Magazine article Sunset

Plant Scandals: Author Amy Stewart Reveals the Mysterious Inner Lives of the "Characters" Growing in Her Garden

Magazine article Sunset

Plant Scandals: Author Amy Stewart Reveals the Mysterious Inner Lives of the "Characters" Growing in Her Garden

Article excerpt

I LOVE A PLANT with a troubled past. Tell me that conspirators once tried to liberate Marie Antoinette from prison by tucking a note in the petals of a carnation, and I must have that carnation for my flower bed. Suggest that an heirloom hyacinth was rescued from obscurity by the Lithuanian ambassador's wife, and I'll order a dozen, not because I have room for more hyacinths, but because I find the Lithuanian ambassador's wife so intriguing.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

I was a writer long before I was a gardener. Like most writers, I'm in the habit of looking for interesting characters everywhere I go. So it's no surprise that my garden is not the color-coordinated, beautifully designed, soothing outdoor space it could be. It's more like a crowded bus terminal filled with people who have mysterious inner lives--unmentionable pasts and unknowable futures. The inhabitants of my garden are all characters in some horticultural novel written across the pages of my front yard.

I planted my first lily after I found out about the brilliant and underappreciated Leslie Woodriff, a man who dreamed of creating the perfect flower. His invention was an Oriental lily whose blooms looked up at the heavens, earning it the name 'Stargazer'. He made an unfortunate business deal that resulted in a legal battle over the rights to his unusual lilies. The notion that this flower had once been the subject of a courtroom drama endeared it to me. 'Stargazer' is not just a cut flower for the summer border; in my garden, it also represents an inventor, a dreamer, a visionary whose reach exceeded his grasp.

There's a scorned lover too: a rare bulb named after Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. She was the patron of botanical artist Pierre-Joseph Redoute. I was captivated by a striking engraving he made of Brunsvigia josephinae, which spans two glorious pages in one of Redoute's oversize books of botanical portraits. This exotic South African flower looks like an explosion of fireworks atop a fat bluish stem. I have never seen anything like it. After several years of searching, I heard that a nursery could spare three tiny bulbs of the flower named after Josephine. I would have to nurture them along for years before I saw them bloom, but that didn't bother me. I jumped at the chance and bought them all. I only hope Josephine got them to bloom in her garden outside Paris. They might have offered some comfort after Napoleon left her for another woman. …

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