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Monday, September 16, 2019

HISTORICAL SOUTHERN PLANTS GIVE FORM TO SOUTHERN FICTION

Southern life is rooted in the natural world. The rhythms of this life are shaped by intense summer heat, brief but brilliant springs, and the bountiful harvests of autumn. Our lives are conducted beneath the canopies of massive trees, a deciduous forest biome that once stretched from the Atlantic coast to the banks of the Mississippi River and beyond: oaks, magnolias, maples, pines, pecans and tulip poplars.

Magnolia virginiana 'Claudia Wanamaker'
It is a life sweetened by fragrant shrubs and vines like honeysuckle, jessamine, gardenia and moonflower, with blossoms that render southern nights intoxicating, and which seduce night-flying pollinators. And it is sustained by fruits that shrug off the heat, pests, and ever-present diseases: figs and berries and scuppernong grapes. On moonlit August nights my dogs bark and otherwise bedevil the 'possums that creep into our garden from the woods behind the house and strip my fig tree clean just as the rosy fruits are ripening on the branches. 
This possum made his getaway through the giant pecan.

Persistent wildlife is also an important element of the south’s inter-connected ecology, as I know from the legions of chipmunks, rabbits, 'possums and raccoons who defy my scrappy canines to feed in the garden and dig dens on our property. Yesterday my husband and I were driving through a heavily congested intersection in the North Carolina border town of Shelby, stuck behind a traffic light that favors the through-traffic on Highway 74. While idling on a cement overpass, I happened to look down into the culvert, covered in discarded cans and kudzu, and spotted a woodchuck feasting on blackberries. Even amidst the densest urban blight, it appears, southern mammals carry on!

Any writer who does not appreciate how fully southern life is integrated with the seasons that bring fruit, flower, or leaf-fall has not comprehended one of its key components. I began to perceive this connection as a result of visiting historic home-sites in the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia, Mississippi, and Tennessee over several decades, and noting common gardening features or plant specimens these sites shared that were advantageous to the generations of residents who had lived and died there.
The cedar allee at William Faulkner's house, Rowan Oak, Oxford MS

These particular plants were consciously present while I wrote The Second Mrs. Hockaday, my novel about a young war-bride struggling to survive on an upstate South Carolina farm during the Civil War. (Algonquin Books 2017.) Modern-day homesites could benefit from borrowing some of these time-honored southern stand-bys. 

The grape arbor at Brattonsville SC
THROWING SHADE
In the novel, Placidia first meets her future husband when Major Hockaday and her father emerge from a grape arbor where they have been finalizing Hockaday’s purchase of a mule. Grape arbors are a fixture of rural southern plots; built from cedar logs, resistant to rot and pests, and covered by vines bearing the heat-tolerant scuppernongs (yellow-green fruit) or muscadines (black), the arbors provided a cooling spot for entertaining in the days before air-conditioning, and offered a harvest in late summer which could be made into wine or jelly. (Placidia makes wine.) 
My eight-year old muscadine grapevine
Vitis rotundifolia ‘Noble’ is the muscadine vine I planted on the gated arbor leading to my vegetable garden. Grapes need a well-drained site, and this spot slopes away to the yard below, ensuring that water doesn’t collect at the roots. One of the best sources for fruiting vines and trees in the Carolinas is the Farmers Market in Raleigh, specifically, the vendor known as “the fruit-tree man.” The vine he sold me eight years ago has grown like Jack’s proverbial beanstalk, encircling most of the veggie garden, and has been almost entirely pest- and disease-free in that time. Most importantly, the flavor and dark purple, almost black, color of the fruit is excellent. 
'Noble' muscadines
I make my ‘hurricane wine’ after harvesting the grapes around Labor Day each year, usually when a storm is heading our way from further south or has just brushed past us. The mash ferments in jugs above the washing machine and is strained and bottled in October, producing half a dozen bottles to give to neighbors or take along to holiday celebrations. 
Muscadine mash, fermenting

