to Canada. Milkweed species are said to show a 67% decline in numbers.

Coniff notes that farmers are not the problem and believes that Monsanto has the money to establish milkweed-friendly zones around agricultural fields. Apparently Monsanto is presently studying whether the fear of monarch extinction is legitimate, and whether it wishes to be part of conservation efforts.

We can all plant milkweeds. There are 110-120 species, of which 32 are particularly helpful for monarchs. Coniff offers a link to supplier of milkweed seeds and plants. Milkweeds in themselves are a wonderful group of plants with a  unique floral structure (see this additional Xerces posting) (and this one showing the common milkweed [Asclepias syriaca]), complete with horns, hoods, and corpuscula. Many of us in the northeast know the common milkweed, its fleshy, drooping, dusty-rose flowers, hypnotically scented, but there are many other milkweed species

 

Milkweed flowers with visitor.

Milkweed flowers with visitors, seen summer 2014 (Enfield, near Ithaca, NY)

with the same fascinating flowers perfected in different sizes and shapes (scroll down to the bottom of this link).

MonarchWatch.org, led by Chip Taylor, is an excellent organization/website offering information on the biology of monarchs and milkweeds and on conservation efforts. Many people are now hosting monarch “waystations” under the guidance of MonarchWatch.

Monarchs have been called “iconic” and their flight “epic,” and rightfully so. Every school child in North America has known their story. Many have watched, as I have, the chrysalis become butterfly in just seconds, miraculously, as the molecules reorganize themselves from immobile jewel case into polka-dotted flight machine. And there is more to learn. Just last week, National Geographic posted an article on new discoveries about the genetics behind the white monarch and the efficiency of  flight muscles in the migratory monarch. They continue to inspire our creativity, as in this book shown below about a biologist coming home to Lake Erie to study monarch migration, or this new Harrisville Watershed yarn called “Monarch” (click on it, sitting to the left of “Barn Red,” for a close-up).

A new book whose title perhaps draws inspiration from the plight of the monarch.

A new book whose title perhaps draws inspiration from the plight of the monarch.

There are many good people working to ensure a future for monarchs, so that they do not become part of a mythic past. And there are many good weeds and wildflowers ready to be part of the ongoing story.

P. S.  For an article on the migration of Fall 2014, see this article titled “For the Monarch Butterfly, a Long Road Back” by Liza Gross.

 

The Importance of Mud Puddles!

 

Young man with stroller, little boy, and old man with young girl.

Hiking to pond at Topstone Park: young father with baby in stroller, young boy, and grandfather carrying young girl.

We are on an “adventure” with my son and the grandchildren, five and a half, two and a half, and twelve days old, on Labor Day. Restless people of all ages settle down in walking through a forest. So much the better if there is a pond at the end of the trail.

Beginning in 1970, a small number of residents of Redding, CT, formed the Redding Open Land, Inc. (R.O.L.I) initiative  to provide open space for the town. Topstone Park would eventually incorporate most of the land that comprised Edward Steichen’s farm on Topstone Road. Longtime resident of Redding, Steichen, the famous photographer and delphinium breeder, had decided to sell almost 400 acres of his farm at about the same time as R.O.L.I. started its work. The story of Topstone Park‘s creation proves that a small group of individuals can preserve open space for community use.

At the end of the trail we arrived at a curvaceous pond (scroll down to see many views of the pond), complete with a small beach and a beautiful expanse of rose-colored waterlilies. Steichen photographed extensively in this area.  One of his most famous “pictorialist” (tinted) photographs is “The Pond–Moonlight” (now known as “the world’s most expensive photograph”).  However, Steichen’s greatest contribution as a photographer is no doubt The Family of Man, the book that includes the 503 photographs he made for an exhibition under the same name at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. Capturing images of human emotions in faces of people from many countries around the world, he shows viewers how similarly humans of diverse ethnicities and cultures feel. Love here, at our elbow,  is the same as love far, far away on the other side of the Earth.

Waterlilies at Touchstone Park.

Waterlilies at Touchstone Park. Little green heron settles just to the right of this scene. The lavender of pickerel weed just visible in lower right side of photograph.

