On January 25th, it was unseasonably warm, and I noticed that my forsythia was covered in tight little buds. I took the opportunity to prune the shrub, giving it a nicer shape, and brought all the trimmed branches inside. I soaked them overnight in a warm bathtub (which was slightly messy to clean up, but not too bad!), gave them a fresh cut the next day, and put them in a pitcher of water. I’ve been changing the water every few days, wondering if anything would happen.
The first picture was taken February 4th, by which point lots of little green leaves had emerged. Cheery, but I was still hoping for flowers! A little worried that I had done something wrong. But today I noticed that two little yellow flowers had emerged, hooray! I expect that the branches will be covered in them before long. It may have been 0 degrees outside yesterday, and not much warmer today, but in my dining room, it’s spring.
All of which reminded me of a poem I wrote a long, long time ago…
flowers and branches
it started on the worst kind of day, the kind of day when your boots pinch and your head aches and there’s an itch on your back just where you can’t reach it. I had no one to scratch it. he was there and I was here and it was my own choice so I couldn’t exactly complain but I certainly wasn’t
happy. he had done something, I can’t remember what, to make it worse instead of making it better, and I just hurt. so I asked him to send me flowers. please. he sounded startled but agreed and that was a small victory though bitter too. nine years together and only recently had he decided that it would be acceptable to give me flowers. as long as I didn’t take them the wrong way.
he had given me flowers twice at that point. firstly: when I was terribly sick, at the instigation of our old lover who was visiting town. she chose them, orange mums. secondly: when we were buying groceries at the small gourmet store and I asked him to buy me some flowers. he agreed. I chose them, yellow daffodils. he did pay both times, so technically they were from him. more importantly, he agreed they were
from him. baby steps.
these flowers that I asked to be sent to me were another baby step. he agreed. casually, and I wasn’t sure that he would remember. when days went by with no sign of them I assumed that he had forgotten. he didn’t often forget things but sometimes he forgot quite important things. then
a message on my machine said that they had tried to deliver flowers but I hadn’t been home. then there were three days of missed messages and missed delivery attempts and after three days of this the flowers, all the
flowers, started to feel like they were maybe more trouble than they were worth. he was apologetic on the phone, though he really had no control over the situation.
finally they arrived, only two days before I was leaving town, and so there was little time to enjoy them. lilies, little red berries, tall elegant dry branches. they were rather impressive, actually, and he had chosen them himself, or at least something like them. the web page warned him that they did not guarantee the same flowers would be delivered. I determined to enjoy them, despite everything, and for two days I took very deliberate pleasure in my flowers. then I left. I thought about throwing them out before leaving. one of the lilies was already drooping, and they would be sad and dead by the time I returned three weeks later. I have an unfortunate tendency to see omens in this sort of thing, and expecting to be depressed, it didn’t seem wise to leave them to rot and greet me with
foul scent and mold on my return. but they were still beautiful. I left them in the vase.
one week with him. a few days with an old lover. a little more than a week with my family. a miserable cold. when I took the taxi back from the airport I wanted nothing more than to be home, even though being home meant being alone again. I unlocked the door, turned on the light,
climbed the stairs. and at the top of the stairs, the dining room, and in that room, the dining table, and on that table, the vase of flowers. the lilies had gone dry as dust, and crumbled to the touch; the red berries were dry and hollow. there was no scent. but the tall thin branches had
put out fresh leaves, pale and green and very much alive. once I had cleared away the dust and rubbish, they were lovely.
my first thought was that I should make a poem about these branches, that they were just too good a metaphor to waste. something about not giving up, about how you think something’s dead, but if you just hang in there
and clear away the old rubbish, you may find something beautiful, yadda yadda yadda, you know the routine, squeezed into a few lines, some good clean words, maybe some rhymes. but that was no good, really.
it was simpler than that in the end (though longer, too, unsurprisingly). those branches, those leaves — that is how I am, when I think of him. he is green leaves within me. I live in the heart of winter, and despite everything, he is the spring.
January 6, 2001
A lot of tropicals go very dormant in the winter, dropping most, or even all of their leaves. I find it a little scary, to be honest, because I’m not at all sure that the plant (a bougainvillea, in this case) is still alive. You can bend the branches to see if they’re still supple — if they’re snapping, that’s a bad sign. But mostly, I end up just waiting and hoping, that when the warm weather returns and it’s save to return them to my sunny porch, the leaves and flowers will come back too.
In the meantime, some grocery story primroses underplanted add a nice note of cheery color in January, and don’t make me feel quite so despairing when I glance in this plant’s direction. They should last a few (or even several) weeks, and when they’re finishing up, you can dig them up and plant them in the garden, in a nice part-shade woodlandy spot, where they should be perennial (in zones 4-8), returning for a number of years and even spreading by seed
It’s called forcing, when you cut branches from the trees and shrubs and bring them in to flower early, but I prefer to think of it as gently encouraging. We had an unseasonably warm few days last week, and my forsythia was heavy with buds. The contractor who’d planted it for me years ago had asked why I wanted such a weedy shrub. At the time, my only answer was that my parents had had a row of them, and they seemed so cheery in early spring — I’m not normally a yellow fan, but I make an exception for forsythia (and daffodils).
Now, though, I’d add that weediness can be a virtue. That first photo is the forsythia unpruned. I went in with my pruners and clipped away branches that were going off to the sides, falling over and touching the ground, crossing other branches. I neatened up the whole shrub, which gave me a nice armful of branches to take back inside.
Then a few sharp splits to the stems (you can take a hammer to them, if you prefer), and submerged in a warm bath I had ready. I left them overnight (putting a towel over the stems to weigh them down into the water, as they kept stubbornly popping up). And now they’re waiting in water; I’ll try to remember to change it every few days. The buds should continue to swell, and then open, sometime in the next 1-8 weeks, giving me a host of little yellow flowers that shout the news that spring is coming, spring is almost here.
In the depths of a Chicago winter, I need the reminder.
As I headed out to the airport, I had to pause and take a quick pic of this beauty.
(I’m safely at the gate now, with plenty of time to spare, but I had a moment of panic that I was going to miss a flight because I was obsessively snapping photos. I feel like there’s a lesson there, about how I pack as much as possible into my life, but also feel like I must document every moment, and maybe I should just chill a little…but that’s not likely to happen, is it?)
It’s time to plant your paperwhites and amaryllises, if you haven’t yet. Fifteen minutes with some rocks (or soil, if you prefer), and you’ll have flowers in December, January, February, March.
You can find them at big hardware stores, like Home Depot, some big grocery stores, or via mail order. I usually get my paperwhites from White Flower Farm, because I like the Ziva a little better than the ones I find at a hardware store — they tend to give double-blooms on strong stems, and don’t get quite as leggy and floppy.
I succession plant my paperwhites, planting a few more (usually in odd-number clumps, three or five, for a more natural look) every two weeks, so I have blooms all spring. (They do have a strong scent, which I like, but not everyone does.) Paperwhites don’t generally re-bloom. I absolutely adore the tall green shoots and delicate white flowers; a note of freshness in the midst of a long winter. And they mix beautifully with traditional Christmas festive decor, especially when held upright with bright copper stakes.
I also do both South African amaryllis (which blooms in December-January), and Dutch amaryllis (which blooms in February-March). In theory, you can get them to re-bloom year after year if you plant them in soil and follow the right process; this is the first year I’ll be trying that. They usually will need staking too. Glorious on a holiday table; they also make a great gift.