WHATEVER BIT of flora reaches out its siren roots to draw us down the slippery slope into a lifetime of gardening, we rarely forget it. As a child I was enthralled with my mom’s hydrangeas, grown huge on a diet of composted pigeon poop from my dad’s racing birds. I remember the intensely blue flower heads as the size of basketballs. At least.
But it was a single flowering twig that turned me into a boot-wearing, trug-toting gardener. A fellow librarian brought in a sprig of witch hazel to brighten the reference desk on a cold January day. Its astringent scent and the intricacy of its spider-like flowers seemed so magical . . .This ephemeral bit of beauty bloomed in the dead of winter? I was hooked and have never been without witch hazel since. That was 35 years ago.
Globe-trotting plant collector Dan Hinkley found his epiphany in an avocado. “The seminal plant in my life . . . as a kid, aged 7, I was obsessed by getting an avocado to germinate. I can still see the hypocotyl rising out of that seed, growing about 3 inches an hour, or so it seemed at that age.”
Karen Chapman, garden designer at Le Jardinet and co-author of “Fine Foliage,” grew up in England where gardening was a way of life. “Yet my gateway plant isn’t one grown in a garden,” says Chapman, who fell for wildflowers. “I played in the grounds of a local castle, and my fondest memory is of the bluebell woods. Each spring, fragrant English bluebells (Scilla non-scripta) carpeted the ground. To this day I grow these, which, unlike their thuggish Spanish counterparts, do not try to take over the entire garden.”
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As a child, garden designer Glenn Withey loved bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus). “They always seeded in nicely for me, and the colors were bright, and they had long enough stems to make a bouquet. I admired how tough the plant was, to grow from seemingly barren soil.” Withey also loved Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile,’ a mock orange his father bought from Wayside Gardens. “The wondrously scented flowers reminded me of Pez candy, which of course I could never get enough of,” says Withey.
“I spent a week or two every summer with my grandparents in New Jersey,” remembers Paige Miller, executive director of the Arboretum Foundation. “I still grow the plants they loved best . . . the lemon-scented hybrid tea rose ‘Crimson Glory’ for my grandfather, and sweet-smelling garden phlox for my grandmother.”
For garden coach Robin Haglund of Garden Mentors, fuchsias were the thin edge of the wedge. “When I was a child, my stepmother Mary’s annual fuchsia baskets, dripping with ballerina-like flowers, charmed me. Later I was awe-struck by their pollinator-feeding, long bloom season. And, not long ago, I fell in love with them again when I learned their fruits are edible and delicious,” says Haglund.
Gardener extraordinaire Daniel Sparler bought 50 tulips from Michigan Bulb Co. when he was 13, and has never looked back. “The first plants to make a lasting impression on me were the bearded irises my mother loved so passionately,” says Sparler. But these days, his heart belongs to Iris variegata. “I wouldn’t part with her for all the watsonias in the world.”
Plants as time travel, as fondest memories, as lifelong passion and pastime. Even now, when Hinkley finds an avocado seed germinating in the compost pile, he gets the strange feeling of looking through a keyhole back to childhood.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.