Monday, August 24, 2009

Thank you, Diane

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.


Natasha Fondren said...

It's dangerous to tempt me with pictures. I think you should put up bigger pictures! Or ones we can enlarge. :-)

Plants have got to be the coolest stuff to own and nurture and pass on. If my words aren't passed on, then probably that's the end. Haven't managed kids yet and I hate stuff, LOL. I don't even collect books anymore. I suppose there's my Kindle account...

Erica Orloff said...

This was beautiful, Jon. I think it's wonderful you did that.


LurkerMonkey said...


I was a little surprised how badly the pictures translated into Blogger. I think maybe I shrunk them too much :)

I've been growing things since I was little. Plants have actually taught me a lot -- about patience. I'm not a very patient person, and I often have trouble slowing down. But when you're growing something, you have to operate on plant speed.

LurkerMonkey said...


Thanks :)

I'm glad I did it, too. And of course, it's not bad to landscape for free.

Vonna Carter said...

Great post. Plants are my therapy. I'll never win any prizes for my garden, but tending it and taking the time to appreciate my plants and the creatures who live among them is a daily nutritional requirement for me.

Kath Calarco said...

People should put plants in their Last Will and Testament, along with turtles and parrots, I suppose (people probably already have with the latter two).

I inherited by mother's African Violet collection because everyone else in the family are self-proclaimed plant killers. They lived with her a long time, and are still alive and well with me, a dozen years later. Now that I'm older, should I consider bequeathing them? (If you knew my only child, you'd nod your head so vehemently your neck would crack.)

Beautiful message, Jon. Thanks for sharing.

LurkerMonkey said...


Me too. I have a little shadehouse behind my house where I grow orchids (I live in zone 10b). As far as shadehouses go, it's no great shakes ... just a bit of shadecloth and some overhead sprinklers. But there's something about even that tiny environment that's incredibly therapeutic, and I frequently take breaks from writing to go stand among my orchids.

LurkerMonkey said...


It's true ... people should bequeath stuff like that. Although my family's like yours--I'd be afraid to pass along any of my orchids. That's cool about your mother's African violets. I'm a casual grower of African violets, but nowhere near as serious as some people I know who grow monsters that never seem to stop blooming.

Melanie Avila said...

This is such a nice story. :)

I love plants but know very little about them. My grandmother is really into gardening (she's in charge of her church's garden) so I CAN appreciate them.

Kath Calarco said...

Monster African violets? And then they can try out for Little Shop of Horrors.

My mom's plants are still the same size as the day she died. Perhaps they are "tea-cup" plants, although I don't plan on carrying one around in my purse while shopping. :-)

LurkerMonkey said...


Thanks! I moved from a Midwestern city to a subtropical climate (like you), but I didn't really get into gardening until I hit the tropics. So it's funny ... I know the foliage of my adopted home MUCH better than the plants in my hometown. I'm pretty much lost in a temperate garden. But I can still appreciate it.

LurkerMonkey said...


That'd be pretty funny: "Here, can I pay with this?"

Amy Sue Nathan said...

Your friend's legacy to you will one day be your legacy to another. Passing it on - whatever IT is - answers many why's in life. At least for me.