Mom was a gardener, tending plants wherever she went. One day, while we were having lunch at an unglamorous cafe, the potted plants seemed dry, so she watered them with ice cubes from her water glass. This cafe was memorable because the staff, mistaking her intentions and her green thumb, moved the plant out of reach.
In Chicago, where she lived for 40 years, she shaped and reshaped her garden, moving plants to maximize their comfort and growth. The growing season there was limited, so she extended her garden time by volunteering at the Chicago Botanic Garden throughout the year.
Upon moving to Seattle late in life, she was stunned at the spring blossoms arriving as early as February and converted her extensive lawn to exuberant flower beds.
She hosted her garden club’s annual plant sale, raising money to support horticultural students. In her garage, which was filled with dirt, she potted, labeled, priced, and socialized with fellow gardeners.
“It’s not dirt!” she’d say. “It’s soil.”
There was always room for another plant in her garden, which made both Mother’s Day and her birthday easy. One year I decided to buy something special, which for me translated as never-seen-before (by me, which isn’t saying much) and costing-way-more-than-usual.
At the little nursery on Leary Avenue that’s closed now, there was limited space so every plant seemed special, and I found the one: Cimicifuga probably japonica, projected to flower late summer to fall with white flowers on dark purplish stems, reaching three to four feet tall. Commonly called bugbane. It was $20 — which was a lot in a lean year and more-than-usual among my plant purchases.
Mom didn’t have bugbane, so she was thrilled, but surprisingly, it didn’t thrive. She moved it to a new spot, and it barely survived. After a few years, it bloomed and seemed to be established. It was out of danger, if not impressive at half its projected height.
She never gave up gardening. Even after Dad died and her territory shrank, she never seemed to wonder what to do with her day. She gardened, moving among her plants all day. I think she quit caring which plants she’d chosen and which chose her. The weeds prospered. But if I dropped by to visit and ask about her day, she’d say with satisfaction, “I’ve been gardening.”
When it was time to move her to a safer place and remove the car from her daily equation, she was reluctant. But we found an apartment that opened onto a garden, in full view of her window, and she agreed to move.
As we cleared her house, we cleared her garden of a few special plants, potting them up to gather at her new doorstep. The bugbane went into a pot. It stayed in a pot through two years of the garden apartment and moved with her to memory care, where it lived with her other pots on the deck outside the dining room: her family of large potted plants, the only personal garden in the facility.
During her last move, while many of her plants went with her, the bugbane, looking peaked, came to my house. Too busy, I set it in the garden and left it to take care of itself. It nestled in, still in its pot, a small friend to the Japanese maple that was just gaining a foothold itself.
When she died one May, I left all the large potted plants at her last home for others to enjoy. The bugbane continued in its pot at our house, sheltered by the maple which was growing steadily. In the fall, I planted the bugbane, sinking it right where it was.
In June the following year, when we returned from traveling through the spring months, I was astonished to find the bugbane thriving, half the size of the maple now and sending up blossoming stems.
By September, it had exploded: taller than the Japanese maple, its flower stalks long, white, and arching in the breeze, rising above its big leaves.
It’s another May now, the second anniversary of her death. Cimicifuga japonica is starting another summer strong and healthy, welcoming us with its soulful presence whenever we come home. If it’s possible that spirits revisit, I’d say Mom’s a gardener still.