Family Heirlooms: Crocuses, Violets, Camilla, and Lemon Trees

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Photo by Joshua V. Vittitow

Guarding the Garden

One of my fondest memories of my late grandmother comes from the afternoon I learned that she owned a Red Ryder BB Gun, the exact model made famous in A Christmas Story. I was helping her set the dinner table when I noticed it lying across one of the chairs pushed into the corner of the room. When I asked her why she owned a Red Ryder BB Gun, she very proudly told me she used it to shoot the squirrels when they got into the bird feeder. I couldn’t believe it; my 80-plus-year-old grandmother, shooting squirrels with her BB gun. It’s a wonder she didn’t shoot her eye out!

The squirrels were a constant threat to her bird feeder and to her precious flowerbeds nearby. My grandmother used to have these beautiful but delicate flowers scattered throughout her flowerbeds, and tended to them very diligently each season.

When I noticed the same flowers popping up in our own front yard, I sent a picture to my mom and asked if they were the same crocuses that my grandmother used to plant. When she said they were, I asked how they got planted in our yard, and she told me that it was because squirrels would take the bulbs and bury them for the winter, then forget where they put them.

Now, every time I see spring flowers, I think of my grandmother’s house. I see us sitting in her kitchen, setting the table for dinner with the Red Ryder BB Gun sitting on the chair. I’d give anything to have just one more conversation with her.

Amanda Vittitow
Louisville, Kentucky

Sweet May Memories

As a young child in the 1950s, I loved visiting my grandparents. Every time I was there, they had a new and fun adventure in store for me. My favorite activity together was our tradition of picking sweet violets (Viola odorata) every year on May Day.

My grandma had a large bed of calla lilies all along the side of the house; they were entirely surrounded by the most fragrant old-fashioned sweet violets I can ever remember tickling my nose. Carefully picking the flowers always took the entire day, but I never noticed the time. I would delicately lift each of the leaves and search for the biggest flowers with the longest stems. Grandma taught me that it was important that the violets had long stems, so they could easily reach the water in their vases. Most kids would have just ripped the flower out of the ground and been on their way, but I took Grandma’s words very seriously, pinching the flowers right at the base each time.

After picking a big fistful of flowers, I would add a few heart-shaped leaves to surround the blooms like a collar. Grandma would take my florist designs even further and wrap the bouquet in a white paper doily, cutting a hole in the middle to push the stems through. She would then take the finished bundle and place it in a little water-filled jelly jar.

While this process was fun, my favorite part came next. I would put aside my florist skills in exchange for my ninja skills, and quietly sneak next door. I’d place my prized violet bouquet on the neighbor’s porch as a surprise. Upon returning to Grandma’s house, I’d begin work on another bouquet to surprise another neighbor.

My mother eventually transplanted a few of Grandma’s prized violets to her own yard. Decades later, my children and grandchildren got to pick the flowers one by one and make their own bouquets with their grandma, as I once did.

Every year, the mere act of flipping the calendar from April to May always brings fond memories of picking violets in celebration of spring and enjoying their sweet smell. That wonderful fragrance never fails to remind me of the precious time I spent with my grandma.

Ellen E. Sampson
Sacramento, California

Photo by Adobe/fotoalla

Blooming at Last

When my parents retired to their little white house, the camellia under the porch had grown past 6 feet tall in the years the house had stood empty. My mother had a green thumb all her life, so she began carefully tending to the camellia, trying to convince it to offer her just one bloom.

While my mother waited on the camellia blossoms to show, she got to work creating a full garden. First, a row of Cape jasmine (Gardenia jasminoides), and then mophead hydrangeas under all the windows and wisteria along the back porch.

Though the rest of her garden thrived, it was the bloom of the camellia my mother pined for every winter. The camellias down at my parents’ church thrived each season, while my mother’s still had yet to produce a single bloom.

My mother spent the last two decades of her life nursing that stubborn camellia plant, patiently waiting for all of her hard work to pay off. She passed too soon, and was laid to rest in the churchyard down the street, next to that chorus of blooming camellias she always envied. In her own garden, her bare camellia remained, never revealing a single flower for her.

I took a cutting of my mother’s camellia home with me. I didn’t hold out much hope; if my mother, with a lifetime of gardening experience, couldn’t make it bloom, I hardly thought I’d have any luck. For two years, I nursed it in its black plastic pot. My little plant finally grew large enough that I had to turn it loose to take its chances down by the creek. It survived the first winter on its own; it settled into its new home, and even put on a few inches. A year later, it was still going strong, stretching to a full 18 inches tall, though without any blossoms.

Just a few weeks into spring, while out in my garden, I glanced over at the plant and froze. There, underneath a protective leaf, a fat, ripening bud snuggled in the last of the day’s heavenly light, held close to the botanical heart of ‘Mom’s Camellia.’ Cosseted through a chaotic winter with love and row cover, she finally bloomed in March — a magical, elegant blossom the color of rubies.

Bobbie Cyphers
Newport, Tennessee

When Life Gives You Lemons

Many of my favorite memories of living in Washington come from wandering around the endless exhibits at the local botanical conservatory with my mother and young sons. These visits are how I first discovered the alluring smell of lemon tree blossoms. Just inside the conservatory, decades-old Ponderosa lemon trees lined the entrance hall and wafted the powerful fragrance of lemon blossoms into the room. The sight and smell of the iconic grapefruit-sized lemons were always the first thing that wowed me when I walked in.

During one visit, the conservatory gift shop was selling small 4-inch starts from the same trees that captured my attention each time I strode through the main doors. My mother purchased one and gave it to me as a gift and a wonderful totem of our time spent there. It is still one of my favorite gifts to have ever received.

After 20 years of traveling around my various homes in Washington with me, my little lemon tree has grown to be more than 5 feet tall, and each year, it produces the same fragrant flowers as those of its parent tree in the conservatory, although my tree has never produced any lemons. This has not made me love my tree any less; instead I have learned that when life doesn’t give you lemons, you can enjoy the fragrant blossoms anyway.

Tracey Reuck
Reno, Nevada

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Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
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