In The Second Mrs. Hockaday, Placidia makes wine from vines that grow wild in the woods, hoping it will be appreciated by her husband when he returns on leave, but the bottles are stolen in a raid by Confederate bandits. Hoping to assuage the leader of the band, Placidia tells him, “I made it myself, so it’s not the best-tasting. But it’s alcohol.” 
My husband FK harvests grapes with Clemmie 
That's for sure. After a few weeks fermenting above the washing machine, my muscadine mash has a high alcohol content. I warn imbibers to go easy and not gulp the wine, but, maybe because it's naturally sweet, they tend to overdo. As my elderly neighbor told me one winter's day when I broke out a bottle: “that’ll have me seeing double and feeling single.” I loved that line so much I put it in the novel, along with the wine. 

GO BIG WITH A FIG
Almost every historic homesite I’ve visited in a southern state boasts at least one fig tree, and this tree is nearly always planted on the sunny south-facing side of a house or separate kitchen, against a wall that protects the tree from frost and warms it as it buds out in spring. 
The fig tree at Historic Brattonsville SC occupies a sheltered corner

That’s why I featured one in the kitchen garden at Valois (“this had always been our place for secrets,” Placidia writes, as she and her father shelter beneath the fig to discuss Hockaday’s proposal of marriage). 

Figs can grow quite large, given time. Years ago, I wrote a magazine story about the garden of some friends of mine who owned a pre-Civil War home in North Carolina. The fig tree that grew behind their house was a behemoth -- at least two stories tall and wide. They didn't own a ladder tall enough to pick the figs at the top, so at harvest-time their four boys happily scampered up the branches  and dropped the fruit to their waiting parents.
This massive fig tree in NC is over 150 years old.


The ‘Celeste’ fig I was given as a rooted cutting by a gardening friend over a decade ago now towers above the railing that once supported it. I planted it on a south-facing spot where our deck blocks freezing winds. 
Ficus carica in summer
Even in a protected site, however, a fig’s yield can be limited by late spring freezes, excessively cold winters, excessively hot summers, too much rain, too little rain, and by the scourge of winged and mammalian marauders who find its sweet fruits so appealing. 

I consider myself lucky to get sufficient fruit in the first crop to make a fig cake and possibly a jar of chutney, because the second crop is nearly always stolen. (Figs don’t come ripe until early August, or, in good years, late July, as do the figs at Holland Creek when Placidia lifts her young step-son, Charlie, into the branches to feast on the early fruits.  If you’re lucky, you can get a second crop that extends the season into September.)

Fig cake with 'Celeste' figs
The beauty of a southern fig is that it is one of the few fruit trees nearly impervious to pests and disease. The worst problem I’ve ever encountered is premature leaf-yellowing and drop due to drought and/or consistently unbearable heat, but when you consider how many sprayings are required for peach trees, apples, cherries and the like, growing a fig seems like a no-brainer for any southerner wanting to tend a garden organically.

If you go shopping for figs, don't be persuaded by nursery staffers unfamiliar with fig husbandry into buying a variety that only yields west of the Mississippi River. (I did that, when I was a novice gardener. In fact, I bought TWO barren figs, and learned an expensive lesson.) Certain California fig varieties require a particular wasp for fertilization that doesn't exist east of the Rockies. Instead, buy one of the types commonly grown in southern states: 'Celeste, 'Brown Turkey,' or possibly 'Chicago Hardy.' These are self-fertilizing varieties that have proven themselves over many years growing and bearing in southern gardens. 
Fig chutney

My fig cakes freeze well for holiday gifts or entertaining, but my favorite dish is fig chutney, which pairs beautifully with roasted pork. I’ve included the recipe below, if you want to try it with your own figs next season.

