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.


Top shelf of my bookcase inherited from my mother. Photo of Mom and my two younger daughters.

My young mother almost broke into a gallop when she walked. I heard her footfall throughout our small, ranch house, up and down the basement stairs and room to room. Seamlessly, she raced against time to complete one task, then another.

Until her seventies, seldom did I witness the prized moment when Mom put up her feet. I cannot remember a book in her hands while she raised my four sisters and me.

Was there such a thing as book clubs for mothers of Baby Boomers?

Rather, when Mom relaxed, she held a threaded needle in her right hand, and the hem of a skirt or dress in her left. She “never stopped until her head hit the pillow,” as she’d say.

Before Webster’s Dictionary endorsed the term, Sadie O’Brien’s accomplishments included the first “cottage industry” in the growing city of Warren. Her business began with sewing for women. Then baking and decorating wedding cakes. When our family doctor got wind of her culinary reputation, he hired Mom to cater his dinner parties.

In her fifties she found time and finances to build her dream home in Kentucky surrounded by flowering trees and gardens. However, sewing matching Christmas dresses for her five granddaughters became her favorite creative pastime. And a lure to gather her family around the expanded table for her famous light rolls hot out of the oven.

Meanwhile, Mom established a personal library. Her younger brothers built two large bookshelves for the literature she’d never had time to devour.

In the extending shadow of this remarkable history, the day arrived when Mom could no longer remember where she put her book-in-progress. Her footfall no longer bounced from room to room and up the stairs to the “dormitory” she designed and furnished for her granddaughters.

At last, under great distress and opposition, this strong, gifted woman submitted to her children’s care. After many medical tests, doctors confirmed our mother suffered from Alzheimer’s and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “Make the most of the time you have left,” a doctor advised.

Upon one conversation with my mother, I asked how she was feeling.

She sighed. “Like I just hoed a cornfield.”

Perplexed, I replied, “You hoed cornfields?”

She blinked hard. “Why, yeah. Everybody who could hold a hoe had to help. I hated it. I’d rather make supper on the cook stove any day than hoe under the blazing sun. Nothing makes you bone-tired like hoeing a cornfield.”

At the time, I could only imagine, for I had yet to begin clearing and plowing land, and planting lavender fields. Later, I carried my harvest in baskets to the kitchen table for Mom to help bundle.

“Iris, what do you call this?”


“What do you do with it?”

“I infused it in our iced tea. You’re drinking it,” I’d say.

Dear Reader, my mother could no longer taste to understand lavender, an herb, flavored our tea.

And I soon learned nothing makes you bone-tired like hoeing a lavender field under a blazing sun.