Family roots that grow and bloom

My garden of wildflowers is a crazy quilt of time's ironies. Early autumn: The spring-blooming plot on the shady side has long gone to seed, muffled under a heavy canopy of leafy green. The meadow garden is just past its peak now and a riot of color. In the field, buds on five kinds of asters begin to swell and hint at autumn's rainbow that will blaze there in a couple of weeks. The crickets whine as if to tell me that it's later than I think.

Even with all the rain we've had, one area of my garden is dry and dusty now. I add compost each spring, but the native soil has a good memory and resumes its true nature before I can manage to get back to it.

Almost everything in that plot wilts now, except the steadfast mounds of coralbells.

Though pretty, the plant's flowers are small, and it's grown primarily for the foliage - leaves that keep coming all season long, filling out the plant with stunning tones that range from deep mauve to mossy bronze.

Before my grandmother Carroll emigrated from County Kerry, Ireland, as a young girl, she dug and potted some coralbells from her mother's garden to bring a small piece of her homeland to her new one. She planted them after she settled in western Pennsylvania, and the perennial thrived.

Grandmother married when she was 16 and had children of her own. When it came time for her two daughters and three sons to leave home, she sent each one off with a piece of that original plant. Members of each generation have continued the tradition, and Kerry coralbells grow in gardens from Ohio to Maryland to Maine.

Half of the plant I was given grows in a sunny spot and shines. The other half grows on the house's shady side. Though robust enough, it has more subdued tones that range from rich mahogany to auburn.

My mother was an avid gardener and tended a beautiful plot. It was bordered with those coralbells that she continued to divide and replant year after year. Her passing occurred within months of our son's birth, monumental events that caused me to reconsider the path I was on. I quit my work as an arts administrator to stay at home, raise a family, and open my mother's and grandmother's gift to me: the love of gardening.

Today I'm dividing my coralbells, setting out another generation to grow along the garden path. One of these days, our son - a teenager now - may want them for beginning his own garden.

I dig my shovel deeper and tease apart the tangled roots, careful not to damage the tiny white crowns that will serve as next year's offsets. Tough and wiry, these roots promise continuation.

A summery breeze blows. The shining leaves of the Kerry coralbells bounce and seem to laugh a little at whatever the season may bring. And their perennial promise from season to season promises our own place, too, in a larger harmony.

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