GHOSTLY GARDEN JONQUILS
In marrying Major Hockaday, Placidia Fincher forsakes her privileged life growing up on the large plantation of Valois and struggles with a harsher existence on her husband’s subsistence homestead at Holland Creek. 
Mountain Shoals Plantation, in Enoree SC, was a model for Holland Creek Farm

Here too, events occurring in the novel were often inspired by the sturdy southern plants I scouted on my travels among historic sites, or worked with in my own garden, like a particular, delicate daffodil that captured my imagination and found its way into my fiction.
Heirloom narcissus, Twin Sisters

Following their wedding night at Hockaday’s farm in upstate South Carolina, Placidia wakes from her somewhat harrowing introduction to married life to find that her husband is already out and about on the farm. Before parting from her, however, he has laid a single jonquilla stalk on the pillow beside hers, and their elusive fragrance, "like honey but with the fresh tang of grass underneath it," bolsters her optimism as she commences life on the farm.

The story behind that blossom is a somewhat magical one, as many Southern stories are. Over twenty years ago, when my husband, daughter and I were forced to leave a beloved home in Wake Forest, NC, and resettle in Charlotte, where my husband’s new job was located, we settled on a house that none of us loved, but whose location was convenient. Once we had moved there, I stood out on the raw front lawn of our new home, on the lot that had been torn out of a large tract of succession woods cleared to make the development, and tried to find something, anything, that I could pin my heart on long enough to begin building a garden. As I shifted my head in the breeze coming off the nearby lake, I caught a faint but distinctive scent, a sweet cool fragrance. I wandered the yard, sniffing and searching, until my eyes caught up with my nose. Sprouting from the grove beside our house, the only original terrain that had been spared by the bulldozer, was a small clump of bluish foliage, as narrow as grass. In the center of that clump, two tiny porcelain trumpets were casting their perfume on the air.

Twin Sisters, like all jonquil-types, are sweetly fragrant
Who could have planted such beautiful daffodils, I marveled. And when? The land on which our subdivision stood had been leased for timber until recently, and Duke Power had owned it for decades before that, ever since the Catawba River was dammed in the sixties to create Mountain Island Lake and Lake Norman. If there had ever been a house on our small hill, let alone a garden, both must have been removed years ago.

The mystery of the rediscovered garden deepened when a sprawling Apothecary’s rose, present in gardens since the fifteenth century and as durable as steel, emerged from under the trees to bloom on Mother’s Day, along with old-fashioned popcorn spiraea that stretched its arms beyond the wild cherry to catch the sun.  

As the garden flowered, however, my husband was experiencing some uncomfortable sensations. Arriving home from work one day, he asked me if I had invited a neighbor to the house. “Was she in the garage?” he asked uneasily. I answered, also feeling uneasy, that there were only ten other families living in the development and no one had yet been to our home. He explained that as he pulled into our driveway, he had glimpsed a woman in a long, faded dress standing in front of our garage, but when he parked and got out, she vanished.

“Maybe she’s our gardener,” I joked. “She came back to see the roses bloom.” We laughed a little, agreeing that my husband’s vision had probably been nothing more than a trick of light or an effect of commuter exhaustion. And yet, this notion of a gardening spirit took root in my imagination, providing a strange kind of comfort. Of connection.
The sharecroppers' land

Not long after this, my husband woke in the middle of the night with a splitting headache and went downstairs to get some aspirin. From upstairs, I heard objects tumbling to the floor, followed by cursing. Down in the kitchen I found him picking up postcards and photos that had fallen from our refrigerator door, where we kept a messy, ever-changing display. “I felt a draft,” FK told me in a thin whisper. “It was as if something rushed past me, knocking all these things to the floor.”

We scooped up our memorabilia and left the mess piled on the table. In the morning I began to sort through it and discard the items we no longer needed. Mixed in with the jumble of snapshots and clippings were several magnets from a poetry-magnet kit we’d acquired. Maybe you’ve seen these kits: they consist of hundreds of words that can be arranged to form daffy poem fragments, of which we had many gracing our refrigerator: “swim/in/the/delirious/storm/of/life/like/
a/thousand/tiny/why/nots,” and “languid/shine/
of/summer/garden” and “mother/is/most/cool.”

