- Frugalista Faves
- Frugalista Bookshelf
- Great Gardens
- My Roots
- Subscribe to the Mailing List
I am not unique in this. For thousands of years, gardeners and plant-lovers have been keeping botanical journals of one sort or another. The walls of an Egyptian temple are covered with drawings of the plants found on a campaign to Syria in 1500 BC. During the age of exploration, plant hunters brought physical specimens back to Europe, but drawings, too, to show what the plants looked like where they grew. In Queen Victoria’s time, sketching wildflowers was as much a part of a genteel woman’s upbringing as learning to play a Bach suite or to recite a fine Wordsworthian phrase.
I was raised gluing macaroni to paper plates, splatter-painting maple leaves. A slender brush is not at home in my hand.
Yet the urge to record, to preserve is strong. Stop! I want say to the fading blooms of the garden, the fleeting ephemerals in the wild. Stay as you are! Now is lovely, but I want always. I have armfuls of Peegee hydrangeas that I pick at the peak of their pinkness and stick in a vase without water so that I can enjoy them all winter long. And high on a kitchen shelf sits a rose basket heaped with all the roses my Beloved has given me, one every week for the first few years, now less frequent, and more welcome for that. Pressed between the parchment pages of my favourite book of poetry lie the lilies that I wore in my hair on the day we were married—gorgeous casablancas that bathed me in a mist of heady perfume on that hot July day and now prompt the loveliness of memories, though the flowers themselves are brown and brittle as mummies.
What will a person think, coming upon these ancient flowers in some old bookstore or in an attic trunk. Will they wonder who grew them? If they were picked on a walk on a sunny summer’s day, or received arranged in an Easter bouquet or a funeral wreath? Will whoever finds them catch the significance of the poem under the flower's shadow on the page? Or will they imagine someone hastily closing these blooms in the middle of the book and forgetting all about them? Will they even know that these were once the stately Casablanca, whitest of the oriental lilies, or will the story of the picker and the picked both disappear in the crumbling petals?
I could take a photograph, of course. But anyone’s hand could be framing the shot, any finger pressing the button that preserves a flower at the peak of its bloom. How unique, by comparison, the stroke of a pen, the sweep of a brush charged with pigment.
Unique, yes. Skilled, not necessarily. On a bottom shelf in my study is a series of notebooks with all the pages blank except for the few first few, which are marred with stiff-fingered sketches of unrecognizable plants. Unrecognizable, yet obviously of a single family, for they all have the same colouring-book stems, those kindergarten leaves and loopy blooms. If only I were the Empress Josephine and had a Pierre Joseph Redouté at my side. The redoubtable Redouté recorded the entire collection of plants and flowers in Josephine’s gardens at Malmaison, producing close to 500 watercolours. My Beloved, alas, has no patience for the palette.
The painting of a flower means moving to the passive tense. The kneeler and planter in the soil must rise and shake off the dirt, wash her hands, and be prepared to stand and stare. Drawing slows us down, forces us to look, perhaps even to see.
Each spring I take up my sketching pencil again, thinking that in the intervening months the gods in their pity will have blessed me with an artist’s hand. I keep hoping for the peaceful soul that will take me into the woods to squat for hours over a water willow, the discipline that will lead me over the same path every day for weeks and months, the devotion that will fill not only one thin notebook but a whole shelf of notebooks until every one of the plants that bloom on The Leaf has been recognized and committed to a physical aide memoire.
I have no idea how many distinct plants there are in our woods. Several hundred, I would guess. A tiny fraction of the thousands of flowering plants in this part of the world. I would be happy if I could draw just one—a buttercup or a mayflower or a delicate blue gentian—so that it looked not only like itself but also like me, its petals the work of my desiring hand, plant and planter made one.