The patience of a Blackberry lily


The first Blackberry lily bloom in my garden. 

As Mel and I walked the Polly Ann Trail, Char and Dan Sutherby relaxed in lawn chairs by their home in downtown Leonard. Char waved. “Stop for a visit on your way back,” she hollered.

            I’d met Char several times during events sponsored by the Friends of the Addison Township Library. However, I didn’t know Char’s home was the green, block cement house I admired on our walks. And I’d never met her husband.

            Now was my chance for an up-close look of their two-story farmhouse and spacious gardens. The cool, sunny fall day offered the perfect climate for congenial conversation.

            At last, Char announced, “The house and gardens have become too much for us. We’ll be moving up north within the year.”

            “Well, I’m happy for you two, but sad for us,” I replied.

            “Before we leave, I’ll give you some Blackberry lily seeds. The roots are prolific, so plant the seed where you want the flowers to steal the show. They’re small, but mighty,” Char said.

            When the Sutherbys moved, Char handed a bag of dried Blackberry lily stems to a friend who relayed them to me. The black seeds clustered on the stem’s end resembled blackberries, thus the common name for Iris domestica.

            Following “full sun” directions, I invested twenty-some seeds in the garden along the southern side of our garage. I also toyed with chance and sowed ten seeds in the backyard lower garden in part shade.

            I offered the remaining seeds to friends and forgot the Blackberry lily until springtime when I scouted for sprouts. 

            Nada. My fellow gardeners who planted Char’s seeds reported the same disappointing news.

            Another quick search on the internet recalled Blackberry lily seeds sometimes take three years to germinate. Flora must possess an independent spirit to find her place in my gardens. If this wee, orange blossom with red spots also known as “leopard lily” refused to bloom, so be it.

            Two summers later in the midst of a sustained drought, I turned the southern corner of the garage. There, a darling dark orange bloom lifted her little, red speckled face upward. A Blackberry lily! No, two blooms and several buds!

            Now, my eyes and hands know every inch of that little garden, what blooms in spring, summer, and fall. What I’d guessed a dropped and sprouted gladioli bulb had formed perfectly fanned flags unlike that of a glad.


            My solitary Blackberry lily is a member of the Iris family. This endears Char’s gift to me as another friend’s hand-me down purple irises do in the same garden. Successive bloom cheers a gardener’s heart.

            And more good news. These little freckled petals need no fertilization or winter protection, and are drought tolerant.

            Oh, what a pleasure to find a self-sufficient guest in my garden!

Dear Reader, the architecture of the spent bloom forms a perfect spiral, which later develops into a seed pod.

Patiently, I wait to observe this miracle. To harvest and share Blackberry lily seeds as Char did.

Eyes for beauty


A beautiful spider in my perennial island circa summer 2004

I first beheld beauty in my mother’s dark eyes. I grew to recognize and trust her voice, smile, and touch. Her scent. She satisfied my hunger, and one remarkable day, she opened her arms and said, “Come to Mommy, Iris. You can do it!”

            And I did, surrounded by a loving father and young uncles who lived with us in the McCoy Homeplace. There, nestled in a lowland Appalachians call a “bottom” sheltered by lush, green mountains, I played with my two sisters.

My father and uncles harnessed Old Jim, our mule, plowed and planted the corn fields. Straight rows of corn grew with my sisters and me. We ran to the barn and back while red bud, rhododendron, and mountain laurel bloomed above us.

One winter night Old Jim died. We cried tears of sorrow for we loved Grandpa’s old mule because our mother and uncles did. They told us stories about Grandpa Floyd following sure-footed Old Jim up and down the hill they planted with corn.

My mother looked upon that hillside as if it was the loveliest place in the world. On the other hand, our father set his eyes upon a barbershop in Detroit, Michigan.

Thus, in the summer of 1954, Sadie and Warren O’Brien left the McCoy farm with their three daughters and earthly possessions. Dad drove winding roads through the mountains and what seemed hundreds of little towns to Yacama Street where not one mountain or hill rose up to shade us.

Mom’s dinner table and spare bed became the harbor for relatives looking for work with Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, and Michigan Bell. And so it was with the Italian, Polish, and German immigrants who also had left what they looked upon as their loveliest place in the world.

The saving grace of Yacama Street that summer was the magnificent Brown’s Creamery soda fountain nearby on Seven Mile Road. The window gave view to a counter where people sat on stools dipping long-handled spoons into tall ice cream dishes. The wonderful thought of scooping a spoon into one of those dishes produced a desire that my mother eventually fulfilled.

