The Spiritual Gardener: Of Kwanzans and Lilies

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Our driveway is rather long and sometimes the morning newspaper is left quite a distance from the front door. It is a truth universally acknowledged that you are officially and socially “invisible” when going out to get the paper in your bathrobe, as long as you don’t wave to anyone or make eye contact, as it breaks your shield of invisibility as everyone knows.

Certainly, I hope that is true because yesterday I noticed on the far corner of our lot a patch of very dark purple irises that looked close to blooming, and sure enough two of them had opened, becoming the first irises to bloom this year.  I had to kneel in my pajamas on the street corner and put my nose right into the flower to inhale that faint but unmistakable perfume of iris that I like so well and have not savored since last year. If I was not invisible, I’m in serious contention for the creeper neighbor of the year award.

Around here, we are fairly drunk with spring bulbs and flowering trees, and nothing is quite as intoxicating as masses and masses of daffodils.

Ah yes, spring is now pushing up all over our lovely one acre of garden. I notice that our blood-red azalea is just barely beginning to bloom, and so is the now respectably large pink dogwood on the patio.  In the back yard, we have a drift of two dozen or so candy-colored tulips blooming in a soft purple haze of honesty, and that patch has never looked finer or more color-coordinated than this year.  And our jasmine is covered with masses of buds, although the yellow flowers themselves have not yet emerged.

The classic way to plant spring bulbs if you have the space, is to throw handfuls of them on the ground, and then plant them where they fall, for a natural look of drifts of flowers. But they also look good packed close together, as here, if space is at a premium in your garden.

Around town I notice the redbuds everywhere in bloom; we have always had one around the place but the one I planted here died because I perversely planted it where I wanted it, rather than where it wanted to be. Why do we gardeners insist on doing things like that? A lifetime of frustration and failure and heartbreak could be very simply avoided if we would just study the simple needs of our plants and give them what they need.

But no, we persist (I say we) in pushing them to their limits, hoping against experience — our own as well as readily available professional guidance — that they will thrive in marginal circumstances and then being disappointed and exasperated when they do not.  It is absurd really, cruel and wasteful.  I resolve to reform.


And if you happen to have acres of woodland, you can grow carpets of chionadoxa and create a magical fairyland on a massive scale. This picture was taken last weekend at Winterthur, the family seat of the Du Pont family in Delaware.

The Kwanzan cherry trees are blooming all over town too.  Some gardeners don’t like them because of their gaudiness.  Certainly their floral display is a bit gaudy and overdone, and polluted with the dirty brown-green of their leaves.

I can’t resist the Kwanzan cherry, though I can see why some critics think them gaudy.

Compare that with the purity and simplicity of the aristocratic Japanese cherries (Yedo in particular), with their pale pink, almost white, blossoms on their dark, leafless branches.  Still, there is something about the frank vulgarity of Kwanzan’s appeal, and I have to confess I planted one right in our front yard when we lived in Virginia, and rejoiced every spring in its louche glory.


“…the purity and simplicity of the aristocratic Japanese cherries (Yedo in particular), with their pale pink, almost white, blossoms on their dark, leafless branches.”

There is a long, double row of more than a dozen large, mature Kwanzans at one point along Columbus Boulevard in downtown Philadelphia, on the bank of the Delaware River. This alley of cherries is in the open, so that all the trees get the same amount of sunlight and so they all come into bloom at once. And this is quite an amazing sight to behold for the two weeks or so every year when they are at their height, though it can make you feel a bit like a kid who had too much cotton candy at the circus.

And then, when the flowers are spent, they rain down in showers of pink petals on passersby. Glorious. Even critics of this tree would have to pause in frank admiration, and be reminded that we can all be beautiful in the right circumstances, and given the chance.

Less common these days are the old-fashioned lilacs that used to live in every garden, or so it seemed, in The Old Days.  I see a few of these around nowadays, but only a very few.  I can understand why they have fallen out of favor; they are rather large and unattractive in their growing habit and their flowering is not only brief, but the ratio of flower to plant is very small and they rather greedily demand a prime sunny location in the garden.

And yet, I remember them so fondly from when I was a boy that I couldn’t help planting one. They bloom conveniently at Mother’s Day, and when I was young there was hardly a mother or a teacher in the country who did not get a handful of fragrant lilacs at this time of year. That tradition has now died out, and so have many of these noble, old-fashioned beasts, but if you happen to see one, often today in public parks where the caretakers are less stingy with sunny space than a home gardener has to be, honor it by sampling its heady and decidedly old-fashioned  perfume.

And if you are swift and happen to walk through that park with secateurs handy in your pocket, you might even find you are able to give them to someone you care about without having to have one of these dignified, large old things in your own garden.  I would not do such a shocking thing myself, mind you, but you might if you wish.

Lilacs tug at the gardener’s heartstrings, because they are traditional, old-fashioned and their perfume unlocks a flood of pleasant memories.

It was the poet Longfellow who laid down a famous dictum about lilacs, saying airily: “I shall not be likely to go to town while the lilacs bloom.”  I wish I could decline to go to town while the lilacs bloom, and the irises too, but my numerous masters are rather more punctilious than Mr. Longfellow’s, alas.

David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.