The children seize buckets left on the beach and start building a castle. I wade into the pond to fetch a few of the giant snails that sail, slowly, like an armada of Spanish galleons, underwater near shore. They are slightly slimy, covered with a gentle fuzz of green algae. The children make a fortress with a moat to enclose the snails but release them almost immediately as they discover that pouring bucket after bucket of water over them is fun. The moat slumps back into the sand in endlessly new wavy patterns and the snails sail back to sea serenely. I fetch more snails and encourage the children to touch the fuzziness of the algae on their shells. They are most likely the Chinese mystery snail (Cipangopaludina chinensis) or the Japanese mystery snail (Cipangopaludina japonica), according to information and photos in a wonderful book that I found:

Amazing reference work on Connecticut's flora and fauna.

Amazing reference work on Connecticut’s flora and fauna.

A little green heron  (scroll down to the sixth photo) soon joins us, settling on a dead branch poking out of the water lilies. The boy, who loves carrying his pint-sized binoculars with him wherever he goes, finally spots the heron, so perfectly camouflaged, his silhouette at the same jagged angle as the branch. He is thrilled, though I am not sure what he sees through the binoculars that he loves to brandish, but he does finally make out the well camouflaged bird with his naked eyes.

It is time to take baby back to mommy, so we  say good-bye to the pond, the snails, the water lilies, the little green heron, and the peacefulness. We walk back through the forest to the carpark. Here I photograph the encounter of boy and mud puddle.

He approaches.

He approaches.

 

“Can I?” he asks. “Sure,” I say.  He had already barreled into a puddle on our way into the park when no one was looking (and was told not to get his feet wet), but since we were the slow pokes bringing up the rear guard on the way back to the car, clearly no one besides ourselves would see where we were thinking of placing our feet.

He stares at it.

He stares at it.

 

The joy of wet, soggy feet.

The joy of wet, soggy feet.

 

“This is so much fun,” he says.

Does he see himself? The golden light of early morning? The ripples? There is so much to see.

I had not realized the sky was so beautiful until I saw its golden reflection in the puddles. It will be some time before baby can step in a puddle, but I am sure his adventure in Topstone Park registers somewhere in his small body.

It is a truism that the best things in life are free. Mud puddles fall into that category. Open space, open heart. All of us should have the opportunity to be in open space where we can experience the family of man becoming the family of all things on the Earth. The mud puddle has become a metaphor for childhood joy, a joy that is too often short-lived (please see the mission of The Muddy Puddles Project).

We must treasure the mud puddle at the very moment it appears in front of us–or, for sure, on our second chance because there is always a second chance.

Finding the Lonesome Pine

 

 

Vinegar Hollow. Stark's Ridge is the farthest bare mountain top (left of center). Back Creek Mountain stretches off on far top right.

Vinegar Hollow. Stark’s Ridge is the farthest bare mountain top (left of center). Back Creek Mountain stretches off on far top right.

Trekking abandoned logging roads by ATV with a chainsaw in the back of the vehicle is a new experience for me, but happily so. As a young girl I wanted to be a plant explorer in the great tradition of “Chinese” Wilson and Reginald Farrer, who brought back garden treasures from the remotest parts of lands still foreign to westerners at the time. Farrer roamed craggy mountains and misty valleys in Burma, China, and Tibet in life-threatening conditions armed with whiskey and a set of Jane Austen. So here I am, exploring remote mountain tops and glens of the Allegheny Mountains, fulfilling youthful dreams. I am home and do not need to carry whiskey and Austen.

 

Back Creek Mountain.

Back Creek Mountain  meets the sky above Vinegar Hollow.

 

The folds of Back Creek Mountain, which forms one of the north-south borders of Vinegar Hollow, looks impenetrable and pristine from Stark’s Ridge, the highest point directly opposite on the other side of the hollow. The wooded undulations of the mountain range reveal little of the history of human use of the landscape. In fact, it has been logged and relogged for the last several hundred years. Rough trails criss-cross the forest floor in a maze of switchbacks and curlicues. The forest giants are long gone, but secret gardens remain and a hoary pine native to the Appalachian Mountains.

Younger son on ATV.

Younger son on older son’s ATV.

 

ATVs are bumpy, noisy, and smelly, but they aid enormously in botanizing and can be turned off while one explores on foot. My husband and I had driven up this part of the logging trail maybe half a dozen times, but never stopped to get out at this particular turn in the road. Maybe it was the morning light shining on an expanse of silvery pale green lichens that caught our eyes, but soon enough we were trying to hop about on delicate feet, in thrall to the wonders underfoot in what I am calling the pine cone garden.

Lichens and pine cone.

Lichened branches and pine cones.

 

Pine cone and lichens.

Pine cone and lichens.