On the tabletop, I lined up the five magnets that had fallen to the floor the night before. As I did so, I felt the skin on my arms prickling with goosebumps. I read: “sweet/mother/garden/goddess/friend.”

Old farm
Over the months that followed, I persisted in trying to determine who had lived and gardened where our house now stood, eventually tracking down the man whose ancestors had owned the 1,000 acre plantation that once bordered the river. “After the war, the bottomland along the river was farmed by sharecroppers,” this man explained. “There were shacks up and down Nance Creek, where your development was built. The tenants mostly grew corn and cotton.” But in 1916, two hurricanes collided over the Blue Ridge Mountains, creating a terrible flood that swept down the river channel. “A lot of people lost their lives when the river topped its banks,” he told me. “People, animals, houses, barns: entire towns were washed away. I would imagine you’ve got the remains of a sharecropper’s garden that was planted there before the flood."

Do you wonder, then, why I felt compelled to take cuttings of the rose and the spiraea when we moved a dozen years later to our home in South Carolina? Or why I carefully dug up a handful of the heirloom jonquilla bulbs (discovered to be Narcissus x medioluteus, a late-blooming heirloom species, also called N. ‘Twin Sisters’for the small double-blooms that open on each stalk in April) and planted them in a place of honor in the new garden?  Their scent, and their ghostly originator, have happily haunted me every spring, and both found their way into the novel.

The swamp rose, Rosa palustris scandens, in my garden

SWAMP FOX
I've praised the swamp rose, Rosa palustris scandens, in at least one previous blog post ("Roses for Southern Gardens") because it is the only rose I know of that shrugs off southern clay and blackspot, and, as it's common name implies, tolerates very damp soil. I have grown it in all three of my Carolina gardens, trouble-free, but it troubles me that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find in the trade. Even my favorite mail-order rose nursery no longer carries it. Why should this be? I can't fathom. Her single pink blooms are cleanly fragrant and the plant's lovely vase-shaped habit is designed to shelter all manner of shade-loving creepers, hostas and hellebores beneath her skirts.
 
Its cascading habit is highly romantic

Its habit must have been what inspired me to write a brief romantic scene between Placidia and Gryffth set beneath the arching branches of a large swamp rose that grows beside the banks of Holland Creek. At about 10' tall and wide, I reasoned that a mature specimen could surely accommodate two lovers beneath its protective cover, providing plenty of privacy. 

When the novel was in the process of being edited at Algonquin, my husband and I celebrated its publication by traveling in May 2015 to Mississippi to visit Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak, and driving on to Tennessee to take in Andrew Jackson's impressively restored and preserved homeplace, The Hermitage. 

In the romantic gardens where President Jackson is buried alongside his beloved wife Rachel, the woman he defended from detractors in numerous duels, the peonies and iris were in full flower. But the sight of a swamp rose covered in blossom, trailing its pink skirts along the path, gladdened my heart beyond measure. 

Swamp rose blooming at Andrew Jackson's home, The Hermitage
In the book, Hockaday writes to Placidia from the battlefield, recalling the morning after their wedding when they walked the farm. "We found that spot under the big swamp-rose where we could sit and not be seen, do you remember? ...When I open one of your letters now when I am so far away and see your handwriting...that is the only time this old soldier feels fear after so many battles, my fair girl. If there is a hell, it is the prospect of not seeing you again. There is no home for me if I can't come home to you."

Home means different things to different people. To this writer, it means keeping a homeplace that honors and evokes the past while sowing ideas for books that have yet to be written. So long as my garden bears southern fruit and flowers, I'll never lack for inspiration.


The garden in May. Swamp rose on left, southern peonies handed down by previous owner on right.

