Plants have the power to remind us of people, places and past times. As we mark Remembrance Day on Sunday Stephen Anderton considers the ways in which flowers, names and scents trigger fond memories
Do you ever consider why it is those First World War graveyards in France are so regimented into straight lines? Maybe it’s because to have honoured the war dead with anything more easy-going and naturalistic would have been frivolous. Those men fought for their kind of civilization, and in the straight lines of crosses and trees, a living, civilized, although not natural, order remains. It was the right thing to do.
I wouldn’t mind having a tree planted for me. (After the event, that is, not yet. Just now I still plant my own, and have all my own teeth and hair.) I guess a memorial tree ought to be something dignified and long lived, something that belongs to a person’s country rather than some flowering exotic from the other side of the world, bred for commercial appeal. In Britain it should be an oak perhaps, or a field maple, or a Scots pine. Even a simple thorn. Something that would make a contribution to the locality as well as the garden in which it was planted. Please nobody put in a flowering cherry for me. The world will think I have left all my money to my bit on the side.
Gardens are full of memories, without ever having to plant for people who have died. There are things in this garden that remind me of people all the time. Under the dining room window is a prostrate geranium, leaking out to form a pool of silver beneath a clipped osmanthus bush. It was given to me by dear old Geoffrey Smith, who visited us in Northumberland and was smitten and besotted with my infant daughter. I see smiling white hair and a babe in arms every time I look at it.
I have big tubs of agapanthus at the back of the house, either side of steps going down from the terrace on to the lawn. The original plant was given to me by Stan Grainger in Hexham, who way back had known Lewis Palmer, the man who bred all the early hardy varieties of agapanthus. This was an unnamed pale blue hybrid, which Palmer had given to Stan, and which he had kept going ever since. The flower stems and heads are enormous. Even when it’s out of flower and only the drum-heads of seed remain, it’s like passing through a guard of honour as you go down the steps. I no longer have Stan’s address. Time and people move on. But I can still see his big, arthritic hands heaving pots about.
Smells bring out memories, too. Whenever I put my nose down to a head of Patrinia scabiosifolia and the gentle rich aroma of milk and cow muck takes me back to the Yorkshire Dales and school holidays working on the farm down the lane.
From time to time you will come across descriptions of plants that include how their names are derived. Details are trotted out about how Artemisia was named after the goddess Artemis, or that groundsel comes from the Old English for ‘ground swallower’ because it’s such a weed. My heart sinks. It is interesting, yes, but it tells you nothing vital, nothing really to remember the plant by in your gut. People say the way to remember the name of Paeonia mlokosewitschii is that is sounds like a sneeze. Well if it sounds like the way you sneeze, you probably have a bigger problem than remembering impossible Russian names.
It is the personal things, things personal to you, that raise memories of a plant or its name. You may just like the sound of its name. What could be sweeter both on the tongue and on the ear than Angelica archangelica? Nelumbo nucifera - how’s that for an African dictator or the sacred lotus? Or Galax urceolata for a 1930s sleuth, alias a ground-cover agent? Perhaps you’ve just planted a load of bolax? Bolax glebaria, to be precise. It’s not a name you forget in a hurry. It saddens me that now the name has changed to Azorella trifurcata. How do you remember that?
All gardens are full of memories, for their gardeners and the families who live in them - memories of people, and events, and conversations and ideas. According to the landscape architect Kim Wilkie, “place is the merging of lives into land”. That’s why, when you’ve made a garden and lived with it, it is so very hard to leave behind.