I'm the kind of plant person who gives directions by foliage. The only way I know how to reach our dog sitter is to turn at a particular hedge. I literally navigate by plants—turn at this bromeliad, stop at that palm tree. When people relandscape, it screws me up for weeks.
But the point is that I'm a plant person. Along with writing and cooking, it is my great passion. I could fill volumes with my enthusiasm for plants. Indeed, I've been fortunate enough that, for ten years or so, I get paid to write about plants, in addition to growing them myself.
So yesterday was a poignant moment. A friend of ours has become close to an elderly woman, Diane, in her neighborhood. Diane is in her 80s, and she's lived in the same house for fifty years. Like me, Diane is a plant person. In her younger days, she used to travel to Fairchild Tropical and Botanic Garden south of Miami and steal cuttings for her own yard. For those who don't know, Fairchild is the premier tropical research garden in the continental United States. And, yes, stealing plants from Fairchild's storied collection is a horrible thing to do.
Over the years, Diane built up a large collection of rare and wonderful plants on her small, urbanish property. They were ... they are ... her babies.
Yet time moves on, and Diane's health has been failing her. Her family recently moved her into a nursing home. She is no longer able to live by herself, and her family is selling her house back to the bank. It is structurally unsound, infested with roaches. Undoubtedly, the bank will raze the property.
So yesterday, I went to Diane's empty house, with a shovel and a few garbage bags, and I took as many of her prized plants as I could stuff in my car. At first, I felt guilty— in a very real way, this was her life's work. But then my friend pointed out that Diane would have wanted this ... she would have wanted her plants to go to someone who would love them, who would raise them and keep pieces of her. So many thoughts went through my head as I hacked away layers of overgrown foliage to reach the gems hidden away. I thought about the way that a life can accumulate so much structure, only to vanish, become junk. I was almost overwhelmed by the idea that we spend our lives building private, personal monuments to the joy of living, but it will ultimately be swept away by time. Four generations from now, will my great-great-grandchildren even know my name?
I took her plants. And I brought them home and I planted them in my own garden, where she will now forever be a piece of my own passion. When I look at my own garden from now on, I'll always know that some of these plants were once pilfered from a very serious garden by a very funny old lady, and now it's my privilege to care for them. Until someday, I too will hopefully pass them along.