My mother loved lilies of the valley. She understood their preference for shade, their need to shun bright light. She approved of the modest green capes in which the tiny blossoms wrapped themselves. At the time, our family owned an impressive collection of empty Kraft Cheese Spread glasses (from pimento and olive, mostly), and mother often filled the glasses with lilies of the valley and arranged the bouquets around our duplex -- on the kitchen table, the dining room buffet, the window sill above her sewing machine. The blooms never lasted long. No matter how often we changed the water, the bell-shaped flowers soon drooped on their delicate necks, bowed their heads, and died. But the plants returned, every spring, to our garden. And why not? After all, seed catalogues promise that lilies of the valley -- when well rooted -- will spread indefinitely, need almost no care, and live for many years.
When I was young, summer arrived on the ruffled skirts of hollyhocks. They grew in sturdy rows beside our wooden backyard fence, and even more than monarch butterflies or morning glories scrambling up the porch rail, hollyhocks meant summertime to me.
The hollyhocks stood taller than I. The flowers -- pink, peach, red, white -- big as saucers, sheer as tissue paper -- hung like Lilliputian dresses at an outdoor bazaar. In my hands the blooms morphed into brides with their attendants, princesses surrounded by ladies-in-waiting, a line of headless ballerinas. In my summer garden, make-believe grew real as hollyhocks, but by September the flowers had gone to seed. Not to worry. Horticulturists say hollyhocks are a robust lot, and once established can last a long time.
Soon the short days of autumn will be here, with asters, goldenrod and mums blooming through chilly wind, frost and the first snow. But eventually we must deadhead the plants, rake up twigs and leaves, renew depleted soil. We’ll cast away stones, gather stones together, and put our gardens to bed for the winter -- our hopes for renewal waiting like seeds in the earth.
Today, however, I remember a trip my husband and I took to Holland some years ago. In a village near the Zuider Zee we visited a tulip farm where acres of cut tulips were piled in heaps -- luminous purple, blue, orange, crimson, yellow, green -- like splendid dead parrots. While the cut blossoms lay unattended, workers gently placed the tear-shaped bulbs in burlap bags for shipment overseas. The flowers would be burned and plowed back into the earth. “This process may seem heartless,” the tulip farmer said, “but the transient beauty of young flowers is less prized than the enduring wisdom in the bulb.”
“One generation goes, another comes,” says Ecclesiastes, and to rail against this certainty is a waste of precious time. Unlike hollyhocks or lilies of the valley, our seasons will not last indefinitely or even (in some cases) many years. This autumn I ask, who will tend my garden when I’m gone? Perhaps the answer -- and some comfort -- lies in these words from a seed catalog:
“Mature tulip bulbs produce offset buds that are clones of the parent bulb, endowed with the same characteristics and genetic code. Nourished by the mother bulb, offsets grow into daughter bulbs, and the original mother shrivels and slowly disappears. When separated from the mother bulb, the young bulbs start flowering themselves, and even if planted upside down, they instinctively turn, turn, turn and grow towards
copyright Ozzie Nogg 2016