Yet, neither she nor I had anticipated my fright when my first day of kindergarten arrived. My older sister who suffered with asthma had entered her Open Window classroom with no hesitation. However, I feared getting lost on my way to school alone. Much worse, I’d never entered the huge doors of the two-story Gabriel Richard Elementary School. Who would find me if I got lost?

No matter how much I trusted and loved my mother, I couldn’t walk to school without her. Rather, I hid behind the large tree in the front yard and fell asleep. I woke with bird doo-doo on my head which provoked a knuckle rubbing from my mother.

Dear Reader, almost a lifetime later, I observe male and female cardinals feeding upon lavender shrubs gone to seed in my backyard.

One of the most beautiful places in the world, as is the perennial island in the front yard.

In the good old summertime


Red currants for compote

“See you in September,” a friend said as our Bible study group parted last week.

            “What? Only two months left of summer!” I replied.

            A hot, humid afternoon, I drove to Cook’s Farm Dairy in Ortonville. There, I filled two coolers with 25 containers of my “special order” Lavender Lemon Honey Ice Cream and packed them in my freezer. My guests anticipate this annual, refreshing treat come July and August.

Unlike many Michiganders who escape suburbia for their lakeside home, I prefer to avoid the Zilwaukee Bridge traffic. Born a fair-skinned Appalachian, the rural landscape with a swing under a shade tree appeals to me.

I almost learned to swim as a high-school sophomore when a friend invited me to join the synchronized swim team. My mother never knew my fellow teammates saved my life several times during those three years as a student of Warren Lincoln High School.

Although my front crawl, backstroke, and breaststroke remain pathetic, I carry watering cans and pull hoses to flower beds and pots like a pro. Yes, it’s a solitary sport, yet nonetheless engaging when I observe birds splashing in their backyard bath—robins the #1 bully.

We’re presently in a drought here in north Addison Township. If sustained, my bathroom scale may fall below 130 pounds for the first time in forty-five years. All I can say is praise God for my golf cart!

Yes, Betsy, my inseparable gardening companion, waits by my side to carry garbage cans of weeds and deadheaded plants to the back forty dump yard. My husband Mel replaces Betsy’s spark plugs and fills her gas tank to keep us going and my gardens growing.

Ah…my window’s open to birdsong and blooming daylilies. Eighty one degrees and thirty-three percent humidity. Wind five miles per hour in this good old summertime.

Hmm…I hear another song in the atmosphere.

            Indeed, this month in 1949, MGM released their romantic musical The Good Old Summertime, the leading stars Judy Garland and Van Johnson.

Five months old then, I now wonder if my father, a film fan, drove my mother to the theater in Williamson, West Virginia, to see and hear Judy sing.

            Wikipedia says MGM’s Technicolor production is a “musical adaptation of the 1940 film, The Shop Around the Corner, starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.” The plot of a mail romance returned in the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

            I, amongst millions, ran to the theater to see Tom and Meg perform in another artistic rendition of the 1937 play Parfumerie written by Miklos Laszlo. I would set down money for a movie back then.

Dear Reader, I foresee devoting a few winter evenings in 2023 to Jimmy and Margaret in The Shop Around the Corner, and Judy singing, “In the good old summertime, In the good old summertime, Strollin' through the shady lanes…”

Meanwhile, the larkspur need deadheading, the roses and peonies pant for another dose of foliar spray, and I’ve currants to compote.

The gift of floxglove


The first foxglove to ever grace my gardens

Our California daughter emailed at 1:47 a.m. this morning while my husband and I slept. “Just wanted to let you know we arrived safely in Uganda late last night. It’s the middle of the night there, so I will wait to call. I enjoyed some of the finest passion fruit juice on the planet with breakfast this morning.”

            Kelly knows I’m fond of Uganda’s passion fruit juice from the month of December 2010 I spent with her new family of three along the Nile. Twelve years later, in celebration of his high school graduation, Jinja Town, Uganda, is their first destination while visiting their adopted son’s family.

            I opened another transcontinental email received at 4:30 a.m. “I am in Australia right now visiting family and making new friends as you can see by the photo I've attached.” My friend Marilyn B posed with a kangaroo.

            Our group of fellow art lovers named her Marilyn B for “Battiste” so we won’t confuse her with Marilyn Smith. We also know Marilyn B as Smiley because she always is.

            Pondering Kelly’s and Marilyn’s wanderlust, I rolled back my writing chair, gazed out my study window and thought, “So, what’s my breaking news?”