Whether nesting in lichens or pine needles, each cone seemed to be at home. Like sunflowers, pine cones have a deeply satisfying architectural form, the scales overlapping in an arrangement reflecting a sequence of numbers called the Fibonacci series. These cones are striking for their silvery gray brown shading and the curving, decorative prickles at the end of each scale.

Pine cone.

Pine cone.

 

Pine cone.

Pine cone.

The cones are stalkless, seemingly having sprouted out of stout branches.

Fallen branch with cones.

Fallen branch with cones.

But where was the parent tree? I looked up finally.

Parent tree.

Parent tree.

The morning light shone on its lichened, outstretched arms. One branch lay blasted on the ground.

Branch bent to the ground.

Branch of parent tree bent to the ground.

Lichens covered the bark exuberantly.

Lacy lichen.

“Lacy lichen” on parent tree.

 

Lichen on parent tree.

“Hoary lichen” on parent tree.

Further walking on this rocky slope by the side of the logging road revealed some dainty lichens displaying a  lovely pastel, slightly orange-pink coloration, something that forest fairies might have planned.

Fairy lichen.

Pink earth lichen.

 

Dainty lichen.

The extremely photogenic pink earth lichen again.

I know I wrote in my last blog about the importance of identifying small life forms, but I decided not to pursue lichen identification here (it would be like Alice falling into a wonderland of splendid but strange forms and vocabulary) because my primary goal now is to honor the pine and its cones. “Hoary lichen” and “lacy lichen” are just my own bland names, not proper common names. It turns out (courtesy of my husband’s research) that the lichen with the pink knobs is easy to identify via Google images. It is known by a lovely common name–the pink earth lichen. Its scientific name, Dibaeis baeomyces, is not at all user friendly. Project Noah offers a photo with a description offering the information  that the knobs are filled with “cottony fibers.”

My husband and I got busy taking measurements and assessing characteristics that would identify the pine.

Pine cone display technician David Fernandez.

Pine cone display technician David Fernandez.

 

A 2-3 needle pine!

A 2 (-3) needle pine! Apparently the number of needles per bundle is not totally constant.

 

One thing that makes pines fairly easy to identify is that there are not many different species of them in the world. Further, pine needles are arranged in little bundles bound in a common sheath, and the number of needles in the bundle (fascicle) is distinctive for each species. The familiar white pine, distinctive for its long, graceful needles, has five needles per bundle, for example.  So, it’s pretty easy to count the number of needles per bundle on a pine sample–we found two needles per bundle in this pine–and look up a list of 2-needle pines in North America. The list is not that long. Also, the pine cones of our pine were unusually prickly, which proved an excellent identifying characteristic. First we settled on Pinus echinata, the shortleaf pine, because it has prickle-tipped cones and it’s native, but its growth habit (overall shape) wasn’t right. We moved on through the list of 2-needle pines.

Voila Pinus pungens, commonly known as the prickly pine, table mountain pine, and hickory pine! Prickly pine  is certainly a suitable common name because of the cone, and table mountain because of the high elevation at which it likes to grow, but hickory pine? A hickory tree is in a completely different family and order and is known for its shaggy bark and edible nuts. I love it when the common names of life forms become interesting metaphors, connecting the unlike through some hint of likeness, so I puzzle over its derivation.  Hickory trees are often gaunt and gangly in shape, which is perhaps the likeness that inspired the common name of hickory pine because Pinus pungens is  described as having a “rounded, irregular shape.” Another possibility is that the common name recognizes the fact that Pinus pungens likes to grow with hickories. However, there were no hickories on this rocky hillside.

It is a lonesome pine. Unlike most species of pines, this pine is known for growing as scattered individuals, rather than in large groves.  Lonesome but not unsung. John Fox Jr. made this species famous in his book The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, a top-ten bestseller of 1908-1909, and a book still dramatized in yearly pageants in Big Stone Gap, Virginia where John Fox died in 1919. Fox’s book beautifully describes the Appalachian mountain culture and landscape, and the confusion and disruption that occur when modern civilization arrives, here in the form of the train and coal mining. Fox describes the lonesome pine repeatedly so that it becomes a character in its own right, representing the isolated individual struggling to retain identity. The main human protagonist is a young man from “civilization” who arrives to bring change to the area but is nevertheless sensitive to the value of what he finds there. Fox writes from the point of view of this character:

He had seen the big pine when he first came to those hills—one morning, at daybreak, when the valley was a sea of mist that threw soft clinging spray to the very mountain tops: for even above the mists, that morning, its mighty head arose—sole visible proof that the earth still slept beneath. Straightaway, he wondered how it had ever got there, so far above the few of its kind that haunted the green dark ravines far below. Some whirlwind, doubtless, had sent a tiny cone circling heavenward and dropped it there. It had sent others, too, no doubt, but how had this tree faced wind and storm alone and alone lived to defy both so proudly? Some day he would learn.

