My mother loved trees and shrubs and flowers and could identify seemingly all of them by sight. I always found this an amazing feat, and one not entirely like my mother. After all, we never had the most landscaped yard in the neighborhood. I have since come to understand choices made by budget, ease of growing, and faint speculation that our stay in a particular area wouldn’t allow for longterm landscape plans to bear fruit.
My mother rarely had fresh flowers in the house. Magnolia leaves appeared at Christmas, and roses on special occasions. It was after an ill-fated bouquet of goldenrod proudly gathered, clutched in a sweaty fist and joyfully presented was abruptly declared a weapon of mass destruction, and abruptly tossed outside that I learned about “asthma,” and “allergies.” Asthma so bad that my grandfather had the janitor at the school keep an eye on my mother when the teacher threw her out of class during asthma attacks; allergies that required a weekly trip into town to a grand old Richmond home converted to an allergists’ office where she received shots.
My late-discovered nearsightedness, and lack of interest in all things gardening as a child, contributed to my inability to ever aspire to her skill at identifying flora. But even into my college years I marveled at her as we drove along the tree-lined streets of Roanoke, Richmond, Harrisonburg or Northern Virginia. My mother with her artist’s eye for shape, color, and detail would comment on the leaves of that Sycamore, the form of a crepe myrtle, or the buds on the flowering quince.
She was equally skilled at identifying the many leaves on our vast family tree. Show my mother a grainy black and white photo taken at some family gathering decades past, almost always in front of a farm house, with a porch, rows of people dressed the same, with the same eyes, hair, and solemn expressions and somehow she could solve the conundrum, identifying the tree, branch and leaves. I remember visiting extended family on our trips to the farm, and trying to get my head around her many cousins, and was exceptionally pleased if I could just remember if they were on my Grandmother’s or my Grandfather’s side of the great gnarly family tree.
Now, having just turned 50, and untroubled by allergies or asthma, I have learned the joy of gardening. Though not yet reaching the breadth of knowledge my mother owned, still the mystery of the leaves, flowers, form and structure is unraveling. One of my favorite trees is the ginkgo tree. I don’t have one, but my neighbor has one in her backyard. It’s lopsided and partially dead. The trunk goes up into nothingness, where at some point the top of the tree has snapped, likely during a nor’easter or hurricane. There are large branches on three sides where no leaves grow. Only on the South side of the tree are there branches from which the lovely fluttering fan-shaped leaves bud. Each Spring I look to see if this will be the year that no leaves will grow, signaling final death, and I am always grateful to see that this is not the year! I should not be surprised. Ginkgo trees easily withstand the hardships of urban landscapes. Symbolic of resilience and longevity, they are also considered harbingers of hope, four of them having survived the atomic blast at Hiroshima, and glowing beautifully to this day.
For some reason, there aren’t many ginkgo trees in our area, so we know where they are. Really, in Norfolk, where the changing of the leaves is late, and gradual, accompanied by grey skies, and therefore not often the glorious spectacle it is in cooler climates, you can’t miss the vibrancy of Ginkgo. Each Autumn, we watch, my children and I, for when the leaves of the ginkgo change from thick, firm textured lime green fans to that gorgeous, intense, almost neon, shade of sunshine. The tree is absolutely un-ignorable, akin to Moses’ burning bush to my mind. And my children, knowing of my particular admiration for this tree will bring me a leaf after playing out back, which will go into a dish on the kitchen table where we will enjoy color, texture and shape as long as possible.
We were astonished one day to find a ginkgo leaf out in Pungo where my mother-in-law lives. We were shopping in a fresh new center of commerce that had sprung up on land formerly yielding acres of corn, soybean, and blueberries, and there on a crisp white sidewalk was a glorious yellow ginkgo leaf. Just one. A quick scan around the freshly poured parking lot, and surrounding flat farm land showed no sign of a ginkgo tree! During our quick shopping trip, speculation abounded on the situation from the practical (#1 Son) to the absurd (The Daughter)! When we finished our shopping, the lone ginkgo leave was still there, shining bright and golden on the sidewalk. We three stood there a moment, gazing at it, and inexplicably all of us were of a mind to pick it up, to bring it home, to put it with the other Ginkgo leaves.