The Spiritual Gardener: Spring has Sprung

Sometimes dreams really do come true.

We recently returned home from a short spring break in Colorado to find that a week of very mild weather caused the flowering trees to explode in colour all at once. As Jane Austen herself once observed: “To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment.” It’s hard to improve upon that, insofar as an appreciation of verdure is concerned.

The hostas on the patio are not only up but also unfurled, and the tulips are suddenly blooming alongside the daffodils in cheerful confusion. How I love this time of year, when every day brings new delights of colour, beauty and renewed life.

One of the first things I did upon our return was take our dog Cosimo for a long walk around town. The most remarkable thing I saw was in the front yard of a very unprepossessing house a few blocks from us, with nothing much to distinguish itself except this—a two-storey, 10-foot-wide camellia, by far the largest I’ve ever seen. It was completely covered in fist-sized pink flowers. It stopped me in my tracks, and I stood there and marveled at it. If the homeowners had been outside, I would have suggested they sell tickets for people to come and look at it. It was a stupendous sight and, although we’ve lived in this area a long time, I’d never noticed the camellia before.

It got me to thinking about trying to attain perfection in the garden—how we gardeners constantly aim for it and how consistently our efforts tend to fall short of the mark. But it’s the good intentions that are important, and sometimes a beauty of this kind graces the front of a simple home, whether planned or not (usually not, in my experience).

Next: We stayed at The Broadmoor resort

daffodils and Oklahoma redbuds, Winterthur[1]
Gardeners constantly strive for perfection.
While in Colorado, we stayed at the grand old resort of The Broadmoor. While up early one mild morning, I slipped outside and found a quiet seat in the manicured grounds of this gorgeous property where I could read my book. I was so absorbed in reading that I didn’t hear a beautiful doe step quietly through the shrubbery near my elbow. And she didn’t see me until the exact same moment I became aware of her. She stepped silently through the shrubbery not 10 feet away from me. We made eye contact and the initial alarm in her eyes gradually lessened, and she went on about her business. I watched her, enchanted, while she kept an eye warily locked on me.

The resort is situated in the foothills behind Colorado Springs, and I knew the sun would rise on the eastern plains at 6:57 a.m., because I’d seen it do so the day before. About two minutes before sunrise, you can see the rosy glow of the sunrise already illuminating the top of Pike’s Peak, the 14,000 summit atop which “America, the Beautiful” was composed. It’s a sort of pre-sunrise or, as I dubbed it to myself, The Unseen Sunrise. But then, in just a minute or two, the sun rose on the eastern plains. These are the things you get to see if you’re lucky enough to get up early, when the day is still quietly gathering its resources and is just beginning. Much like spring itself, this time of day fills you with wonder at the freshness of it all.

This Unseen Sunrise has been a peaceful memory, one that I’ve needed for peace of mind lately. Recently, I visited a friend who had the misfortune to be laid up in the intensive care unit of a local hospital—not the sort of place you want to be in for very long, if at all. Anyone who has spent days in a hospital waiting room worrying about a loved one knows the great sorrow of the situation.

Next: I was intrigued by this hospital

Butchart Garden, sculpted yew in Japanese garden[1]
“The miracle cancer cure Taxol comes from the yew tree.”
However, I was intrigued by this hospital in particular because it was innovatively built around a large, glassed-in rooftop garden visible from many vantage points inside the hospital and accessible through large glass doors on all four sides. It was called “The Healing Garden” and was reminiscent of family garden’s of times gone by when people grew their own herbal remedies and folk medicines. Such gardens were usually called “physic gardens.”

Humans have known for eons that plants contain healing properties for mind, body and spirit. There are still herbal marvels we use today. The quinine tree (cinchona) of the tropical Andes provided us a cure for malaria. Acetylsalicylic acid, commonly called aspirin, comes from the bark of the common willow. The miracle cancer cure Taxol comes from the yew tree (taxus). Echinacea, the humble coneflower, gives us a powerful herbal antibiotic and immune booster, as does the herb goldenseal. Digitalis to cure many heart ailments comes from ordinary foxgloves. Many soothing herbs provide wonderful teas and infusions: valerian, lemon verbena, mint, and chamomile. Red yeast rice is a natural statin. Humble turmeric eases depression. Tea, tobacco, and coffee provide wonderful stimulants, while opium poppies, hemp and marijuana provide psychotropic effects, intoxicants and critical palliative care for serious pain. The list goes on and on. Modern scientists continue to explore other exotic plants in the search for new compounds to help bolster the medicinal storehouse.

Plants have intertwined their evolutionary history with our own, randomly producing miraculous chemical compounds that we’ve found and adapted for our own needs and uses. It’s symbiosis on a global scale.

Next: The hospital garden

lavender, Denver[1]
The hospital garden grew rosemary, sage, mint and basil, among others.
But back to the hospital garden. It grew some healing herbs, each with its own small placard explaining its use in early medicine. In the centre of the garden was a large and splashy water feature, where the sound of running water and darting goldfish could soothe the frazzled nerves and harried minds of distressed family members. This garden teemed with flowers as well, and their scents and fresh colours reminded the anxious visitor that life is beautiful, and still full of possibility.

One of my favourite features was a section called the “scent garden.” In it grew aromatic plants like rosemary, sage, geranium, mint, basil, lemon verbena, lavender and even a small piñon tree. Visitors were invited—even encouraged!—to pick greenery from this garden and share them with patients. Everywhere I saw people who, although seriously ill, were holding little sprigs of fragrant greenery as they were wheeled, or had sprigs on their bedside tables or windowsills. It was charming, and I marveled at the humane and loving care behind this thoughtful design. Each little sprig was a sign of hope, a shoot of faith: that life is good, people are strong, and health and vitality can return.

Every hospital should have a similar life-affirming set-up on their grounds. The sound of water splashing, the sight of sunlight flickering on growing and blooming plants or the fragrance of sun-warmed herbs—these all remind us that healing is more complicated and more holistic than mere modern medicine admits.

David Jensen writes the popular American blog The Garden Interior which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. He’s also the author of The Garden Interior: A Year of Inspired Beauty