Monday, June 2, 2014

Plant memories

When I was growing up, my grandmother had a garden. I realized today that there are certain plants I always associate with her garden, because she always had those plants, and her yard was where I first encountered them. These plants include roses, coleus, phlox, and petunias.

I then began to think about what other associations I have with certain plants. Here are a few:

Spider plants: When I was growing up, spider plants became all the rage for a while, as houseplants. The thing to do was to put them in a hanging pot. (Hanging pots were also in fashion.) Preferably in a macrame holder. (The macrame probably tips you off as to when this was.)

Saguaro cactus: In my twenties, I started traveling on my own, after having spent most of my life in the northeastern US. I decided I wanted to see a desert, so I flew to southern Arizona on one of my vacations. I was still on the plane coming into Tucson when I saw my first saguaro. I was thrilled. Up until then, I had mostly just seen little cacti in pots, and I'd seen some prickly pear growing wild in New Jersey. But the saguaro is the emblematic, picture-perfect cactus, the kind you see on TV. I don't think I believed it really existed until then. To me, the saguaro is about the freedom I had then, the willingness to just pick a place on a map and get on a plane and go see it. (After saving up all year so that I could do so!)

Yarrow: This humble plant grew all over the yards and playgrounds where I grew up. We crushed its feathery foliage to catch its fragrance. The scent is sweet, somewhat grassy and somewhat minty.

Tulip: One of my grandmothers loves tulips, so I always think of her when I see them.

Poinsettia: For some reason, this tropical plant has become associated with Christmas in the US. You would see poinsettia everywhere in late December, and then they disappeared--unless you had a grandfather like mine. He kept the plants past Christmas, and by judicious pruning and fertilizing, managed to keep them alive indefinitely. I still remember seeing shelves full of his leggy poinsettia plants.

Lupines: I believe I first saw these during my traveling twenties, in the mountains of the American west. They usually seem to grow with bright red paintbrush plants, and the purple of the lupines against the scarlet of the paintbrush is one of my favorite wildflower scenes. A confession: The inner leap of joy I experience whenever I see lupines expresses itself somewhat strangely. When I see a stand of lupines, I usually call out in a high, tiny voice, as if I were a cartoon character: "Lupines!"

The writer in me will now point out that these kinds of associations can enrich our writing, both in the areas of characterization and setting. They don't have to be based around plants, of course. They could be based around songs, or food, or movies, or anything.


  1. Plants and recipes that people pass on to me are always memory provokers. I have some I've kept with me for a very long time. It's always wonderful to add those details into your story. Lupines! Yes. They are special to me, too and I can hear that voice.

    1. Oh yes, recipes. Jama Rattigan had a whole blog post about family recipes (and mothers' handwriting) that brought that home:

      I could see building a whole book around recipes.

  2. It just so happens that we're planning to have a garden in our new home. My daughter is very excited about it. I certainly hope that for whatever plants we put into the garden, they will inspire positive memories for her later on.