Wednesday, February 18, 2009

First words

In my family, the story goes that my first words were "Booful flowers." Beautiful flowers.

According to the story, I spoke them in the front yard of my family's first house in Pennsylvania. I'm sure it was the petunias that caught my eye.

I liked to play in the yard, and my parents let me play as much as I liked without worrying about getting my rooster-print sundress muddy. It made me pretty confident, and comfortable with bugs, dirt, worms, water, and leafy things.

I remember the first time I learned a flower's name. We lived in a suburban small town west of Philadelphia. Behind our house there was a small patch of woods that I was allowed to venture a few steps into.

There were evergreen shrubs with pretty, intricate pink clusters of flowers, and my mother taught me their name - Mountain Laurel.

Kalmia latifolia photo by Alan S. Heilman, University Tennessee Herbarium, from US Forest Service

When we moved to Illinois, our house was one of a half dozen or so built in a newly planned subdivision built on farmland in the Fox River Valley. Our house was surrounded by woods and fields. I was given a small field guide to wildflowers, and looked for flowers like Wake-Robin Trilliums, Mayapples, and Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

Each spring the floor of the woods was carpeted with clusters of Spring Beauty, or Claytonia virginica.

My mother grew hybrid tea roses - the ones I remember well are Peace, Tropicana, Queen Elizabeth, and Sterling Silver. One summer she used a mulch of cocoa-bean hulls - I can still remember the smell of hot chocolate in the sun. She also grew annuals like snapdragons, sweet alyssum, and pinks.

I am not sure how old I was when I started looking at the Wayside Gardens catalog my mother got in the mail. They were large, expensive-looking volumes, carefully bound, with colored photos and elaborate descriptions. I still remember plants that fascinated me - Corylus contorta, or "Harry Lauder's Walking Stick" hazel - Butterfly bushes and Franklinia trees. These plants are still offered in Wayside's catalog today.

Wayside printed the plants' common names alongside their botanical names. After a time, the botanical names were just as easy for me to remember as the common names.

I've noticed that I have acquired a peculiar talent. I always name the plants I see. Wherever I am, if I see a plant, some part of my brain marks its name. This quirk is always just teetering on the edge between consciousness and subconsciousness; I can be walking down the street with a friend, having a conversation, and as we pass the planter-boxes of the Wells Fargo Bank or the hedge-rimmed library, a little voice in my brain is rattling away, "Buxus sempervirens, agave, that purple lantana you see everywhere, rose - is it "Iceberg?" - a nice dwarf nandina, that variegated daphne, ipomoea, anigozanthus - and oh what a pretty daylily!"

Name the flowers. I've done it since I learned to talk.

Is that weird? Does anyone else do this, too?


Steph said...

I wish I could; I have no retention for it. Allegedly my first word was sh*t. Which is interesting because I am now obsessed with getting enough fiber.

vallen said...

I would if I could. I always named the plants I knew for my daughters. Unfortunately my repertoire was limited.

foolery said...

I know the names of about 10 trees and 15 flowers and that's it. Other than sequoia semperviron and sequoia gigantia, I don't know any botanical names, but I amd fascinated by people who have a head for those things "The green shiny one" is about as specific as I get!

I loved your photos, by the way.

Csquaredplus3 said...

This is so lovely. All of it, the photos, learning about you, your passion for flowers and plants.

I don't think your ability to name flowers is weird. It's a gift. You came that way! I try, but it's a struggle for me to study and learn. I enjoy puttering in the garden very much, but I'm not gifted like you.

Susan said...

I am not good at remembering the names - but I remember my mom had pinks in her garden - I loved them. Now I will remember to get some this spring. Thanks!

Jillian said...


Cheri @ Blog This Mom! said...

You are a divine storyteller and photographer.

Trannyhead said...

I love the old photos!

My mom is really into gardening and when we used to drive around, she'd point out flowers and trees and tell me exactly what they were called. I retained maybe 1/10 of what she was trying to tell me, but hey ... it's better than nothing. Especially since I can't keep a single plant alive!

cactus petunia said...

Wow! I lived in a small town west of Philadelphia until 1962...and I have a freakish ability to remember the latin names of plants too (but I can't remember what I had for lunch today). Maybe there's something in the water there?

tinsenpup said...

Look at you! I never did anything like your wonderful flower naming, but when I was a small child, I used to count obsessively in my head. I remember learning what came after a thousand and that I could just go on counting forever if I wanted to. It was a very special kind of joy. Aren't our different brains fascinating?

Bronwyn Park said...

I do it, but only in English. I never did learn the Latin names. I identify birds, too - but usually can't see them. I'm a good listener, terrible spotter.

phd in yogurtry said...

"booful flowers" how sweet!

I am very good at remembering faces, and the sounds of someone's voice, but names? of anything? not so much.

When there's an emotional connection, the memory is that much stronger.

But,some people just have excellent memory ability, and you sound like one of those.

My husb has a memory for childhood details that is extraordinary. It wouldn't earn him a spot on jeopardy, but I'm always damned impressed.

I am a Tornado ~ proven fact! said...

It fits you g. Your beginning fit you. Perfectly.

Perfect and lovely.

Woman in a Window said...

Nope, pretty sure that's weird. But in a good and super brainy sort of way. And god, I love those photos of you but especially that last one, with the sun smear right at the bottom edge. Wonderful!

SUEB0B said...

Totally do this. My favorite botanical name is for the Fishtail Palm "Caryota mitis." When I see it, I shout, CARYOTA MITIS in my mind. I can't help it.

Tristan Robin Blakeman said...

we reversed our geographical roots!

I started out in Illinois (Decatur), but grew up outside of Philadelphia in Bucks County.

Maybe our families' moving vans passed each other on I-95!

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