A Childhood Ablaze With Blooms

My childhood - when I wasn't away at school, that is - was literally surrounded by blooming things. They were on all sides. My father had a four-acre market garden, and he did not specialize in vegetables. He - or rather his professional gardener, Walter Ducker, with Father's help - grew dahlias, chrysanthemums, and sweet peas. There were other flowers, but I don't really remember them.

One reason I cannot forget the dahlias was their enormous size relative to me and the dog. We lived, at the peak of the season, in a shadowy green sub-dahlia world, chasing between the rows, the lush exotics towering over us with flowers like hats at Ascot: the poodle-clip pompoms, the spiky petalled cactus dahlias, and, above all, the mop-headed giants.

Dahlias come from a rather undistinguished wild origin, but have proved very responsive to horticulture. Breeding has resulted in an extraordinary array of forms and colors, true delphinium blue being about the only color that they can't be made to flaunt. There are deep maroons, clear bright yellow, salmon and apricot, crisp white, a purple-black piebald with white inverted commas, sheer vermilion, cream, and oranges galore. This salad of colors I was certain came from heaven, and I still think so.

We had a large dark shed at the back known as the incubator house. Chicks had been hatched here. Probably before I myself was hatched.

By the time I became conscious of my surroundings, the building was used for a different livestock altogether: buckets and buckets of blooms cut and bunched, ready for market. The sweet peas filled the dark space with incredible perfume. The dahlias and chrysanths had their own unmistakable smells, indelible, acrid. These smells issued from the leaves and stems, as I came to know well when my fingers could be trusted to help with the fiddly disbudding process designed to concentrate a plant's efforts into producing a few prize blooms rather than a multiplicity of small ones.

Disbudding was symbolic, in fact, of the whole perceived point of dahlias and chrysanthemums. The flower, the bloom, was everything. All the plant's other parts and stages were subsidiary to that climax.

When my father retired and we moved south, his all-day, every day hobby was growing plants, and he was exceptionally good at it. So was my mother, on a smaller scale. Their aim was brilliant color, the glory and showiness of blooms: dahlias still, but also begonias, schizanthus (extravagant displays of butterfly flowers), bedding plants like stocks and mesembryanthemum, and, for winter, hyacinths, cyclamen, potted primulas.

A few things were grown for foliage - asparagus and maidenhair ferns - but these were really just background for the flowers.

There are those in the horticultural world today who have a tendency to decry flowers as opposed to the leaves and branches, stems and roots. There are effective movements toward the growing of grasses and the cultivation of plants for their foliage. People are much more awake to structure and the subtle variations of green in gardens. In many ways, it's an inspiring development.

I remember interviewing a Scottish rhododendron expert some time ago. He told me with mock indignation how sometimes his clients would complain that a rhodo had been in their garden for several years without producing a single flower. "What do they want?" he exclaimed energetically. "I tell them to stop their complaining! The flower is nothing more than a short-lived bonus. It's the lasting characteristics they should relish: the leaf shapes, the color of the stems, the overall form, the indumentum."

AH! Indumentum. He waxed excessively lyrical about indumentum. (It means a surface hairiness in surprising variety.)

"Look!" he showed me, turning over a long dark-green leaf. "Look!" And sure enough, its underside was like soft brown felt. You could almost hear him purring with the strokeable pleasure of it. I can only guess at his ecstacy when reading such as this, say, from Vol. III of "The Rhododendron Species," by H.H. Davidian, where the author describes Rhododendron adenopodum from eastern Sichuan in China:

"The indumentum on the lower surface of the leaves is somewhat thick, felty or woolly, continuous, bistrate, an upper layer of Ramiform hairs with long very narrow filamentous branches, and a lower layer of Rosulate hairs." M-m-m-m-m.

All I can say is that my dad, and my mum, would have been skeptical or incredulous. I am not.

I make a virtue of my lack of skill in growing florist's flowers by increasingly preferring small short plants. Not that I no longer like flowers, but I have come to enjoy single blooms rather than heavy cabbage-y double ones - simple flowers that open to show their centers. They seem closer to nature, to the wild. I grow about one dahlia a year for old times' sake, and no chrysanthemums.

But sweet peas I cannot imagine not growing. They involve quite hard work, but they repay it utterly. One bunch, red-violet and blue-violet, white, pink, scarlet, cream, rich purple and maroon, transparent to the sunshine, is indescribably fragrant with a scent belonging to no other kind of flower. I grow these tall climbers entirely for their flowers. They look fine on the clinging stems (which, by the end of the long season, reach above the tallest bamboo stakes I can give them, and beyond my reach). But I persistently sacrifice their garden presence to their essential purpose: to be cut and brought indoors. Bunch after bunch in a good year. A legacy from childhood.

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