Picking Flowers

There’s something special—and comforting—about putting flowers in a vase.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY HEATHER GRAHAM

I have always been captivated by picking flowers. When I was a little girl, I picked the sweet blue henbit, the Winter weed that shimmers azure in early Spring as it takes over acidic lawn and flowerbeds. They make tiny posies of intricate snapdragon-like spikes, poking up through skirts of pleated green. My mother would accept them, warm and wilted, with the most encouraging delight, and put them in a small glass jar on the windowsill above the kitchen sink.

Flowers reveal a special beauty when they are cut and arranged in containers.

Later I helped my Aunt Cat gather sweet peas for a dinner party, my first experience with flower arranging. We festooned them in tall, urn-shaped vases and filled low bowls with the frothy blossoms. She taught me to leave the lacey, airy foliage with its curlicue tendrils and pea-green leaves.

When I was a teenager, I picked the marigolds and nasturtiums Mother planted around our ranch house. Yellow pom-pom marigolds in a pewter mug beside my narrow bed brightened my low-ceilinged room. It was then I learned how a bowl of fresh flowers can redeem a modest room. After that, I was never without the blooms of the season. (I gave no thought to what it took for my mother to grow them, raising three children as well as flowers on a single woman’s pay. When did she plant and tend them? I certainly had nothing to do with it; they were just there for the picking.)

In my late 20s, before I began a garden of my own, I was picking sweet peas again. And weeping as I did so—Mother was dying across the country, just as my first marriage and career were falling apart. I had run from the house after an argument and found myself in a vacant lot surrounded by sweet peas. I picked them and took them home with me to that sad house. I can still see those particular petals, candy pink like sculpted satin, some beginning to fade to a tender bruised blue, the flowers complicated with their cunning hoods and caps. Their beauty existed apart from the mess I had made of my life.

When I entered my 30s, single again, I picked flowers for a living, first at Monticello, where I apprenticed as a gardener for a few precious years. I learned how to do it properly: to cut long stems on a sharp angle in the early morning and sink them, stripped of leaves, up to their necks in tepid water. I would leave dozens of buckets in a cool, dark room off the whitewashed tunnel beneath Jefferson’s mansion and let the fabulous arrangers, whom I seldom saw, work their will. Later I began arranging flowers myself for occasional formal events and dinners.

I’ve never understood people who think it is too much trouble to have cut flowers.

My home today with a creek, meadows, and specimen beeches is a long way from our old suburban backyard, and I now sell my advice rather than my labor. But I still pick the flowers I find around me. The rituals of cutting them—picking just the right ones—and choosing the proper container and the appropriate spot to place it—invariably soothes whatever cares might be my burden that day. I’ve never understood people who think it’s too much trouble to have cut flowers—who worry about scummy water, fallen petals, and pollen or watermarks on the furniture.
Flowers reveal a special beauty when they are cut and arranged in containers. Not only can we observe them more closely, discovering, say, the watercolor tracery of palest green at the base of each tiny snowdrop petal, but the shapes they take in relation to their vase or nearby brick, plaster, or wood (not to mention the magical use of mirrors) beguile us in more intimate, human ways than when we stroll the grounds.

Picking flowers, I feel I’m walking with women like Celia Thaxter, who used to display the poppies from her island garden, each in a single jar, spread out along the drawing room wall, in gradations from palest pink to fiery orange; or Isak Dineson, who, in her old age and long gone from Africa, contrived a variety of arrangements to charm and impress guests at her seaside estate in Denmark. Like them, I know what it’s like to love flowers wherever my life has led me.

I love to walk in the early evening while there’s just enough light left to find the clearest, most vibrant of Summer’s zinnias, picking stems of varying lengths that I strip of leaves as I go and then plunking them into my favorite green ceramic rectangle. The opaque sides of the vase hide the dirty water zinnias produce so readily, and its verticality suits both the flowers and the jumble of books and photographs on our small library table. For the old painted table on the front porch, I fill a rough brown pottery jar with the cool white and green of peegee hydrangea, blue Tartarian asters, and long purple tops of prairie switchgrass. Another late Summer arrangement has the white stars of garlic chives popping through many-branched Verbena bonariensis. I like to put these in a round glass jar with a narrow neck that holds the stems straight up. It fits into the crowded center of my desk.

I’ve picked flowers all my life, dreamily, in the late Summer evening, or painfully, distressed by a sudden eruption of reality, but I have never picked them without finding solace. I put them into old soup and coffee cans for friends and family to take home or into crystal vases for weddings and fêtes.

Now, after all these years, my particular delight is to pick a single, special flower—an unopened fairy rose, a spray of mountain laurel, a single sweet pea—to place in a bud vase or a little glass jar for my love, the one I found when I turned down the path that flowers took me. [double-diamond]


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