Sunday Opinion: Learning The Language

Margaret Dickson may have been the most gifted gardener I have ever had the privilege to know.  Of Scandinavian descent, she was a woman of few words and much energy.  As far as I could see, no plant was unwilling to grow and prosper for her. Not a square foot of bare soil existed in her vast wildflower garden. She had no specimens of Arisaema Sikokianum, Trillium Cernuum, hepatica triloba or sanguinaria canadensis f. multiplex.    She grew sprawling colonies of Stinking Benjamin,, stands of rare Jack-In-The-Pulpits, lush carpets of liverwort and  densely populated communities of double bloodroot. There were more than a few groups that I did not recognize, had never seen, and have never seen since.  She had no interest in names and nomenclature. Gardening with her much much akin to watching my Aunt cook-no recipe, no weighing, no measuring, no checking the clock.  Margaret had some innate and instinctive ability to look at a plant, know what it needed, and plant it correctly.  She knew when to stand back, and let nature take its course.Her garden told the tale; she grew lush hedges of Japanese painted ferns every inch of 24 inches tall.  Her pipsqueak starts of Varder Valley boxwood matured with lightening speed. Plants I was certain were not hardy, grew in her garden like it was a planet unto itself.  No doubt many years of gardening and more gardening had funded her with a knowledge that transcended language.

Though my Mom saw to providing me with my own wholly owned ground, some rudimentary tools and lots of encouragement at a very early age, my gardening future took a turn when I was 14.  The Daniel H. Fletcher Memorial Scholarship to the Grosse Pointe University School landed me in a ninth grade latin class.  I had no concept of the benefits of a classical education, and even less interest. That first day, I remember being told a string of words I could not pronounce nor comprehend translated as “All of Gaul is divided into two parts”.  There could not have been more than 15 kids in this class-there would be no refuge from what promised to be the most useless, dry and unsatisfying way to spend time ever devised by an adult. And anyway,where was Gaul? I was astonished at how unsympathetic my parents proved to be; children have a properly dubious view of adults.  I was sure they were all nuts about insisting that I have a command of another language.

I was never good at translating Latin, so I hated it.  My translations were always rife with errors, as my teacher was happy to note, every day, if necessary.  After no small amount of pleading, I was allowed to transfer into Mrs. Renaud’s first year French class.  Any student of whom she asked a question, in French of course, was required to stand to answer.  If you did not answer correctly, you had to remain standing until you answered successfully.  After spending the better part of that hour on my feet for what seemed like a month, I finally decided maybe the Latin wasn’t so bad after all.  At least if I were to suffer the indignity of poor public performance, why not do it in the comfort of my own seat?  I stayed with that teacher, and that language throughout high school; we both stoically endured my mediocrity.  I went on to study classical languages further in college; I fulfilled my language study requirement studying Greek one on one with Dr. Poggi.  He proved to be very good natured about my lack of insight or gift; he pushed me, and I slogged through it.

In my late twenties, an inexplicable interest in growing orchids surfaced.  I liked the idea that I could hang them in my trees in my North Carolina front yard; their shapes and colors were strange and mesmerizing.  I began to read, and much to my amazement, I had no trouble with the reading, no matter how technical. Horticultural nomenclature, or a system for the naming of plants, devised by Carl Linneaus in the 18th century, was a breeze for me.  Though no one speaks Latin, the derivation of words in many modern languages comes from that Latin, or the Greek.  The Latin all made sense to me, for the first time.  The name of a plant can tell you plenty about its habit, its shape, its origin, or possibly its color or texture.  The formal language of horticulture does help me to grow things, as I do not have the gift that Margaret had.  Most certainly it enables me to communicate precisely and specifically with growers and nursery people, not to mention other gardeners.

Once my infatuation with orchids waned, my interest in garden plants came to the fore.  I would say my entire early plant education came from reading the White Flower Farms catalogues over and over again. The nursery was founded in the 1940’s by Jane Grant and William Harris, writers turned nurserymen; the business was sold to Eliot Wadsworth in 1976.  So charmingly and enthusiastically written under the pen name of Amos Pettingill, those catalogues made me want to grow plants. Better yet, he made learning the latin names easy.  Even today I am amazed at the wealth of information, coaching and inspiration those catalogues provided me at a time when I had little money to allocate to buying plants. My first Rosa Rubrifolia and Paeonia Tenuifolia  came from them.  I would not be one bit surprised to learn they are still thriving.

Among other things, Margaret taught me to fear no plant, and plant freely. Her life was cut way too short by an illness she could not stop from growing. I took care of her gardens now and then when she was too ill to leave her upstairs bedroom.  I would go and see her afterwards; she would invariably fuss that she had seen from her window a  goose in her garden.  I always promised I would be sure to chase it way, and repair any damage.  It was after all, her garden. I did what I could, but I could not do how she did. Margaret’s gift to me was no different than the gift she gave to her garden. She taught me that more important than my knowledge of the language of horticulture is my understanding that each gardener has a way of making things work that is all their own. She taught me to be confident to go my own way.  Nurseries always provide plant care tags that will tell you the name of the plant you are buying.  Lacking that, the vast and comprehensive resource that is the internet can give you just about any information you think you need.  But the physical process and experience of gardening is so interesting and such fun I hope to never get over it.  How could I communicate that I am compelled to grow?  I would show you my garden.


  1. Not only are you a compelling and brilliant gardener but you are a magnificent and patient teacher. So much to learn and so little time!

  2. It sounds as if Margaret was a very special and wise lady – you were lucky to know her 🙂

  3. A really great post. I always enjoy reading whatever you post here.

  4. As always, a very enjoyable post. Thank you.

  5. “Plant freely” – what a wise injunction: for gardeners, for teachers, for everybody. Plant freely, and trust that the harvest will come.

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