I follow a stone path through shaded gatherings of moss and fern. A tall canopy of maples protects the soft, subtle hues of green from a hard burn of sun. Smooth, rounded stones guide the way and remind the visitor to watch closely the path and surroundings. I cross over a pond on a stone bridge and peer into the welcome of a small pagoda. It invites me to sit for a moment before moving on. The unyielding heat of day follows along above as I walk the path and it strikes fast as an insult as I leave the shade. Out in the sun and humidity stands Aconitum napellus, Monk’s Hood, in full bloom. Beautiful color; deep rich blue, difficult to ignore. I think that we admire the beauty of poisonous plants much the same way we care for people who have harmed us – from a safe distance. Sometimes distance is all that is needed.
I follow a manicured path to a garden of meticulously pruned boxwood, Buxus sempervirens, and walk the pattern with amusement. I appreciate the plant but I won’t grow it. Boxwood needs to be tended but it doesn’t demand, as some other plants do, as some people do. I think of Prunus laurocerasus, English Laurel, and the word bully comes to mind. Boxwood is a bit kinder; asks a bit less in time and effort. It asks something that can’t be misunderstood as a demand. A small amount of kindness goes a long way, and sometimes a request is just a request.
A magnolia garden provides a grand sweeping flourish, like a ball room full of gowns in whites and pinks and purples – a full skirt of a garden, almost gaudy. Nothing concealed, nothing obscured resides in this primitive genus. What you see is what you get. It is not hard to appreciate such a plant. Its flowers seem as sincere and open as an act of kindness. ‘Come here, look close; I’m as perfect as I appear.’ Large, glossy leaves alternate along sturdy stems. It is a beautiful tree that sometimes causes extreme reactions in those who see it. Magnolias sometimes carry the burden of negative association upon their limbs, as if we take something personally when logic tells us otherwise. Sometimes a tree is just a tree.
In a morning of shimmering heat and dust-dry air, I followed a winding path among cactus and palms, leafless trees, aloes and agaves. Heat and aridity have dictated these shapes and forms; survivors of an environment honed to uniqueness by minimal sustenance and extended paucity. Few blooms lingered from earlier in the year, but those that persisted were beautiful in their symmetry. Pure colors – yellows and reds – answer the intrinsic call to reproduce. ‘Look at me!’ ‘Come my way!’ ‘For a good time . . .’ we know the rest. I respond to cactus and succulents for the same reason I respond to stone; timelessness makes sense. Long before I visited this garden, and long after I leave, this place will persist. These plants, these rocks, this dry air and stark, pale sky – indifferent to my presence. As it should be. Indifferent, but not untouched. I’m careful where I step and I hope others are, as well. The damage we do in a short time can be enormous. Think of the damage we do from just one word – one sentence. A plant can survive a deep cut or the loss of a large limb but it will struggle afterwards. We can survive a deep wound or a life-changing loss and we struggle. But, as with all beings, we adapt. What choice do we have? We adapt and if we are wise, we improve. We find genuine happiness.
I walked to a bench and sat down. The many shades of green answered the clear, pale blue of the sky. Not a cloud to be seen. I wondered about the evolutionary paths these plants have followed; the animals and insects that have evolved in tandem; those that will fail and those that will survive.
And then I knew, sometimes a garden is just a garden.
Gardens visited: Missouri Botanical Garden; Gregorian Garden in Bath, England; Balboa Park Desert and Old Cactus Gardens, San Diego