Pretty blooms all in a row

Childhood memories remind a new gardener that she has a little nature knowledge after all.

I panicked when we moved into the new house. We had always seen it in the winter, so the yard's lushness shocked us on that midspring day when the property became ours. The plants were already starting to take over, growing wildly from the previous week of rain.

"I don't know anything about gardening," I said, as I surveyed the entangled masses of leaves, buds, berries, tall spiky things, and low creepy-crawly vines. I needed help.

My friend Susan came over with her 3-year-old twins in tow. Under a bright blue sky, we walked through the yard trying to identify the various plantings, while her daughter, Alex, hovered close to the bright purple rhododendrons.

"Ask Patti if you may pick one," Susan said, as if reading her mind.

"Yes, of course," I replied. In my mind, flowers are for picking. Lilacs are meant to be sniffed, and satiny-soft rose petals need to be rubbed between tiny fingers.

Alex reached up and carefully but steadfastly pulled off a long branch full of flowers. For that brief moment, her fascination sparked something within me – memories and sensations and lessons learned when I was a kid and that I had almost forgotten about.

These included the incredible detail of bleeding hearts. When I was Alex's age, I was fascinated with the delicate little bright-pink, heart-shaped blooms with their white teardrop tails. I would gently twist one of the dangling hearts off the stem and study it up close. If you carefully peeled back the pink part, you'd be left with a white skeleton outline of the heart, like the ribbing inside a bell pepper.

The buds on the rose of Sharon shrub were similar. When they were new, the green knobs were closed tight around the soon-to-blossom pink flowers. But after the blooms died, the husk would turn a crisp, papery brown, and the round black seeds inside would scatter. I recalled plucking the pods from my grandparents' bush in their side yard, wondering where all the pretty flowers went, and crunching the ribbed pod into pieces.

Marigolds were fascinating, too. Not only did their orange color attract me, but the scent did as well. As I rolled one of the flowers between my fingers, the petals would separate and the sharp citron smell would be released.

I remember looking carefully at the straight strands that went from orange to black, and my mother explaining that these were the seeds. If we saved them for the next year, we'd have more marigolds.

Lilies of the valley were such an enigma. How could such a teeny flower produce such a heady scent? And how could a plant be so perfectly delicate yet sculptural?

I loved staring at the tiny white bells, trying to hold one between my thumb and forefinger without crushing it.

The bursting pink parachutes of the mountain laurel were always so tempting to pick, but their sticky stems always sent me to the garden hose to wash my hands.

Later in summer, my favorite flower would sprout up: the snapdragon. Not only did they come in an array of colors, but they were fun to play with. If you squeezed the sides, the mouth would open up like a little finger puppet.

Each flower would take on its own personality, depending upon which way it was held. Right side up, it was the lipsticked pout of a lady. Upside down, it was the underbite of a funny, toothless old man.

"Alex, I don't think Patti meant you could take a whole stem of flowers," Susan reprimanded her daughter. " 'One' means one flower, not one branch."

But I didn't care. As Alex studied the delicate stamens of the flowers, I realized that this was just the beginning of her gardening education.

And maybe someday, like me, she would realize that she knew a lot more about nature than she thought she did.

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