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Primroses

January 10, 2014

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It’s January in southern California and in the 70’s outside but when I walk into a local nursery and smell the primroses, I am back in New England.

The time and place was Ipswich, Massachusetts in the mid 80’s. Christmas was over, and it was cold, bone-chilling cold. Like the January cold many across the Midwest and Northeast experienced recently.

The restored Victorian we fell in love with had high ceilings and large windows (part of the charm) but no insulation. On days with highs in the single numbers, it provided little protection from the wintry blast. Heating the house to comfortable temperatures during these cold snaps required immense amounts of fossil fuels which we could ill afford with a hefty mortgage.

Our solution was to heat the house during the day only enough to keep the pipes from freezing and get out of the house. Together my three-year-old son and I scouted out the public spaces that were warm. The public library around the corner was always our first choice. A morning of errands to the grocery store, bank and Woolworth’s also did the trick. And there was Gordon Greenhouses where they grew plants year-round from seeds and cuttings. They had to keep their young plants alive no matter how cold it was outside.

One January day when the predicted high was only five degrees, I bundled Andy into the car. It was too cold for a ride on the sidewalk in the Radio Flyer. I don’t remember why we chose to visit Gordon Greenhouses that day. Likely, it was the promise of warmth and flowers to cheer the soul. There might be narcissus, forced for winter pleasure, or pansy starts for setting out in early spring.

We darted from the car and I opened the door into the large, main greenhouse where, in the rear, a knot of older ladies fussed over floral arrangements and assisted customers. At that moment, we were alone in some tropical place where it was 75 degrees and pleasantly humid.

Closing the door and winter behind us, we unzipped our jackets. My shoulders, usually tense against the cold, relaxed. It was easier to breathe. We stood together and surveyed the scene—hundreds of primroses, patiently grown from seed and spread out on nursery tables.

How can I describe for you the fragrance of one single primrose multiplied by hundreds? Certainly, it is floral and from my view, unlike any other. But it is also the aroma of spring and of hope. Andy and I stood together, warmed by the sun in the heated greenhouse, wide-eyed and drinking in the color and fragrance around us.

We walked slowly between the nursery tables, lifting primroses to our noses to sniff. Andy chose one he liked, we paid for it and departed. We were reluctant to leave this magical place and return to the cold. Closing the door on our tropical paradise, we had a primrose and a story to tell the rest of the family at dinner.

Now, in a newly minted year, 2014, I stood before the outdoor table of primroses–the same reds, yellows, purples, pinks and whites, set against deep green leaves, I remembered. Scanning the choices from the dozens available, I began to sniff the ones with bright yellow flowers. Their fragrance is most intense.

In the fragrance of that yellow primrose I smelled once again the scent of spring and of hope. I carried the primrose home with me and put it in my kitchen window. On this sunny winter’s day in southern California, its scent fills my kitchen.

Mollie Katzen, The Heart of the Plate and Gardenista

Magenta in My Garden