Gardeners are filled with opinions and do not always agree, particularly when it comes to selecting plants for the garden. For my mother and me, this has always been the case, and our differences have often left me questioning the laws of inheritance. I have a love of the ephemeral, magnolias that bloom briefly and shed their petals at the lightest frost or the slightest spring breeze, wisterias and lilacs that come on full force in May and recede to the background for the rest of the season. Their memory stays with me until the next season, when they repeat the performance, while their fragrance and form remind me of seasons past and future.
Although my mother refers to her efforts as “working in the yard,” as she never thought her own horticultural pursuits were worthy of being labeled as gardening, she still, like every gardener, has her opinions about the right plants for her backyard. Nearly in her ninth decade (do not dare share that I told you that), she can still be found in her garden as soon as the earth warms, and she has a different take on the plants I hold dear. Unlike her son, she prefers plants that perform throughout the season. While her yard contains German iris, lilacs, and peonies that only bloom briefly, her love is for plants, which like her, keep on giving. She prefers remontant or reblooming rose varieties to antique forms like the red rambler that grew along our driveway when we first moved into the house she has inhabited now for almost half a century. It bloomed once each season and then faded from glory.
Many of the original remontant rose varieties were produced crossing reblooming Chinese rose species with their more fragrant European counterparts that only flowered once a season. This process began in the 18th century, when the first reblooming varieties were introduced, and continues with the Knockout and Oso Easy roses that have entered the market in the past decade. These remontant varieties provide color throughout a good portion of the season and meet one of my mother’s standards for a useful garden plant: they perform over the long haul, a fact that was often conveyed to me by phone as late as November, as my mother cut a few stems to bring indoors from the last round of blooms for the season.
With this in mind, this past month my mother and I drove to the nursery with my dog Fred on her lap. “Why shouldn’t he have a day out too,” she exclaimed, at the same time admonishing me not to tell my nephew, whose retriever would not fit on her lap, as she did not want Hunter to feel slighted because of his size. The weather in Chicago had been unseasonably warm and most of the magnolias had come and gone. “Such a brief moment of glory, it hardly seems worth it,” my mother exclaimed. Lilacs were budding up and some had even broken bud, sending their fragrance throughout the nursery. My mother loved the lilacs that surrounded our cottage when they were in bloom, but even their fragrance led her to say that she wished they lasted longer. And, as we looked about, we spotted a new variety of lilac, ‘Bloomerang,’ that was hybridized by crossing it with another species of Syringa or lilac so that it would rebloom later in the season.
While I stood aghast at the poor choice of name for the cultivar and its habit of showing itself again in flower in the wrong season, I could see that my mother was taken by the idea of getting to experience the color and scent of lilacs more than once a season. I imagined that, for my mother, the repeat fragrance of the lilac later in the season would call to mind springs at our cottage with my father, who passed away 26 years ago. I also realized that the idea of being reminded of this moment more often than every May has its advantages, particularly at a stage in life when we hold such memories as more precious than ever.
As Fred, my mother and I traversed the nursery, we saw a variety of plants – hydrangeas and lilacs, roses and viburnum, and even some German irises that had been hybridized for their prolific and repeated bloom. To my mind, many of them sounded like they had been named, not with an ear for romance, but with names driven by marketing agencies. Yet, one could not discount that they each allowed us an opportunity to experience a favorite flower a second time each season. And as I looked at my mother, almost 90 years strong, I realized I could not wait for these same hybridizers to create a remontant peony, strong and resilient like my mother, that I could enjoy experiencing more than once a year, and, ideally, for years to come.
Maybe the laws of inheritance made sense to me after all. It is just that some traits don’t make their appearance until later in life.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.