The Garden in Winter
Here is what I do when I look out the window and see my garden buried under three feet of snow: I think of the gardens and the plants I saw in them, or the plants I saw in the wild.
In August I was in Daniel J. Hinkley’s garden, where he and Robert Jones were getting married. This garden is on a cliff from which there is an excellent view of Puget Sound's Bainbridge Island. All of this is to say that the garden is in a very sheltered spot, and Dan can grow all sorts of plants that love a Mediterranean climate. He used to be the owner of, without a doubt, the best nursery in North America, and why he doesn’t own it anymore is not something I think about when I am in any garden. But the afternoon that he got married, he unveiled a series of agapanthus that he had spent years breeding, and he asked all the women to choose one, and he then named the ones we chose after us.
I looked down on these beautiful, varying shades of blue fists with Sue Wynn-Jones, a colleague of Dan’s in seed collecting, and I remembered that the last time I had a real conversation with her was when we were struggling up to a pass that was between the villages of Topke Gola and Thudan in remote Nepal, not far from the border of Sikkim and Tibet, in the shadow of Kanchanchunga. The pass was just a little under 17,000 feet high, and we were in search of seeds of the blue poppy (Meconopsis benticifolia) and its other forms and also some rare Primulas. All around us, in abundance, was a plant no one has ever been able to cultivate in or outside a garden, the grand noble rhubarb (Rheum nobilis); at the top we found blooming under a covering of snow some ground-hugging white delphiniums, with a little fuzz of hair, perhaps for protection. They, too, cannot be grown in a garden by anyone not living in that climate and under those conditions. I believe Sue chose the most beautiful of all the agapanthus, but I say that because I would want her to.
The peony can be found in Asia (both herbaceous and woody shrub) and Europe (herbaceous), but except for along the mountain coasts of California and Oregon, they do not exist in the Americas. There are two species: P. californica, which can be found in the dry foothills of the mountains in Southern California, from Santa Barbara all the way down to San Diego, and P. brownii, which is found further north going all the way up to the state of Washington. I could very well be wrong about this P. brownii, for I have never seen it except in a picture. P. californica is another story.
One year, in late February, I saw hillsides of Mount Baldy covered with it. It has the usual deeply incised, glossy leaves of the peony, and the flowers were that deep, wine-red and cup-shaped, also typical to that plant, but the amazing thing to me was how it seemed to be blooming and making seed at the same time: The ovule was almost as large as the flower, as if the ovule was part of the flower's beauty. I really had never seen that in a flower, and it took me a while to appreciate it as part of the flower’s beauty. No one seems to cultivate the California peony, certainly no California gardener I ever met, mainly, they say, because it is hard to grow: It needs very sharp drainage and it must be given no water during the summer months or its fleshy roots turn to mush and then it disappears, only to return the following year.
A garden I like to think about is one just outside Rome, right above the Emperor Hadrian’s villa, is the Villa d’Este. The house itself has is its own intriguing history: It was built for a child cardinal, whose mother was Lucretia Borgia and who was a grandson of a Pope. The garden was never about flowers; they are incidental, almost an afterthought, added to soften the stone and water that makes up the place. There is water everywhere, gushing out of the mouths of pagan gods and from the mouths and various body parts of mythical reptiles and birds, and an organ, emerging from the water centerpiece and manipulated by water, plays music.
Back into the wild again: On the savannah that is part Kenya, part Tanzania, I saw a lone gladiola in bloom. It was difficult to find any grass in flower then because many grazers were grazing, but when I least expected it, I saw this peach, brown-speckled flower atop a grassy stalk.
It was a gladiola, but no one could tell me its Latin name. I know they are native to Southern Africa but I had no idea it was endemic that far north. Another flower I saw, again just a single one, was something in the mallow family, something that looked awfully much like a hibiscus, but its lone flower was the most beautiful magenta I have ever seen. It was saturated with that color and yet it seemed translucent as it glistened in the hot sun. And then while walking through the woods to Robert Frost’s house, I saw again that endangered treasure, Lilium philadephicum. I left it undisturbed.
Jamaica Kincaid is a gardener and the author of My Garden: (Book); Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya and five novels. The latest, See Now Then, was published in February of this year. She is a professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.