Gardens of Memory
Plants have the
power to remind us of people, places and past times.
As we mark Remembrance Day on Sunday Stephen Anderton
considers the ways in which flowers, names and scents
trigger fond memories
Do you ever consider
why it is those First World War graveyards in France
are so regimented into straight lines? Maybe it’s
because to have honoured the war dead with anything
more easy-going and naturalistic would have been frivolous.
Those men fought for their kind of civilization, and
in the straight lines of crosses and trees, a living,
civilized, although not natural, order remains. It was
the right thing to do.
mind having a tree
planted for me. (After the event, that is, not yet.
Just now I still plant my own, and have all my own teeth
and hair.) I guess a memorial tree ought to be something
dignified and long lived, something that belongs to
a person’s country rather than some flowering
exotic from the other side of the world, bred for commercial
appeal. In Britain it should be an oak
perhaps, or a field
maple, or a Scots
pine. Even a simple thorn.
Something that would make a contribution to the locality
as well as the garden in which it was planted. Please
nobody put in a flowering cherry
for me. The world will think I have left all my money
to my bit on the side.
Gardens are full
of memories, without ever having to plant for people
who have died. There are things in this garden that
remind me of people all the time. Under the dining room
window is a prostrate geranium, leaking out to form
a pool of silver beneath a clipped osmanthus
bush. It was given to me by dear old Geoffrey Smith,
who visited us in Northumberland and was smitten and
besotted with my infant daughter. I see smiling white
hair and a babe in arms every time I look at it.
I have big tubs of
at the back of the house, either side of steps going
down from the terrace on to the lawn. The original plant
was given to me by Stan Grainger in Hexham, who way
back had known Lewis Palmer, the man who bred all the
varieties of agapanthus. This was an unnamed pale blue
which Palmer had given to Stan, and which he had kept
going ever since. The flower stems and heads are enormous.
Even when it’s out of flower and only the drum-heads
of seed remain, it’s like passing through a guard
of honour as you go down the steps. I no longer have
Stan’s address. Time and people move on. But I
can still see his big, arthritic hands heaving pots
Smells bring out
memories, too. Whenever I put my nose down to a head
of Patrinia scabiosifolia and the gentle rich aroma
of milk and cow muck takes me back to the Yorkshire
Dales and school holidays working on the farm down the
From time to time
you will come across descriptions of plants that include
how their names are derived. Details are trotted out
about how Artemisia
was named after the goddess Artemis, or that groundsel
comes from the Old English for ‘ground swallower’
because it’s such a weed. My heart sinks. It is
interesting, yes, but it tells you nothing vital, nothing
really to remember the plant by in your gut. People
say the way to remember the name of Paeonia
mlokosewitschii is that is sounds like a sneeze.
Well if it sounds like the way you sneeze, you probably
have a bigger problem than remembering impossible Russian
It is the personal
things, things personal to you, that raise memories
of a plant or its name. You may just like the sound
of its name. What could be sweeter both on the tongue
and on the ear than Angelica
nucifera - how’s that for an African dictator
or the sacred lotus? Or Galax
urceolata for a 1930s sleuth, alias a ground-cover
agent? Perhaps you’ve just planted a load of bolax?
Bolax glebaria, to be precise. It’s not a name
you forget in a hurry. It saddens me that now the name
has changed to Azorella
trifurcata. How do you remember that?
All gardens are full
of memories, for their gardeners and the families who
live in them - memories of people, and events, and conversations
and ideas. According to the landscape architect Kim
Wilkie, “place is the merging of lives into land”.
That’s why, when you’ve made a garden and
lived with it, it is so very hard to leave behind.
reprinted with premission from Greenfingers.com