–John Fox, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine   

He suggests a parallel and a connection between the plight of the lonesome pine and the human being. Defiance in the face of unaccountable whirlwinds, like World War II. My parents loved this book for its description of the mountains they settled in post my father’s service in the war. With all their hearts they aspired to be mountain folk, fierce individuals never at peace when far from lichen-covered trees and forested vistas. Their grandson has now purchased some of this mountain land to protect–from the “green dark ravines far below” to the rocky slopes of the ridge tops where the lonesome pine survives, casting its prickly cones into a garden of fantastical lichen, both tender and tough.

IMG_3329

Trees rising from one of the deep, green glens of Back Creek Mountain.

  

 

Plants and People: Celebrating the Brooklyn Botanic Children’s Garden

Display near the entrance to the Children's Garden of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Display near the entrance to the Children’s Garden of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

 

On Saturday, June 7th, 2014, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) celebrated the 100th Anniversary of its renowned Children’s Garden. As Frances Miner, who worked in the Children’s Garden for 43 years said, “There are plants and there are people, and there are many ways they can be brought together.”

 

Exhibit item in the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

Exhibit item in the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

 

The history of the Children’s Garden is beautifully described on BBG’s website. Anyone interested in gardening with children will find this history interesting. Anyone interested in reading about strong women will find the profiles of Ellen Eddy Shaw and Frances Miner, who both shaped the garden for many years, inspiring.

Elizabeth Scholtz (left),   Director Emeritus of BBG, and Ruth Harzula, fellow instructor in the Children's Garden.

Elizabeth Scholtz (left), Director Emeritus of BBG, and Ruth Harzula, fellow instructor in the Children’s Garden.

I came to BBG as a “botanical instructor” just as Frances Miner was retiring. The motto she stressed was “learn by doing.” This statement has rung true to me many times over the years. Too often we feel “stupid” because we can’t replicate a procedure or activity after hearing an explanation. But we are not “stupid,” we just have not learned through the body. The Director of BBG at the time, Elizabeth Scholtz (shown above) still goes to work at the garden, as Director Emeritus, Monday through Friday. Her devotion, charm, and horticultural advocacy are legendary. Ruth Harzula (also shown above), who was the first woman to graduate from Delaware Valley College with a degree in Ornamental Horticulture,  was in my cohort of young “botanical instructors” who worked at the garden in the 1970s. She brought many talents to our group, among them working with special needs children in the vegetable garden. I also remember the day she unleashed a natural history drama at lunch. Bringing forth her insect collection for show and tell, she screamed upon opening it.  There were lots of little “bodies” moving around.  A praying mantis egg case had hatched and a swarm of tiny praying mantises, each the length of a finger nail at most, was busy devouring her carefully pinned insects. It was a terrifying scene of carnage, wings and legs strewn about half eaten.  At least this is how I remember it. Ruth, please let me know if I have misrepresented the event.

 

Tools in the Children's Garden house.

Tools in the Children’s Garden house.

In my era we taught a sequence of four classes for New York City public school children in which they learned how to make cuttings, how to pot up their rooted cutting,  and had tours of the conservatory and the outdoor plant collections. I remember the students as being very interested and well behaved. They loved the hands-on work in the greenhouse. We taught adult classes as well. While most classes had a practical application, like dyeing fibers with plant materials, I taught a “romantic” one, “Trailing the Wild Arbutus with Gun and Camera,” about the world’s great plant explorers and the plants they introduced to our gardens. These plant-loving explorers underwent extraordinary deprivations and dangerous situations to make these flowery “introductions.”

Staff in the Children's Garden offer lemon balm cuttings for potting up.

Staff in the Children’s Garden offer lemon balm cuttings for potting up at the celebration. Lemon balm is tough and lovely. The cutting I potted up survived several subway rides and a long bus ride to arrive safely in Ithaca, NY.

 

I was also in charge of the Shakespeare Garden, but at that time there was insufficient funding for buying special varieties or even spending many hours in the garden. Luckily it looked perfectly beautiful, to me, with too many foxgloves.

There are still lots of foxgloves in the Shakespeare Garden.

There are still lots of foxgloves in the Shakespeare Garden.

 

Scotch thistle in the Shakespeare Garden.

