Greenpoint: Planting memories in the flower garden

Last summer’s golden glows share a window with zinnias, heliopsis and gladioli.
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Last summer’s golden glows share a window with zinnias, heliopsis and gladioli.

I spent some of the hot days of last week digging up clumps of golden glow that had become overabundant in my front garden, and moving them to the side of the house, near the window boxes.

My husband first found those golden glows, an old-fashioned rudbeckia, more than 20 years ago in a clearing in our woods that had once been a homestead. Maybe it was the site of an outhouse – the plants were once called “outhouse plants” since they grow so tall they offer a bit of privacy.

We had no idea what they were when he dug them up to put in our garden, but we loved the bright yellow flowers – profuse balls of petals on six-foot, leafy stems.

The summer our second child was born, 21 years ago, my husband’s parents and grandmother stayed with us for a few months. When those yellow flowers bloomed, Grandmother B solved the mystery. She remembered golden glows from her childhood in Michigan, when she and her friends would collect the blooms and sell them for pennies apiece to a local pharmacist. She couldn’t remember what purpose they served, but a lot of flowers in that class are used to make poultices to treat minor burns.

Over the years those plants have multiplied, been moved, shared with friends and neighbors, decimated by deer, died off and returned stronger than ever. And every year when they bloom, they make us think of Grandmother B, and what she must have been like as a kid in Michigan, roaming the meadows for flower heads.

Flowers are like that. They hold memories and trigger connections.

As I was digging up Grandmother’s golden glows, I noticed my bleeding heart was finally in bloom. I planted it after my brother-in-law died, 16 years ago. He was a gardener, and remembering him with plants seemed appropriate. Turns out his sister and a couple of my sisters also planted bleeding hearts for him, and think of him when they bloom.

Plants carry different meanings, and bleeding hearts are said to symbolize compassion and a love for everything in creation. We think of my brother-in-law every spring, and of his love for the plants bursting from the soil, the flowering bushes and trees he planted over the years, his love for his family. To me, bleeding heart means familial love.

Gardeners share their plants, especially as their perennials multiply year after year. My brother-in-law’s sister gave me some of her irises, pale yellow with purple flags, the same irises that were blooming in the woods around our house when we first moved in 30-odd years ago. The original ones got crowded out by the encroaching woods, so it was nice to replace them. My brother-in-law had shared some of his purple Siberian irises with us, and we planted them in a wild corner of the yard, hoping they’d naturalize there. But it was too shady, and after a few years they stopped returning. It’s OK. My neighbor has some to share, and I’ve got a clump of golden glow for her as a trade.

I’m looking for purple irises right now, in memory of my friend June. The first time I met her was when her husband, my colleague, invited a bunch of us work buddies over to have a lunch meeting at their house. We thought to bring his wife some flowers, and picked up a bunch of irises from the supermarket floral department. “Oh,” she said, gazing fondly at her husband, “he must have told you purple is my favorite color.”

Actually, it was serendipity, but now I can’t think of purple irises without thinking of June. She had carried some in her wedding bouquet and had some growing in front of her house, just blooming when she died earlier this month. Purple irises symbolize faith and hope, feelings that also remind me of June.

I’ll plant some for her in my garden. There’s room now, in front of Grandmother B’s golden glows and between my brother-in-law’s bleeding hearts and his sister’s yellow irises. I’ve got a garden full of memories, and symbols of love.

Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on June 6. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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