            On cue, the first foxglove to bloom in my gardens waved three feet from my nose. Every day this spring I’ve watched the tall, slim stem grow, the buds develop and pink petals open their black speckled upside-down blossoms.

Eleven months after my friend Connie placed four Styrofoam cups containing a foxglove seedling into my care, I witnessed a hummingbird flit from flower to flower.

Alas, winter claimed two of Connie’s gifts, and the other survivor languishes under the crabapple tree on the south end of the perennial island. The seedling grew tall and lush last summer and fall, so I’m perplexed. I’ll keep weeding and feeding her and see what happens.

These challenges make my one blooming Digitalis purpurea more precious, even though I sighted more robust clusters of her kind on the fabulous 22nd Annual Rochester Garden Walk two days ago.

I confess, my one foxglove paled compared to the thick stems and layers of blossoms full of themselves and growing in a mat of thick mulch. Yet, every gardener deserves their success and praise for their labor. Akin to raising daughters, it’s vain to compare one’s foxglove to another’s.

As this is my first and only foxglove, I will leave her be. I’ve plenty perennials to cut for my tables and hostess gifts.

For larkspur is blooming! Imagine her blue with the native yellow Lanceleaf Coreopsis from our west wildflower field where lavender once grew.

When Marilyn B and our companions arrive in July for another garden potluck, I hope there’s enough daylilies and Asian lilies left for bouquets. And the hibiscus should be beautiful when Kelly, our son-in-law, and grandson visit us in August.

Dear Reader, perhaps the shoot emerging from the blooming foxglove will flourish to welcome home our West Coast family.

Now, that’s breaking news.                 

Adoration of spring


My rhubarb in sunrise

On a clear morning, the first rays of sunrise alight the stems of my Ruby red rhubarb. For weeks now, I’ve admired the flirtatious florescence of twenty-one plants.

I had no clue how beautiful this sour food could be when I planted the crowns well over a decade ago. Yes, the word “crown” suits this queenly spring perennial. She may reign up to thirty years when well fed. I use chicken manure water for her roots and a natural foliar spray for her large, heart-shaped leaves.

You may think I’m overrating this old-fashioned favorite sometimes found on abandoned farms nearby lilac shrubs. Farmers chose these companions with purpose, which you’ll know by the conclusion of my praises for this hybrid of Rheum in the family Polygonaceae.

I have a long, steadfast relationship with Ruby. If you’d tasted my mother’s fresh strawberry-rhubarb pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on a warm, spring day, you’d also be smitten.

Now, considering I gather fresh, brown eggs every day to carry uphill to my kitchen, why wait for local strawberries? Why not add sliced rhubarb to my favored custard pie?

Chess Pie, a Southern tradition mixing one half cup butter, 2 cups sugar, one tablespoon all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon cornmeal, five eggs, one cup milk, one teaspoon vanilla, and 2 tablespoons lemon juice, the baked result defies description. Two to three cups sliced rhubarb sparkle like jewels in the golden surface of toasted cornmeal.

Oh, I add one tablespoon of culinary lavender to the Rich Pie Crust recipe that accompanies the Chess Pie on page 247 of my lovingly abused Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. The flavor of Lavandula angustifolia blends exquisitely with the crust, custard, and rhubarb.

This in mind, seriously consider to whom you serve this luscious dessert. Will your companion(s) mutually admire the pie’s beauty? Will they widen their eyes in surprise as they savor the scents of dairy, vegetable, grain, and herb?

Then adorn your table with a bouquet of lilacs. Later in spring when the peonies bloom, arrange them with poppies, roses, iris, and whatever spring flowers grace your gardens.

Go ahead, snip those compelling blooms that stop you, cause you to bow your face to their stamens. If you happen to grow Beauty Bushes, a few small blooming stems will infuse any room with her heavenly fragrance.

On a fine day, you may brew a pot of coffee or steep a teapot of Earl Gray to enjoy outdoors with your pie. Preferably in the company of a lilac and Beauty Bush.

Rhubarb Chess Pie is most delicious warm. Some pie lovers insist a dollop of real whipping cream necessary to complete the experience. Not I.

Yesterday I enjoyed the last piece of the Rhubarb Custard Pie I baked Monday morning for my Bible study group. The chilled custard tasted like rhubarb ice cream in a cone.

Dear Reader, the lowing sun beamed on my rhubarb stems this evening.

The close of spring’s admiration draws nigh.