Then and Now


It’s hurtling toward the end of September and I’m thinking we’ve made it through another summer. This seems like a good time to hoist the World Atlas out from under a pile of hefty tomes and see what’s become of spring.

I ought to take flower-pressing more seriously. DSCN1782I’m sure it must be an ancient art; modern websites make you think you need your own personal flower press and a supply of acid-free paper. However, this is the Unruly Gardener at work, not Martha Stewart – as fabulous as her pressed flowers undoubtedly must be. I find it endlessly pleasing to place blossoms and leaves between pieces of parchment between atlas pages, stash them on the bottom of the bookcase under a stack of the heaviest books we have, to be nearly forgotten, then to discover what’s turned out.

A hobby like flower pressing – at least in my mind – requires patience and a good supply of nasty rainy weather. For no reason I can explain, the many days of August and September that drove me indoors for much of the afternoon don’t register as hobby-weather days. I didn’t feel like sewing, writing, studying photography or anything more taxing than sweating on the couch and playing online Scrabble with robots (since I am too shy to play with actual people and besides everybody in the world seems to know all those obscure Scrabble words but me and it is too late for me to travel down that road).

Now the weather’s shifted; some nights and DSCN1368mornings are cool; and I am all about the fall blooming. Our days are mostly sunny, with shade that seems slightly cooler in the way shade ought to be but, all summer, isn’t. Small birds still come to the patio table to drink and, in a few cases, bathe. These are the survivors of our long dry summer, and we’re glad to have them.

A couple of weekends ago I prevailed upon Floyd to scale the tall ladder and bring down the owl house for cleaning. At the bottom of the tall black wooden structure was a mere inch-thick pad of leaf matter, droppings that had long lost any unpleasant aroma, and a few tiny bones apparently contributed by companions of the guy taking a bath on the patio. Probably at least one rodent jaw. But an astonishingly small yield at the bottom of a small space that held three baby owls and one of their parents all through the early spring. I look forward to the owls’ return with trepidation, and only rest easy once I know they are back.

I waited all summer for the Mexican Bird of DSCN1533Paradise in the sidewalk garden to bloom. Usually it will put forth a great array of flowers in spring, then again in fall; but this year it waited until early September. It was worth the wait, for sure: every branch was laden with complex yellow flowers much beloved by all the bees. I have to laugh at the bumblebees who become very territorial about it, and hover around my head buzzing whenever I come by – as if I were going to work the flowers myself. The honeybees pay me no mind whatsoever, going about their harvesting as if with a sense of a long winter ahead.

I often forget to take the time to simply sitDSCN1530 in the back yard and do nothing, but recent visitors saw a weekday morning when it was the most sensible place in the world for a visit. We were chatting away about nothing in particular when daughter Tracy let out a mystified howl: What is that? she pointed, already halfway to the magnolia tree. We must say, it is a strange and lovely sort of seed-pod the magnolia bears, fuzzy and vaguely mouse-shaped. They make great additions to autumn wreaths, but I have to admit the oozing seeds kind of give me the creeps.

Also noticeable on the patio that day were DSCN1609some of my favorite buds to discover, as if just as one plant finishes its growing season another is finally coming around to making blossoms. You know when a succulent puts out buds you’re going to wait an indeterminate length of time before any flowers appear, and you know you better pay attention because one of these days you will be walking around the back yard thinking of nothing and you’ll look over to see a terrific sight like Huernia here.

Many species of Huernia have been moved DSC_0301to this genus from their closely related cousins, the StapeliaI read ( I don’t know anything about the classification of plants, and certainly had no idea that experts could simply move them from one genus to another. All I know is that the flowers are a beautiful burgundy red and impressively malodorous, encircled by tiny seductive hairs that tremble in the slightest breeze. This is a once-a-year-if-you’re-lucky flower event of the type all gardeners savor.

