Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd together created one of the country’s finest gardens in southern Vermont. They wrote several books and numerous magazine articles from their experiences creating that garden and, eventually, creating gardens for others. In their latest book, Our Life in Gardens, they share some of the stories of their visits to the West Coast, particularly to the San Francisco Bay Area, and of the people they met and the plants they brought home. This is the second excerpt from that new book, published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, LLC.
When we taught school years ago, a colleague gave us a large box of old gardening magazines he had found while cleaning out his grandmother’s attic. They dated from the 1930s and 1940s, and were different from contemporary gardening magazines in almost every way. They were small in format, with few ads and fewer illustrations, all of which were in black and white. Their tone was spontaneous, informal, and direct, making them seem more like good garden conversation than a publication. A regular feature was a contest in which readers were encouraged to send in answers to a gardening question. The question we remember most vividly was “What is your oldest potted plant?”
As relatively young gardeners, we were stunned by many of the answers. One gardener still possessed her great-grandmother’s potted camellia, which several Januaries back had survived the collapse of her sun porch roof and had achieved its hundredth year. Another said she had nurtured the same cyclamen for forty years, though she had had to cut off a shoulder of its corm to fit the pot. Plenty of people seemed to have inherited octogenarian Christmas cactus, proving our already-formed conviction that they could live in boring parlors for a long time, and there was the inevitable jade plant with a trunk grown to a remarkable girth. Now, many years later, the odd thing about having been gardeners for so long is that we would have our own ready answer to that question.
A chance visit to the Los Angeles County Arboretum endowed us with a great potted ox of a plant that we now consider one of the finest things we grow. It is Xanthorrhoea quadrangulata, bought as a wispy seedling of three or four slender, grasslike leaves twenty-seven years ago. Since we knew nothing about the plant at the time, we can’t imagine why we picked it from the meager offerings for sale. Certainly we had no idea about its great potential beauty, its ultimate importance to our gardening life, or its great rarity.
Xanthorrhoea quadrangulata is native to the southern parts of Australia, and though largely unknown by Western gardeners and scarce even in the collections of arboreta in [USDA hardiness] zones 9-10 (where it is hardy), it has a long and deep, practical relationship with humanity. To the aboriginal peoples of Australia, who knew it longest and best, it was of great economic value. The thick, resinous yellow gum that gathered around the stout trunks of old specimens could be collected, melted, and formed into balls for later use as a strong adhesive to fix arrows to shafts, or sharp pebbles to spears. Two of its chaffy dried flower stems (impressive things that can reach six feet in height) could be rubbed together to make fire. Its sharp seed cases could be used as knives, and as tools to dig into decaying wood for nourishing grubs and insects. Further, it was a miraculous plant, since it survived grass fires to sprout anew. Its gaunt, child-high stems standing on fire-blackened plains caused the Aborigines to give it the name “black boy,” although most people now prefer “grass tree,” which offers another sort of description.
As with so many useful plants, utility has meant potential extinction. You will not find many plants listed under “X” in popular plant dictionaries, and you will not usually find Xanthorrhoea. That is because the Australian government has listed the plant as a rare and endangered species under the provisions of CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), thereby preventing the export of plants and even, with Xanthorrhoea, the harvesting of seed. In any case, seed is fairly rare, developing on plants that are generally twenty or more years old, although, for a plant that can easily live 600 years, that is mere infancy.
We were luckier than we knew, then, to scoop up that wisp of a seedling from the arboretum. A plant had flowered there the year before, and set seed, though only three were viable. We curse ourselves for not having bought them all, but then we must stop to wonder what we might have done with three plants five feet tall and as wide, each in a clay pot almost the size of a bushel basket. From that perspective, one plant is certainly plenty, especially when each spring it must be muscled out of the small greenhouse off our kitchen to its summer quarters outdoors, and then each autumn muscled back in to spend the winter, during which time, perversely, it grows. It seems never to have realized that the wan light of a snowy Vermont winter isn’t quite the same as an Australian [or Californian] spring.
As our greenhouse is only twelve feet wide, with a fieldstone path down the middle and large camellias planted on each side, our Xanthorrhoea is a bit crowded. Or rather, we are, for it seems to expand happily from year to year. If it were a brittle plant we would have a problem, but its four-foot-long grassy leaves—of which there must be a thousand radiating out from the central trunk—are as flexible as threads of metal; in fact, it is great fun to brush your hand over the whole symmetrical mass, which then trembles and quivers like a metallic toy from the 50s. Only once did any outside activity damage the plant, and that was when two canaries flying loose in the greenhouse discovered the charm of snapping off its leaves for pure mischief. The canaries went; the Xanthorrhoea stayed.
Like most gardeners, we are generous with plants, knowing that if you give something away and then lose it, you can possibly get it back. Praise something in our garden, and, if we have enough of it, a start of it is yours. But, though our Xanthorrhoea is much admired by visitors to the garden, it is painful to say that plants are scarce [even in California], and that ours is not likely to produce any progeny we can share.
However, whenever Dan Hinkley, founder of Heronswood and a great plant explorer, stands before our pet and says “I wish I had that,” though we love him dearly, we confess that it gives us some sort of pleasure to say, “Well, Dan, you probably never will . . .” None of us is perfect after all. Perhaps we might exercise a posthumous generosity, and leave it to him in one of our wills.
Excerpt adapted from Our Life in Garden, published in February 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Text copyright © 2009 by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd. All rights reserved. (www.fsgbooks.com)