The stolen dahlia

Perhaps garden flowers are to be shared with others, after all.

STUNNING: Dahlias are esteemed for their full, colorful blooms.

Of course, it was absurd that I spent any time in New Zealand taking photographs of flowers common here in New England. However, in late February when we traveled to New Zealand, our local landscape had gone brown and leaden.

Arriving in the country was like arriving in Oz, an abrupt transition from sepia and gray to vibrant color. There were flowers everywhere, and in the public gardens my favorites were the dahlias.

At home on Cape Cod, we live near the water, and each gust of wind that crosses our front lawn is laden with salt. It defies logic to plant dahlias in front of our house, but we justify each new planting as an experiment and blithely forge ahead.

Two years ago, taking advantage of the rock fortress that my husband built for me on the corner of our lot, I set out some dwarf dahlias where they would be protected from the salty blasts.

They thrived. (Of course, it helped immensely that my husband hosed them down after particularly brisk and salty breezes passed over them.)

Last winter, I succumbed to catalog temptation, ordering a special collection of dahlias: ‘Café au Lait,’ a pale peachy-beige; ‘Thomas Edison,’ a show-stopping electric purple; and ‘Kelvin Floodlight,’ lemon yellow – all predicted to grow four to six feet. Incredibly, they grew – but did not attempt to reach their full six-foot potential.

With dahlias, I have learned that the fancy ones open over a period of days, holding back for full drama and effect. At last, one morning on my way to work this past August, I noticed that 'Café au Lait' had opened.

But I was late and hurried by on my bicycle, looking forward to enjoying it on my return in the afternoon.

When I got home, I stashed my bike and rushed out to examine my glorious dahlia. And it wasn’t there – just a ragged, broken stem where the first bloom had been.

I was devastated, incredulous. My husband told me what had transpired: A woman on a bike, headed out toward Penzance Point and its fabulous estates, had stopped and grabbed that flower.

He’d leaned out the window and yelled at her. She had shaken her head and yelled back that she “didn’t know” and pedaled off.

My husband realized I would be outraged, having waited so long and patiently for this grand floral event. He tried to find out the woman’s identity, sternly interrogating the guard who was stationed at the foot of Penzance Point. The guard ventured that she was a “houseguest.”

I was beside myself, stopping acquaintances and strangers from the point, asking for help in identifying the culprit. I sermonized aloud on the empty bike path and, later, ranted to friends and passersby who stopped to comment on the garden when I was out tending it. However, a few days later the next bloom came.

But within hours, its stalk was broken by a sharp gust of wind. If not one thing, then another.

A week or so later, a friend and I paid a visit to Meg, who lives and works as a caretaker near the tip of Penzance Point. Her front yard is an enormous dahlia garden, cultivated, I assume, to provide cut flowers for her employers.

We walked around admiring the blooms, and Meg commented that she needed to deadhead them more vigorously.

She snipped and talked and occasionally handed me a stalk bearing a proud bloom, until eventually I was holding a fabulous bouquet for her – one that was definitely worthy of a crystal vase in her employers’ living room.

But Meg shook her head when I reached to hand it back to her. Oh, no, she was just cleaning up the garden a bit and that bouquet was for me, she said.

Ah, perspective and even humility was dawning on me, disguised as the gift of a handful of flowers.

One day in late September, I was chatting with another friend. She asked if I had seen her husband pass by with a boat trailer. I hadn’t. She proceeded to tell me of his driving around our corner and being held up behind two fancy cars overflowing with teenagers.

The first car stopped by our garden, a discussion apparently ensuing, and, eventually, the young driver emerged, picked a giant purple dahlia, presented it ceremoniously to the young woman who had been seated beside him, and then drove off.

My friend stopped her narrative. If this was a test, I think I passed: I burst out laughing.

It is lovely to have a successful garden on a well-traveled corner. I enjoy maintaining the blooms and hearing appreciative comments from passersby.

And I am learning, slowly, that not everyone sees my garden as I do – as a roadside shrine to be admired but not touched. I am a long way from achieving Meg’s easy grace. But, for me, it is a worthy goal.

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