Monday, August 4, 2014
Towards the end of July every year, the above flowers bloomed in the border alongside my parents' house at the farm. The show of bright yellow continued at least through mid-August. The cheery yellow double blooms sat atop five-foot tall stems, thus affording a view from the kitchen table of the many butterflies that would alight almost constantly. Mother would pick the flowers, sometimes mixing them with colorful zinnias, which also grew along the wall of the house.
In all the years I had the chance to ask, I never found out where this perennial came from. Many people swapped flowers with Mother, so it could have come from a number of sources. Also, Mother never put a name to it. I don't think we ever talked about what the flower was. I had never seen it anywhere else. When I started writing a weekly column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1989, I was constantly out visiting gardens but I never came across this particular flower.
In early August 1994, when we were shooting the first 13 episodes of A Gardener's Diary (this was months before HGTV would come on the air on December 31, 1994), we taped two shows in Tennessee. One was at the farm of Susan Felts, who sold cut flowers to florists and who also dried flowers to sell. I didn't go on that shoot, but I watched it being edited.
As I sat in the dark editing room (we used to go at night in order to save money), I watched as A Gardener's Diary host Erica Glasener was walking next to Susan's huge flower borders. The two were discussing what was in the border, when Erica stopped and posed a question to Susan: "Tell me about the heliopsis over there." Bingo. The camera pulled in close, and there it was - Mama's yellow flower.
Susan explained that an elderly lady who had a lot of old-fashioned passalong plants had given it to her. I thought at the time that Mother had probably gotten a start of the flower from such a person.
For whatever reason, I don't think I ever told Mother I had found out the name of the flower. Sad to say, I mostly cared about what was happening down there at the time it was blooming.
My parents were huge vegetable gardeners, so the last of July and all through August, they were immersed in picking black-eyed peas, butter beans (the big brown kind), lima beans, the second crop of Silver Queen corn (which always had worms, although the first one in late June did not), snap beans, okra, tomatoes, squash, watermelons and cantaloupes. Mother spent the days gathering vegetables and then either freezing them or canning them. It was a ton of work.
So, now when I see those flowers in bloom (I took the above photograph last Sunday when it was very, very dry and had been for a few weeks), I think back to all those dishes on the table - the fried okra with not a smidgen of green showing, yellow squash casserole, butter beans and black-eyed peas, along with a jar of chow-chow from the previous year, a plate of bright red sliced tomatoes, a round cake of crusty cornbread and of course, sweet iced tea with lemon. Mama always had dessert, but there would be a bowl of sliced cantaloupe, and then Daddy might bring out some cold watermelon to finish up.
Thank goodness, at the time I never thought that all of this would come to an end. Vegetables are still being grown at the farm, but of course, it's not the same. My friend Linda, who has a fabulous and very picturesque vegetable garden on the eastern shore of Maryland, makes chow-chow every year from Mama's recipe. That helps tremendously when I buy frozen butterpeas or lima beans at the store. And having Mama's flowers come back year after year, stronger than ever, helps keep all the memories of those wonderful years alive.
About the flower: To tell the truth, I had to get out a DVD of Episode 102 of A Gardener's Diary to remember that this was a heliopsis. For some reason, I had remembered it as being a strange form of rudbeckia (what was I thinking?). I'm not sure of the species (Heliopsis helianthoides, most likely), but it is native to the eastern United States and Canada. What I'm wondering is, given the fact that it does not need to be staked and is obviously very hardy, and the deer have never taken a bite of either the foliage of the flowers, why this perennial isn't used much more often.