###

FIG CHUTNEY (adjusted from recipe by Emeril Lagasse)
1 1/4 cups red wine vinegar
1/4 pound brown sugar
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 TAB chopped fresh ginger
3/4 teaspoon dry yellow mustard
2 TAB lemon zest
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 pound fresh figs, ('Celeste' preferred), rinsed, stems removed and halved

Directions:
In a saucepan combine the vinegar, sugar, onion, ginger, mustard, lemon zest, cinnamon stick, salt, allspice and cloves and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until mixture is thickened and reduced by 2/3, forming a thick syrup. Add the figs. Cook gently until figs are soft and most of the liquid they've produced has evaporated, about thirty minutes.
Store chutney when cooled in a Mason jar and refrigerate until used. Tastes best when allowed to warm to room temperature.

P.S. If you contact me through the comments section on this post, or through the contact form on my website, I'll be happy to send you my recipe for muscadine wine.






Friday, March 15, 2019

HALCYON DAYS: IRISES FOR SOUTHERN GARDENS


I love this time of year in the garden when it is not quite spring, but winter is loosening its grip. Days lengthen, the sap rises, and the bluebirds return to build their nests. Not much is blooming yet: just the daffodils and the frost-proof cups of cream and pink that grace the hellebores. The trees have not leafed out. And yet, for a gardener, it's as exciting a time as the build-up to Christmas morning. So much is promised. Possible. Palpable.
Dreaming of the iris in bloom...



Some of the best markers of growth in this season as the equinox approaches are the iris. Spurred by weeks of heavy rainfall the green blades of Siberian and Japanese iris have begun thrusting their knife-points free of the dead foliage at their crowns. Vigorous stands of swamp-loving Louisiana iris never shed their green foliage, not even through the coldest part of the season, nor does a wildly vigorous stand of the native blue flag iris, I. virginica, which I planted in standing water at the low spot beside my garden shed. But now the growing stalks brighten and glow as if flames are burning inside them, with the virginica and the Socastee river iris selection, I. versicolor 'Swords of Murex,' sporting purple-stained blades at the base.
Iris virginica plants getting their green on.
Most of the beardless iris species I grow are water-lovers, including the exceedingly rare and beautiful Foxcroft Full Moon, a white I. pseudacorus with violet stitching on the falls. In addition to needing moisture, beardless iris must have acidic soil to perform well, with a pH no higher than 6.5, and Carolina clay is made to order. In this respect the beardless iris are the complete opposite of bearded iris (I. germanica) which require dry conditions and alkaline soil, preferring a pH of 7 or above.
Iris sibirica blades emerging in spring.



I grow a few cultivars of tall bearded (TB) iris in a plot inspired by British gardener Beth Chatto's gravel garden. The TBs are slower to show new growth than the beardless ladies, but in late March the blades will begin to thicken as flowerbuds swell in their protected sheaths. The TB bed is exposed to full sun all day (one aspect of their cultural requirements that they share with most beardless iris). 
Tall Bearded Iris 'Wench' in my garden.
It slopes slightly to encourage sharp drainage, and is amended with lime and mulched with gravel to keep the soil sweet and prevent the rhizomes from rotting. This is not an easy task in our humid climate, and it may be why I have lost so many of the pretty little dwarf varieties that never rise very far above the damp soil. I have sworn the dwarfs off but for the blushing beauty, 'Chanted,' which is still clinging to life.
Standard Dwarf Bearded Iris 'Chanted'

Not to worry. In some years, starting in early April and continuing through May, I get a splendid display of blooms from the few tall workhorse varieties I keep on: 'Lemon-Lime,' 'Afternoon Delight,' 'Gypsy Dancer,' and a glamorous iris passed along from a gardener at my former church, ironically named 'Wench.' (The iris, not the church lady.)  For the most part, however, the TBs resent sharing space with the other plants in that bed: the roses, peonies, and daylilies. As far as TBs are concerned, paradise is a dry, empty field occupied entirely by their own kind. I can't offer them the space and exclusivity they desire.
TBs 'Lemon Lime' finish their show in early May, as southern peonies and Siberian iris take over.

