I’m sure that for each of us there are a host of characters who played important roles in our lives, especially when we were children. My cast of characters happens to be a rather long list and oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, almost all of them had something to do with shaping me as a gardener.
I’ve told this story before, but in order to set up what I’m about to tell, I think it bears repeating that I began gardening when I was three. Yes, three–when I planted the “helicopters” from a silver maple in the babysitter’s flower bed and had so much success that two of those offspring still stand in my parents’ yard today. In fact, I could still give you a virtual walking tour of the babysitter’s “garden”, as it were, but that’s a story for another time. Maybe next week.
Today’s entry moves us forward a few years when I was around the age of six or seven and introduces you to three more characters in my story–Annie Hurlburt, the country vet, and Pearl and Letha Condray, the mother and daughter who lived two doors down and across the street. Annie and her husband Jack and their family lived on the other side of town (understand that in the town I grew up in, that might have been a mile–maybe a mile-and-a-half) and just down a little country road. We always took the dogs and cats out for their shots, etc. and because I was squeamish–especially when they were vaccinating squealing little puppies–I usually stayed outside and looked at the garden. There were irises everywhere, and it was especially fun for me to go in the spring when they were in bloom.
If my memory serves me correctly, I believe the story goes that one year Annie and her kids collected seed from some of the iris in the garden, sowed them, and planted the resulting seedlings near the back door of the house. The sole survivor was a beautiful bicolor, with standards of golden yellow and falls of ruby red and from then on the iris was referred to as the “back door” iris.
There were also irises two doors down at Pearl and Letha Condray’s house–hundreds of them–in every color of the rainbow! Pearl, who lived to be nearly 100 years old, had to have been well into her 80’s and probably approaching 90 even when I was a little boy and there were many times in many springs when I would walk down the street and Pearl and I would stroll through bed after bed of iris with her recalling completely from memory the name of every iris in the garden. She could also tell you who she bought it from and what year! Pearl’s daughter, Letha, was just as sharp and there were just as many walks around the garden with her as there were with Pearl. In fact, my mother still has two large clumps of spuria iris in the garden that have been there at least 30 years that came as divisions from Pearl and Letha–and there are divisions of those iris now residing in my garden in Tennessee.
The “back door” iris from Annie, the vet, also resided at Pearl and Letha’s–by the back door, of course. It was the only iris in a small bed made just for it and when it was in bloom, it’s bold coloration shown across the garden. A division of that plant eventually made it to my garden, too, but unfortunately, after many years, it finally disappeared. I was reminiscing about some of the people who had influenced me a couple of years ago when Pearl and Letha and Annie all came to mind. Letha had finally passed away–Pearl and Annie had long since been gone–and Letha’s house was left to one of the local churches and the garden, for the most part, was dismantled. This prompted me to pick up the phone and call mom to see if she knew of anyone around town who might still have some of the “back door” iris growing in their garden. Letha and Pearl gave away hundreds of iris every summer–anything that needed dividing–so I thought there was a chance that someone might still have it.
Lo and behold, a few weeks later mom called to say that she had run into someone who thought they still had a clump in their garden–at least that’s what it was labeled–but it hadn’t bloomed in several years, so she couldn’t be sure. She brought mom a fat, healthy rhizome which then made its way to Tennessee and the photo you see above is the very same iris. It found its way home to me after more than 30 years and this photo was taken last week in my garden. I didn’t know if it was the right one either until that beautiful, boldly colored, golden-yellow and ruby red flower unfurled its first blossom. And in a few years, when the clump is large and healthy, I’m going to pass the “back door” iris on to some of my gardening friends the same way it was given to me. After all, friends and memories are really what gardening is all about. Happy Gardening!