by Helen Currie Foster
“MARCH MADNESS”? In the Texas Hill Country, “March Madness” doesn’t only mean NCAA basketball. Its alternate form: Demented Spring Gardening. Too early, you say? Well, according to the snakes, spring’s already here.
Of course it’s not officially spring yet. Just three weeks ago, here north of Dripping Springs, Texas, the entire landscape—every tree, every leaf–was shrouded in solid ice. But this week, well before the equinox, beneath the oaks you’ll spot the amazing heartbreakingly beautiful fuchsia of the redbuds.
And roses! The tender yellow flowers of the Lady Banksia rose are cascading from the oak tree that serves as her trellis.
On other branches you can see the first luxurious pink buds of Souvenir de Malmaison, named for Empress Josephine’s rose garden, beginning to open.
In the garden the ineffably fragrant Zephirine Drouhin is performing her slow tease, loosening the green sepals, delicately unveiling her bright pink petals.
I’ve already planted two new and reputedly very fragrant roses––Madame Plantier, and Cramoisi Superieur. (What a name!) And I replanted Buff Beauty, which produces buff and yellow and apricot blooms. Still waiting for two more—Savannah and Sweet Mademoiselle, both promising strong fragrance. Seriously, a rose without fragrance? Isn’t it disappointing to lean forward into a rose, inhale…and…nothing? As Shakespeare points out in Sonnet 56:
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour which doth in it live.
But for sheer fragrant spring bravado, tinged with peril, what about the ridiculous grape Kool-Aid smell of Texas mountain laurel? Intoxicating and loopy. The plant—sophora secundifolia–– isn’t called “Texas mescal bean” for nothing. https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=sose3: “The brilliant red seeds contain the highly poisonous alkaloid cytisine (or sophorine) – this substance is related to nicotine and is widely cited as a narcotic and hallucinogen.”
Poets give us strong language for the power of spring. From Dylan Thomas: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower…” https://poets.org/poem/force-through-green-fuse-drives-flower
From “in-Just” by e.e. cummings:
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
whistles far and wee
“Mud-luscious!” Cummings captures the joys of digging, planting, splashing—of being a child in spring. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47247/in-just
“A Light exists in Spring” by Emily Dickinson was new to me. I treasure her recognition, her human diagnosis, of that first moment when we notice the magical presence of spring. It begins:
A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period —
When March is scarcely here
A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.
More symptoms of March Madness? The powerful, even uncontrollable, urge to fill your cart full of geraniums, dirt, mulch, annuals, perennials, unknown roses, tomato plants, new trees… Trudging a quarter mile from the local native plants emporium to your car, lugging a red wagon full of blue sage, lantana, and other plants hopefully accurate in describing themselves as “deer-resistant”… Other symptoms include impassioned online review of rose varieties, frantic ripping open of seed packets and daily watering of small unlabeled pots, then staring at tiny emerging seedlings and wondering—what are you? Is that the fennel or the Aji Crystal Pepper or the Mexican plum?
I’d never heard of Mexican plum until a friend gave me a jar of her amazing Mexican plum jam. She described the trees as small, with fragrant white blossoms. So I ordered seeds. The very small print on the seed packet required “stratification” in the refrigerator. Well, I tried. Every morning I peer at the still-empty pots of dirt… little plants, where are you? Can you live in the Hill Country?
Also—perhaps prematurely—we dragged hay bales into the garden and embarked on the great Haybale Tomato experiment:
Supposedly, according to our favorite local well-driller, this approach produces for one local rancher “the most beautiful tomatoes in the Hill Country.” Our donkeys kept sticking their muzzles through the fence, trying to eat the bales. Watch this space. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z2jjIHgmypM
Gardens can be perilous. Think of Eden. But how many murder mysteries are set in gardens, or involve garden poisons? If you haven’t already become a fan of Reginald Hill, you might try Deadheads. Dalziel and Pascoe solve virtually every murder presented to them in their Yorkshire police headquarters. In this one, roses abound, beginning on the first page. And rose culture. And… murder. bit.ly/3Fgce23
Texas author Susan Wittig Albert knows her way around poisonous plants, in Texas or elsewhere. I just finished her Hemlock, Book 28 in her China Bayles series. This mystery—impressively researched, and fast-moving–takes the reader to the Blue Ridge mountains and theft of a rare botanical book, with deft historical backstory. https://susanalbert.com/hemlock-book-28/
For more on Texas mountain laurel, its power and peril – see Ghost Dog, Book 2 in my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. bit.ly/3YIotv5
The weather report threatens another cold snap this week—even (gasp!) a possible freeze. But right now it’s 74 degrees. Geraniums to plant. Blue sage. Tomatoes to water. Yes, it’s hubris, exposing these tender plants so early to the vagaries of Hill Country weather, but—I can’t help it. I just saw a big bud on Star of the Republic! I swear it wasn’t there yesterday. March Madness reigns!
Find Helen Currie Foster on Facebook or at http://www.helencurriefoster.com. The eight books of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, including the most recent, Ghosted, amzn.to/3YrJBXf, are available at Austin’s BookPeople as well as on Amazon (Kindle and Paperback).