Longing for souvenirs of the soil

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Someone asked an Englishman I know, on his brief first visit to America, what sort of differences he noticed between the two countries. "The shapes of the windows," he said. A nice idea.

If I had been asked the same question after I moved from Old England to New England to live and work (only to reverse the process a few years later), I might have replied (assuming I had not first said "ice cream" or "speech patterns"): "Bloodroot. Trilliums. Maidenhair ferns. Indian Pipe." In case you're wondering, these are all plants. Woodland plants.

These wonderful wild plants of New England were completely new to me. I'd never seen them, not even in a botanical garden. But in Vermont, particularly on weekends, when I had time to wander about in the woods that densely cloak the hillsides, I encountered many such unexpected items of plant life. It felt like those first noticings when, as a child, you bent down to finger unknown bright things on the ground, amazed but wordless.

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To me, these plants seemed like rarities. It took a while for me to realize that, in their New England habitat, some were prolific, if not positively commonplace. What I failed to find were many of the familiar woodland plants I took for granted at home. I hardly cared. I stumbled, enchanted, on surprise after surprise pushing up through the leafy dross. I knew excitedly that I was "abroad." I imagine that my excitement would have seemed peculiar to a Vermonter. What was so thrilling about a few old weeds?

Take bloodroot, for example. It's mentioned, and illustrated, in a book I've been relishing through the winter months called "The American Woodland Garden: Capturing the Spirit of the Deciduous Forest" (Timber Press, 2002). It's just the sort of evocative book I like when winter makes getting out in the garden unattractive or impossible. But it's much more than a gardeners' book. It enticingly brings back to me those New England woods. All the seasons are in its pages, just as all the seasons transform the woodlands. The lush summer greens. The fire of autumn. The snowfall. The springtime wake-up call.

"Bloodroot," writes author Rick Darke, under compelling photographs of its pellucid, white-petaled flower-stars (below) and its small reddish rootstock from which native Americans extracted a dye, "is such a commonplace harbinger of spring, it's hard for me to imagine a woodland garden without it." He goes on to say how easily it spreads and naturalizes.

Sitting in Glasgow, Scotland, I am simply green with envy. Bloodroot may be rampant in Mr. Darke's neck of thewoods, but here it is gold dust. I'd love to have even a small patch of it, to share its small wonder with friends. I've tried, but soil or climate or competition, or all three, eventually took their toll, and it isn't one of our harbingers any more. It's vanished.

Some plants are place-specific. Indian Pipe is one of those, decidedly. When I first came across it in Vermont, I thought it must have landed from some other, weirder planet. It is almost spooky, a shadowy character closely associated with the leaf litter of the forest. It looks as if it can't decide whether it is a mushroom. (It isn't.) Nobody apparently has much idea how it grows, and taking it home and trying to make it grow in captivity is a thoroughly unlikely notion. Such localized plants are, in fact, a very good (if small) reason for traveling.

Many plants can be transplanted quite successfully. If not, the pleasures of having a garden would (as some purists say it should) be confined to local species. Admittedly, this idea has its appeal. We are gradually being wooed to the idea of really noticing and appreciating familiar plants, rather than exotic ones. We don't half look at what we know too well. We should.

But I still like the idea that our garden might be like our house, a pleasant setting for mementoes. So long as rare plants are left alone, and all due customs requirements met, what harm is there in bringing home a growing or growable token of travel? Why shouldn't a plant from New England be happily settled among our wild Scottish primroses, bluebells, and snowdrops - just as a lump of red sandstone from Colorado, a tiny chunk of the Berlin Wall, a small rock from a beach in Maine, and some pine cones from Slovenia rub shoulders happily on our shelves and tables? Their associations are like odors that jog memory.

After coming back from New England to Old, I discovered that the two delicately fronded but surprisingly tough maidenhair ferns I first saw in Vermont were available from a local fern specialist. For more than 20 years, I have grown them in our Glasgow garden in two places, by the kitchen door and by the garage. They mingle naturally with other plants. Nobody notices them much.

But every time I catch sight of them, I am back in New England again, tramping those "lovely, dark and deep" woods, wondering if I might bump into Robert Frost ambling along his road "less traveled by."

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