Scotch thistle in the Shakespeare Garden.

 

 

Mullein plant in the Shakespeare Garden.

Flowering stalk of the Arctic Summer Mullein (Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Polarsommer’) in the Shakespeare Garden.

 

There were people as interesting as the plants. One was George Kalmbacher, a retired postal worker, who became an expert in bromeliads (pineapples and their relatives), traveling all over the world to visit and document rare species. Like our very own phantom of the opera, he could be found at all hours of the day and night scurrying between the herbarium and the conservatory with a huge camera and a plant in his hand that he was photographing, probably for the book What Flower is That? It had over 1000 photographs of garden flowers. His knowledge was encyclopedic–because he certainly learned by doing. One winter he got quite excited because the night-blooming cereus (a kind of cactus) was getting ready to flower and he  urged us to be in the conservatory between 10 pm and 11 pm for the grand opening. I fretted about staying so late in the city, but he said that this would be my only chance to watch the huge buds open, petal by petal, and he was right. Some call it the Queen of the Night, and have paid tribute with musical accompaniment. By morning the Queen has wilted, her gown in disarray, the petals hanging limp.

 

Keyhole tree near the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

Keyhole tree near the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG.

And then there was Frank Okamura who curated an outstanding collection of bonsai. He was a little intimidating, not loquacious like George, stern in protecting his tiny trees. Although not a fan of bonsai, when I stood before one of his two-foot-high, 100-year-old oak trees in full flower, I felt the miracle of being able to physically and mentally encompass the entirety of the oak.  You can shrink a tree, but not its flowers. The oak tassels (the name for their flowers) were their normal size, dangling like hugely oversize but still elegant ear-rings on the diminutive trees, an incongruous, arresting sight.  Some people don’t realize that trees flower, so a bonsai seen through the seasons can be instructive. Like Mr. Kalmbacher, Mr. Okamura was self-trained.  The obituary in the New York Times written by Stuart Lavietes describes how, interned in California in WWII, Mr. Okamura came to the garden to work in its neglected Japanese garden, but also waited tables and set pins in bowling alleys.  Mr. Okamura’s daughter said that he “virtually dangled off precipices in the Catskills to get saplings he thought would make good bonsai trees.”

 

The celebration offered healthy drinks.

The celebration offered healthy beverages.

I first started as a botanical instructor in Fall ’73 or early ’74, fresh from a year as a horticultural work-study student at Kew Gardens. The salary was $6000 a year so I commuted one and a half hours from home each way. Leaving a trail of corn muffin crumbs from my favorite deli in Grand Central, I carried hazelenut coffee, a book, and my earth shoes. It was in Grand Central that I bought a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  The opening lines transported me:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Upon reading that sentence I was deeply in love with a book. An untidy passenger, I sat on the subway reading and spilling coffee but never scalded anyone but myself. Back then Grand Central was not the upscale place it is now. I remember a homeless woman in a tattered nightgown barely covered by a dirty raincoat standing on the top of the steps leading down to the Lexington Avenue line, urinating and shouting obscenities. The stream of well-dressed commuters heading to Wall Street parted in front of her and united beyond her seemingly without notice. Buffeted by the noise and the soot, I rose out of the subway as bedraggled as the Queen of the Night after flowering and entered the Brooklyn Botanic Garden through a turnstile leading to the Cherry Esplanade. Calm, green, symmetrical allees of flowering cherry trees lined a central area, a place to breathe deeply, a sanctuary. I learned then and know so much more now how much work it takes to maintain a sanctuary. In the obituary mentioned above, Stuart Lavietes writes that

Mr. Okamura taught his students that practicing bonsai required patience, sensitivity to nature and five fundamental qualities: humanity, justice, courtesy, wisdom and fidelity.

I would like to think that people, children and adults, do learn these qualities in working with plants, all plants, from liverworts to radishes to roses. I will let Ted Maclin, former coordinator of the Children’s Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden speak here:

Statement from

Statement from Ted Maclin, displayed in the exhibit at the Steinhardt Conservatory commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Children’s Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

 

So, I learned from plants and people in my days at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It was poignant on June 7th to greet people that I have not seen in 40 years. The good news is that their smiles are as youthful and their eyes as bright as when I first knew them. We were happy to be together again in the garden.

 

Carolina spicebush (Calycanthus sp.) near Cherry Esplanade.

Strawberry Shrub (also known as Carolina Allspice, Sweet Shrub, Sweet Betsy, Bubby Bush [Calycanthus floridus])  near Cherry Esplanade.