A chummier species of iris is I. tectorum, or roof iris. 'Alba' blooms in mid-April at the foot of my variegated Japanese maple, Acer palmatum 'Beni-schichihenge.' These clumping iris happily rub shoulders in the filtered light beneath the tree with wild columbines, bugleweed and a cherished, small-leaved Buxus microphylla started as a cutting from a boxwood in writer Elizabeth Lawrence's Charlotte garden.
Iris tectorum 'Alba' appreciates the shade of trees.
Here's the hallmark of an excellent garden plant: I've divided the patch of tectorum many times and it never complains.



Nor do my beardless iris pile on much agony. The consistently cold weather we experienced last winter had a positive effect on the Siberian iris cultivars I grow, as well as my southern peonies; both species of plants need a certain amount of cold dormancy to do well, and they got it. People unfamiliar with South Carolina's upstate region are always surprised when I tell them how cold our winters can be, especially here on our little mountain above the Spartanburg plain.
Alice in the snowy garden.
In the ten years we've lived in Traveler's Joy, we have never had a snow-free winter, and have occasionally endured single-digit freezes. (That doesn't mean we don't get hot summers… Lord help! Equatorial.)



Benefiting from the deep-freeze, a small plot of I. sibirica 'Sparkling Rose' that I'd planted and forgot about a few years back suddenly threw out a multitude of fat budstalks last spring. When the flowers bloomed in April, they were dazzling. 
I. sibirica 'Roaring Jelly.'
It was the same for I. sibirica 'Roaring Jelly,' and a clump of I. sibirica 'Ever Again,' a hybrid introduced by iris grower Currier McEwen. The latter grew so vigorously in its first year in my garden that by the second year I was able to take a piece of it to share with my daughter in her Raleigh plot. I bought this three-gallon pot of 'Ever Again' at the farmers' market in nearby Cowpens from a member of the Spartanburg Men's Garden Club for the remarkable price of $5. I told him it wasn't enough, but he argued back that it was the end of his day and he was ready to be done with the pots and go home. I've longed to return to the market and buy more plants now that I've seen these iris perform, but the farmers market never reopened after that spring. Cowpens mayor, are you listening?
I. sibirica 'Sparkling Rose'



The Siberians get their bloom going in late April or early May. Following them in the iris blooming cycle are the Louisiana irises. Modern hybrids of these swamp-lovers sport flowers in all the colors of the rainbow, but I take most pleasure in those with the wild Iris fulva as one of their parents. The warm terra-cotta tones of fulva aren't seen in other beardless iris, but they are glowingly apparent in the stand of I. louisiana 'Red Dazzler' which grows in my rain garden. 
LA iris blooming with loropetalum.
These dark red flowers are sensational blooming against a background of Loropetalum 'Red Diamond,' and dragonflies love them. Also, they remind me of a gardening friend who taught me a good deal about iris and who has since passed away. I think of Dawn and smile when the dazzlers bloom.
LA iris 'Red Dazzler after a rain.

Japanese iris, I. ensata, close out the iris season with a grand finale. They are tall and dramatic, with flowers spread like flashy handkerchiefs atop the stalks. I grow I. ensata 'Wilderness Warrior' in a spot where she is protected by Itea 'Henry's Garnet' and an old-fashioned pillar rose, 'Souvenir du Dr. Jamain'; otherwise my pair of rescue dogs would flatten the stalks and the beautiful mauve and white flowers along with them. My favorite ensata cultivar is 'Nikko,' a stunner in the sunny May garden with broad, marbled blooms of purple and white featuring bright yellow signals.
I. ensata 'Nikko' in my garden.

In addition to the showier types of Japanese iris, I grow a species-type ensata which may or may not be I. ensata 'Emotion.' I've moved it so many times, once across state lines and then several times within this garden, looking for the best site to show off its graceful, elongated falls of deep, marine blue. It seems to be happy now in its sunny bed beside the blueberry shrub, where Holly-Tone satisfies the needs of both fruit and flower, and where the irises amplify the color of the ripening fruit.
Orange cat with blue iris.

