Memory of Plants
Some of Linda Reynolds'
earliest memories are stored not in the pages of a photo album,
but in the fuzzy leaves of an African violet.
I was growing up, we often went to Grandma Michael's house
for Sunday dinner. Afterwards she would take me around the
house to show me how her plants were doing, reminding me of
their names and pointing out which ones were blooming. The
African violets were probably her favorite -- she had about
a dozen different kinds," said Reynolds, a freelance writer
now living outside Dallas, Texas. "When Grandma started new
plants, she placed leaves in a glass of water and put them
in the company of the violets in her kitchen window. Seeing
those hairy roots grow from the stems provided one of my earliest
her grandma died five years ago, Reynolds inherited some of
her African violets, an "ever-present reminder that she is
always with me through her influences on my life," she says.
knows, plants can be magicians, conjuring vanished times and
forgotten places. A single bloom can trigger a memory -- the
rosemary wheat bread your grandmother baked, the gardenia
perfume your aunt wore or the lemon geraniums your best friend
kept on her front stoop. That's part of why we bring plants
into our homes. They help us remember the things that sustain
us: family, friends, and the earth that connects us all.
from a family plant can link kin across time and space, providing
a living gateway to the past. Jennifer Gross, 29, has a starry-bloomed
Hoya plant that goes back three generations. "My great-grandfather
was station master in this small frontier town, West Cliff,
Colorado. The Chinese laundromat in town had this gigantic
Hoya plant. The owner gave my great-grandmother a cutting
from it, and now everyone in the family has a piece of it
too," says Gross.
the family left West Cliff before she was born, Gross and
her husband have visited the town several times. They recently
returned to find that the town was building a railroad museum.
Among the artifacts on display was an old photo of the laundromat,
with the Hoya's tendrils sprawled across the back wall.
grandma published a book, 'Letters from the Wet Mountain Valley,'"
that chronicles her life in West Cliff, says Gross, now a
temporary resident of Newport, Kentucky. "The plant is almost
a physical part of that story, like a correspondence with
the nomadic types, plants are a piece of a landscape one has
left behind. Charli Ornett, 45, keeps cacti and euphorbia
in her San Francisco flat as reminders of her girlhood in
Tucson, Arizona. (The prickly plants -- including a Mexican
Crown of Thorns and a topknotted Pachypodium -- came from
a local cactus shop, as California's border patrol doesn't
take kindly to out-of-state vegetation.)
the plants because they evoke the desert and heat, and they
are so spare and clean and improbable...They remind me of
the Sonoran desert around Tucson, which I thought was ugly
and dead when I first moved there. Eventually I grew to know
and love and miss the place like crazy," she said. "And when
I water my plants it smells just like the desert after a rain."
especially in the form of hand-me-down plants, are nothing
new. Early settlers brought beloved plants from their home
countries to plant in their gardens, some of which have become
are plants that have survived for decades by being handed
down from person to person, often because they are easy to
grow and well-adapted to the local environment. (For example,
Gross' Hoya plant was common in the dark, drafty Civil War
of us grew up on these foolproof plants -- philodendrons,
spider plants, snake plants and the like," says Steve Bender,
co-author of "Passalong Plants. "Most passalong plants aren't
exactly blue-ribbon winners; they just bring back good memories."
plants have not only preserved memories, but also helped maintain
genetic diversity, according to Bender. Many of these plants
have only survived because people have passed them on. Now
mainstream seed companies are cashing in on the plant nostalgia
with signature heirloom lines, Bender says.
IN THE GARDEN
Caring for plants
can be powerful therapy when a loved one dies, helping one
to work through feelings of grief, anger and helplessness.
Memorials like memory gardens can play a special role in the
healing process, says Leah Messer Diehl, vice-president of
the American Horticultural Therapy Association, based in Denver,
connect us to the cycle of life. When we witness a flower
going from seed to bloom to death and reseed again -- we are
reassured of the never-ending cycle of human life too," says
Diehl. "Making that connection to the earth can be very comforting
and grounding for someone who is going through difficult times."
the twin towers fell on September 11, Frank Giannangelo planted
herbs around a fish pond in rememberance -- not only of the
tragedy, but of the joy of his partner Vicky.
enormity of what happened in New York City was overwhelming,"
says Giannangelo, co-owner of Giannangelo Farms Southwest,
an organic flower and vegetable farm in Ramah, NM. "I couldn't
write a letter to everyone's family or go there and hand out
water bottles, but this was one positive step I could take."
planted herbs symbolizing the aspects of his wife that he
most admires and enjoys, starting with rosemary, which has
been the herb of rememberance since Roman times. Then he planted
peppermint, the herb of wisdom, to honor Vicky's broad outlook
on life; oregano, representing the joy and happiness of planting
and living together; and thyme, for the courage encapsulated
in her motto "No Guts, No Glory." To bring the remembrance
indoors, Giannangelo cloned a rosemary plant and put it by
the stairwell; he frequently rubs his fingers on it to enjoy
its smell and the associations it brings.
time we put mint in our tea or use the herbs for cooking,
whether consciously or not, we are conjuring those associations,"
said Giannangelo. "Past memories tend to fade and become blurred.
But by starting a Garden of Memory for someone living, you
create a memory for the future."
has an heirloom plant to call their own, but we all
have imagination and memory to draw from. Use them to
create a living memorial honoring a lost loved one or
celebrating a milestone. Here are a few ideas to get
traditional meanings of herbs with a windowsill garden
honoring the life and death of a loved one. Mint signifies
grief, lemon-scented geranium stands for tranquillity,
germander means joy and, as Ophelia reminds us in Hamlet,
rosemary symbolizes remembrance. The pots can be painted
with words and images representing the person's life.
awaiting childbirth, plant another seed: The plant will
be a living measure of your child's time on the planet.
Many succulents, palms and citrus grow well from seed
indoors. (Seeds taken from fruit are often sterile,
however, so you may want to purchase seeds from a store
or catalog to ensure a flowering plant.)
your child gets big enough to handle the watering can,
you can appoint him or her caretaker of the plant. To
showcase your child's evolving artistic abilities, apply
metal primer and chalkboard paint to a metal pot. Then
you and your family can decorate it with chalk, changing
the design as often as you like.
grandfather dote on orchids or begonias? Was your great-grandmother
a green or black thumb? Explore your roots and create
a mantelpiece shrine to your ancestors. Obtain a few
of your grandparents' favorite plants, from family cuttings
if possible, or use plants native to their homelands.
Plant them in heirloom teapots or antique pots
and surround them with family mementos and old photos.
to preserve the bridal bouquet -- braid your blood lines
together with a live family tree. The ficus is the easiest
to braid, and grows well indoors, albeit slowly.
Start with three newly rooted cuttings and plant them
close together in same pot. As they develop, slowly
braid the new growth; the bottom part of the plait will
harden over time. You can make the braiding a ritual
for your wedding anniversary.
of the Green
potent spiritual symbols in many cultures and religions.
For example, a Chinese altar to Kwan Yin, the Buddhist
goddess of compassion and mercy, traditionally includes
a stalky, soil-free "air plant": it's her wand for bestowing
small table or dresser top can easily be made into a
shrine honoring a favorite saint, goddess or other inspirational
figure. Use plants, flowers, icons and other objects
that bring you peace and comfort, keeping a chair or
cushion nearby for relaxation or meditation. (For good
health, you might consider an altar to St. Ficare, an
Irish monk who healed the sick with medicinal herbs.
St. Zita, the patron saint of maids and lost keys, can
be another useful household ally.)