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Upholding a Gardening Legacy
by Ruth Rodgers
by Ruth Rodgers


October 7, 2007

Every day on my way to and from work I pass through a small country village. Along the main street, many of the folks have devised pretty front gardens, and I enjoyed monitoring their progress as I passed by each day. One small older home had a short gravel driveway, often featuring a battered late model car. This house had no garden to speak of, except that on either side of the gravel drive was a simple bed of nondescript low shrubs. I scarcely glanced at this "garden" on my daily route, but one day in late September I happened to glance in that direction as I headed home late in the afternoon.

My head snapped around and my eyes widened in shock, for there, thickly lining each side of this unlovely driveway was goblet upon goblet of shimmering pink colchicums, the 'crocus' of autumn. I was familiar with these bulbs from gardening books, but had so far seen them advertised only once in an upscale catalogue at a hefty $10.00 per bulb-and had never seen even one 'in the flesh,' so to speak. And here were dozens, no, hundreds of them, spreading their silky, translucent petals in the low afternoon sun, glowing like the finest rosJ wine. The illuminated cups stood, naked of any foliage, about 6" above the soil level, their white throats making them almost incandescent in the light, and the effect of these ranks of rare bulbs was enough to take my breath away.

The years passed, and each September I made a point of slowing almost to a crawl as I neared the strips of shining pink, swiveling my head in a way that endangered my driving each time I passed the glorious sight. The show only lasted for a week or so, but each year there were more and more of the lustrous chalices as the bulbs multiplied. How long, I wondered, had they been there? Where on earth did the homeowner get them in the first place? I searched catalogues and nurseries for a source, but couldn't find them at any price, let alone a reasonable one. I resigned myself to having to settle for vicarious enjoyment.

Three years ago, however, as I was driving by at my usual snail's crawl, admiring the show, the homeowner, out raking leaves on the front lawn, caught my eye. He was a tiny old man in oversized overalls and a dusty baseball cap, bent nearly double over his rake, stiffly sweeping the mounds of fallen leaves into a pile. He smiled at me, and, on sudden impulse, I stopped the car completely and got out.

Rather embarrassed, I explained that I was admiring his colchicums, and told him I'd never seen so many-in fact, never seen them at all anywhere else.

"So that's what they are, eh? Colchicums-funny name!" he wheezed. "They've been here since the wife and I moved in fifty years ago-never knew what they were, but they're real pretty, aren't they? Say-you want some of 'em?" he offered. I was torn-I didn't want him to think I'd been fishing for an offer when I stopped-but, oh, to have some of those beautiful, rare things in my own garden! I hesitated, then said, "Well, thank you so much-I'd love some-maybe just one or two?"

The generous old man insisted on dragging out the spade buried in his shed himself. He found an old bucket, and, refusing to let me dig in my heeled work shoes, plunged the spade deep into the middle of the bed of pink. Despite my protests, he filled the bucket with at least a dozen fragile blooms, which came up attached to surprisingly hefty bulbs.

"Now don't be surprised in the summer," he said, "'Cause they come up all leafy and look just like cabbages! Then the leaves die and you think they're dead, but then in September up they come again real pretty like this."

I thanked him profusely and was climbing into my car with the precious cargo on the seat beside me, when the old man leaned in at the window. He asked me to tell him again what the bulbs were called, and how to spell it. He seemed secretly amused, and finally shared the joke with me.

"See, I never knew the proper name for 'em-but someone told me once they were called 'naked ladies'! Y'can see why, can't ya!" he twinkled, enjoying this bit of naughtiness. Then he stepped away from the car and waved me off, and returned to his raking, still chuckling.

I planted the colchicums as soon as I got home, spacing them along a long border that catches both morning and evening sun. Each year since they have multiplied, until now I have my own ribbon of glowing pink each September. I don't know whether the old man died or moved away, but I don't see him any more on my daily trips, and now a new young family is beginning to make a pretty garden in front of the old house. They've added new plants to the scruffy shrubs bordering the driveway, but this fall I was glad to see that they hadn't touched the colchicums, which appeared on schedule, lighting up the lane in the afternoon light.

I dug up a clump of my bulbs this fall, and, separating them carefully, shared them, and this story, with all my gardening friends. Because of the generosity of one old man, these lovely flowers will light up some new gardens and thrill all who see them-perhaps nearly as much as real 'naked ladies'!

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