I've bought a couple of different cultivars from Walter Hoover, the Japanese iris specialist who owns Charles Street Garden in Saluda, NC. He and his wife are among the dozens of excellent nurserymen and women who bring their wares to Hendersonville's annual Garden Jubilee. I wouldn't miss the show for anything, except a book event, and one of those kept me from attending on Memorial Day weekend last year. 
I. ensata 'Carol Johnson'
I swore I'd not miss another year's jubilee, but then I discovered that the Swan Lake Iris Garden in Sumter, SC, which I've longed to visit for their iris festival held when the ensatas bloom, is being held on the same weekend. May, to a gardener, is an embarrassment of riches.

*     *     *

Anyone who has read my fiction knows that I'm heavily influenced by Greek and Roman mythology. For that I credit my Duke-educated teacher of freshman high-school English. How that long-suffering man ever found his way to our confederacy of dunces in the trackless wilderness is a mystery, but I'm grateful he did. Mr. Rumsey started us on Camus, bless his heart, but gave up after two weeks, collecting all our unread copies of The Stranger and replacing them with his own mimeographed pages on the pantheon of gods and goddesses on Mt. Olympus. We ate up those bawdy tales of vanity, passion and vengeance like they were Junior Mints -- I even wrote a comic skit about Zeus and his jealous wife Hera that was performed by my bolder classmates.
Hera and Iris.

I remember being fond of the minor goddess, Iris. She, along with Hermes, were the gods' messengers, but while Hermes used his winged heels to fly between Heaven and Earth, Iris traveled only on rainbows. Anyone who has seen a field of bearded iris in bloom or watched dragonflies landing on a stand of purple Siberian iris flowering in a pond will appreciate how appropriate this symbol is.

In one of the few myths involving Iris, the messenger is enlisted by Hera to help a young queen named Alcyone, whom Hera pities. Alcyone and her husband, King Ceyx, shared a great love for one another and couldn't bear to be parted. Howevr, Ceyx decided he had to consult the oracle in Delphi about some knotty matter of state and so left his queen behind as he set off across the sea. Naturally, since this is a Greek story, it ends in tragedy: the king's ship is swamped in a storm and everyone drowns, Ceyx included. Meanwhile, Alcyone is home in their kingdom, praying and making sacrifices to Hera for her husband's safe return. This is why Hera orders up a dream for the clueless widow, as the goddess can't bear to witness Alcyone continuing to hope and pray that her beloved will come home. Iris dresses in her cloak of many colors and travels down the rainbow to the Vale of Sleep, instructing the god of slumber to craft a dream and send it to Alcyone, showing her how her husband died. 

Alcyone discovers her husband's drowned body.

The day after her dream, the queen goes to the shore and sees her husband's corpse washing in on the tide. She leaps into the sea, planning to die alongside him, but here the gods intervene (and the question is: why didn't they intervene earlier and save Ceyx??) They turn Ceyx and Alcyone into kingfisher birds and allow them to fly together over the waves. 

In Greece, the kingfisher female lays her eggs on the beach in winter, doing this only during the seven to ten day period when the winds are calm and the seas quiet, permitting her to nest atop the eggs. This calm, happy period in winter came to be called Halcyon Days, in honor of the devoted queen.
Pipit jonquillas.



For gardeners, this is our season of halcyon days, almost better, in its way, than the full-blown flummery of May. All our devotion through the cold, dark days is being rewarded with color and growth. With beauty. All that seemed dead is coming back to life.

Can one hope for anything better than that?

*     *     *

The two-day Garden Jubilee is held in downtown Hendersonville, North Carolina, on Saturday, May 25 & Sunday, May 26, 2019 from 9am-5pm both days of Memorial Day weekend.

Swan Lake Iris Festival in Sumter, South Carolina, is held annually on Memorial Day Weekend. In 2019 hours are:  Hours: Thursday, May 23, 6 - 9pm; Friday & Saturday, May 24-25, 10am - 6pm; Sunday, May 26, 10am - 5pm.
https://www.sumtersc.gov/irisfestival

The American Iris Society (AIS) sponsors events all around the country and its website provides a wealth of information about iris species and cultivation.
https://www.irises.org/