Speaking of plants that seemed to payIMG_0312 no attention to the signals of spring this year, the Easter barrel cactus that has spent the warm seasons at the foot of the Mexican Bird of Paradise at long last put forth one lone blossom. Last year it had half a dozen or more at various points throughout the summer. It’s a pretty flamboyant creation for one that will only last a day, but who knows the business of cactus?

Now that I look at this photo, I see its perspective implies a basketball-sized flower perched atop a softball-sized cactus. Although some spiky citizens do manage to produce flowers that dwarf them, the barrel cactus is not one. It’s just that I was standing straight above trying to hold the camera reasonably steady.

In a small leafy space just to the right of the DSCN1547Easter barrel cactus, a lizard big enough to have given me a start was basking in the western sun on a recent afternoon. I’d seen this one speed across the patio as I headed out the back door, and the flash was big enough to make me think it was a rat. In the middle of the day!

But s/he was patient enough to wait for me to get the camera, and I do appreciate that. This one’s a good eight inches from snout to tail-tip, and kind of makes up for the one we lost to a roadrunner last spring. Nothing like a roadrunner who has the audacity to run straight up your sidewalk with one of your favorite lizards in their beak!

At the far end of the sidewalk garden, hard up against the streetlight’s steely pole, one surviving sunflower planted last spring has come into its own. It’s the one at the start of this piece, and it sails high alongside the lofty Pride of Barbados and Esperanza blossoms. At the moment they are all surrounded by the jasmine-like perfume of the bee tree, making that end of the sidewalk a rather nice place to walk.

These are days of blue skies populated with IMG_0305enormous clouds that drift with impressive speed from one horizon to the other. We keep hoping for clouds that will conspire to bring us much-needed rain, but so far this season showers have been spotty – one part of town will have a gully-washer and everyone else stays dry.

All around town the crape myrtle are enjoying a second or third blooming. I like the dark red ones in our front yard and think they make a very patriotic statement with their own interpretation of the red, white, and blue.

I was a little worried that I’d whacked down the Gregg’s Mist Flower (Conoclinium (Eupatorium) Greggii) a little too late, but I think we’ll have enough when the Monarchs come through in a few weeks. I’ve put in two other plants with fuzzy purple flowers purported to thrill butterflies out of their senses, but of course I can’t remember their names. We’ll see what happens when they blossom. Meanwhile white feathers carry native butterfly weed seeds all over the yard despite last spring’s ferocious epidemic of aphids. Can’t some plants make themselves immune to pests? They should.

Meanwhile, back at the dining room table, DSCN1784I peeled back the front six pounds of the Atlas to see what had become of spring. I’d rather thought I might mount them on black construction paper but there was none to be found, which tells you more than you need to know about what kind of grandmother I am. May I say in my own defense that at least I have four scooters in the garage and a permanent chocolate supply in the refrigerator?

It doesn’t look like poppies fare very well, splayed out and squashed for half a year, but I was amazed to see how well all the colors held up. Pansies are a classic choice for pressed flowers, I think. The only complication here is, I have no earthly idea where I had any pansies. Did I buy a few pots exclusively for pressing purposes? Did I put some in for a little winter color someplace? Did I harvest only my own? How ignominious would it be to go to jail for stealing pansies?*

I decided to try framing these without spraying adhesive all over them or the paper or myself; I simply lay them on the glass, placed a blue file folder on top of them, then stuffed the back of the frame with copy paper ready for the recycling bin. I have no idea whether they’ll all slide down into a dusty pile as they hang on the wall; but it sort of doesn’t matter. With no special sentiment attached to any of these flowers, I can actually afford to think about doing a better job with the next batch.

And so, a small snapshot of what’s become of spring:


*From the “You Never Know In Exactly Which Direction Your Mind Will Take You When It Is Taking You in the Wrong Direction” Department, these aren’t even pansies! They are Mexican primroses, and I know for sure I had a trillion of those. Whew.



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