Thoughts on flowers, memory and my father's garden

Posted by Glennis Byron on November 9, 2022

Anemones are made of this

I imagine nearly everyone has a trigger plant, the sight or smell of which can suddenly transport you to another time and place. For me, as I've mentioned before, it is primarily the anemone, because I associate it with my great-aunt Olive who, when I was at boarding school in Wales, regularly used to take me out to lunch at a swish hotel, a treat invariably followed by a trip to a local florist. Here she would sniffily guide me past the ‘vulgar’ gladioli and the ‘oh-so-common’ carnations to the silver bucket packed with bunches of anemones, the buds just beginning to unfurl and hint at the vibrant jewel-toned flowers within.

As anyone knows who reads this blog, I too can now be sniffy about gladioli and carnations. And I grow a lot of anemones in my garden. Even though the ones I now grow are quite different from those simple bright De Caens I remember so well, they still invariably make me happy every time I pick a bunch for the vase.

I’ve asked a lot of people what their trigger plants might be, and I’ve been surprised how often the same flowers recur. Many are simple flowers associated with childhood: daisies that were made into chains and bracelets, for example, or primroses from the hedgerows or bluebells picked in the woods.

I have, however, noticed something of a cultural difference. Those kinds of flowers - the flowers of childhood picked in hedgerows and woods - were mentioned most frequently by British friends, or at least friends with British backgrounds. Here in Canada, I find people mentioning cultivated flowers more often than wild: like peonies, dahlias and even gladioli. Gladioli? Nostalgic? Could it be? Of course - because while all they remind me of is Dame Edna, for others they recall the gardens of parents or grandparents and stir memories of childhood. There was even something of a regional difference in Canadian responses which I found rather intriguing. Albertans frequently mentioned lilacs, for example, while those from Winnipeg often recalled hollyhocks growing tall against back lane fences.

The trigger flower is usually associated with someone much loved in the past. One person, for example, recalled the dark purple pansies she used to pick for her mother. She still has the tiny vase that her mother used to put them in, just the size for a child's handful of flowers. Interestingly, it was the velvety petals, the feel of the flowers, that this woman remembered above all.

Fragrance and memory

 ‘No other of the five senses is more subtle in its suggestions than the sense of smell or more unmistakably reminiscent of a time and state in which one was something else and possibly something better.'

Louise Beebe Wilder, The Fragrant Path (1932)

More frequently mentioned are fragrant flowers, especially lilac, lily of the valley and the sweet pea, and apparently for good reason.

Fragrant sweet peas: top of the memory trigger list

What Wilder instinctively knew has now been scientifically proven: odours are more effective in triggering memories than any other sensory stimuli because of the direct connections the olefactory nerves have with those parts of the brain involved in generating emotion and memory. Perhaps that original Proustian moment was produced less by the taste of the madeleine and more by the scent of the lime blossom tea in which it was dipped.

Emotional responses to gardens

Our emotional responses to a plant or a garden or a greater landscape are surely just as important as our aesthetic responses – if, indeed, they can be separated. Thomas Rainer, writing in a round table discussion of 'Memory and Plants' suggests that understanding our emotional connection to plants and landscapes ‘holds tremendous potential for all who design or garden, pushing design past endless formalistic concerns to explore landscaping and gardening as a dynamic art form, and showing how to create emotional experiences within the garden or landscape.'

My father's garden

In a small way, I think this is precisely what my father attempted when he made his beautiful small garden in the Canadian Rockies, partly prompted by my mother developing Alzheimer's. As her life became increasingly circumscribed, he wanted to create somewhere beautiful, comforting and calming where my mother could sit. You could say the garden was an exercise in nostalgia, but it was far more than this. My father was from Lancashire, my mother from Cumbria, and the garden was perhaps partly a response to her repeated desire: ‘I want to go home’. Where she thought ‘home’ was, we never knew, but it was a phrase that appeared long before she eventually had to be moved to long-term care.

My father's garden with its prized fishpond made using local slate

If 'home' was some vaguely remembered past, her childhood, a time when she felt secure, then my father tried to recreate this for her. It was an English garden complete with roses, clematis, sweet peas, columbines, delphiniums, peonies, the white daisies she loved, and more, all centered around a pond complete with goldfish (a far grander affair than the fishpond of my mother’s childhood home, which I remember well for the proliferation of poor frogs that I liked to catch and forcibly install in my doll's house.)

Scenes from my father's garden

Imagine creating an English cottage garden in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, where the last frost could come as late as June and the first as early as September. You’d think it wouldn’t be practical, but it worked.

Not, unfortunately, for my mother: in the end, my mother demonstrated little interest in the garden. But it did become an important part of my father's life. After having to retire and give up the work through which he'd defined himself for so long, the garden gradually filled at least part of the gap that had been left. It became part of the story of who he was.

This was not simply a sentimental exercise in nostalgia, because he made it say something about the land of which it was a part and of which he had come to feel so strongly a part. You could never forget the dark looming Rockies all around it, so different from the green hills of ‘home’. It was and wasn't an English garden. The fishpond was made with local slate. And my father, long before they became a trend, became quite obsessed with grasses, which he would surreptitiously dig up from wild areas around Quarry Lake, the site of an old strip mine that he had in large part been responsible for reclaiming and turning into a site of beauty.

My father's greenhouse

He installed a large greenhouse, with a massive table, chairs and sideboard from the local Victory shop. This was used not for growing plants, but for entertaining. I was shocked to find, when my own greenhouse went up in our Victoria garden, that I seemed to have been influenced by my father. Mine is filling up with plants instead of furniture, but there is somewhere to sit, a kettle in case he drops by and a place for his teapot on the shelf.

And mine ...

Whether we do it consciously or not, I believe that the gardens we create are a part of who we are, become part of the story we tell about ourselves. When my father died I took some columbine seeds from his garden. Last year, I germinated them, and this year I hope to see them flower in my garden here in Victoria.  Jenn, who helped him create his garden, took his edelweiss to remember my father by, and Kay, another good friend, took a small birdbath. And so it goes. There are traces of my father now in many gardens, and each gardener can through them remember the part he played in their own story.

Additional note: my father had local film maker Glen Crawford make a film of his garden in case anyone would like to dip in and see some more views. It is rather long (over 20 minutes) so dipping really is probably best.

6 comments on “Thoughts on flowers, memory and my father's garden”

  1. Your dad's greenhouse is fabulous - and I loved that he entertained there. It seems an excellent use of a greenhouse too! I will request a cuppa next time I am in yours.

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