Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Childhood Ablaze with Blooms

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Childhood Ablaze with Blooms

Article excerpt

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. …

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