Most gardeners, at some point in their journey through the plant kingdom, will become enamoured with orchids. Some people develop a condition commonly referred to as “orchid fever”- the unexplainable obsession with orchids. I think only the tulip shares that same capability of driving a person to madness. Beauty, and the desire to possess it, has motivated mankind for centuries. Orchids somehow speak to us, and often to people who don’t even really consider themselves gardeners. I have met a number of people in my life who were exclusively growers of orchids and no other flowers or plants. Some of these people have been really lovely, and others have been extremely snooty and pretentious. (Haven’t we all encountered that unfriendly, self-satisfied orchid grower who thought they were so superior because they grow orchids and you only grow sweet peas and lilies, you poor soul…)

I like orchids. I like them a great deal. I am not obsessive about them (the first sign of an obsession is to insist that you don’t have one) but I did pay 100 dollars for a hybrid lady’s slipper this spring. (I have no regrets about this.) I have also grown Bletilla, Pleione, and a few other hardy orchids as well as having gone to great lengths to enjoy some species in the wild. (We have a great many native orchids here in Alberta, most of which do not respond well to cultivation.)

This week, I have been thinking about what I will plant in the spring. I am also thinking about Christmas and finances and my lovely sweetheart who brings me such happiness, but mostly I am thinking about flowers. I am always thinking about flowers. I am always contemplating which plants will go into the presentations I do and what seeds I will order and what each plant will look best planted next to. I am thinking about mountain slopes covered in spring blossoms and gurgling streams laced with dark ferns and I am thinking about the world and my place in it, but mostly I am thinking about flowers. Always my thought life is consumed with things that bloom, things with leaves, miracles erupting from plump bulbs. Vines are scrambling through my dreams at night- clematis and passionflowers and morning glories. Great magnolia trees trembling with blossoms and crabapples hung with fruit and somber evergreens that stand silent and watchful as I step into the woods. I never tire of plants. I never grow weary of learning about them, or from them. This week, however, this week has mostly been about orchids.

Appropriate for this time of year, I have been thinking about the Christmas orchids. The Latin name is Calanthe, derived from Kallos, meaning beauty, and anthos, meaning flower. I have no idea why they are called this but it is a far-flung genus of about 220 species. Southeast Asia is home to most species but they also occur in Madagascar, Australia, Mexico, many of the Pacific Islands, and Japan. Most are tropical or sub-tropical but it is the Japanese species that interest me. I think quite a number of them could possibly be hardy, and I should like to give them a try.

A few years ago, I had a speaking engagement in Victoria and as is often the way with these things, there were quite a number of vendors selling plants. There was an orchid specialist there, and she was a tall, thin woman with a hooked, beak-like nose and a puckered mouth that was all scrunched up like a cat’s ass hole. I tried to engage her in conversation because I was eager to learn. She had a number of Calanthe specimens for sale, which I think were hybrid forms but I don’t remember exactly. I wanted to know more about them. She was smug and vaguely condescending. (I am not a fan of such gardeners; I really am not.) I was asking about the hardiness of this genus, and told her I lived in zone 3A. She got a look on her face like she had tasted spoiled milk. “They will not survive in your climate” she pronounced with great finality. “I’m surprised anything does”, she then added with a snort of derision. I said “perhaps some of the Japanese species might be worth considering; I may even be able to grow them in containers and winter them indoors.” At that moment another person from a climate apparently more worthy than my own appeared and she immediately left me as she found me, which was none the wiser.

Lately I have been thinking about these orchids again. There is a lovely company on Salt Spring Island called Fraser’s Thimble Farms. They specialize in rare and unusual perennials and they are quite happy to ship these through the mail. They offer four species of Calanthe in their 2018 catalogue; all of them are Japanese. If they offer them again in the 2019 catalogue, I may have to have them. They are all listed as being hardy to zone 6 or 7 only. This may or may not be true. If they are from the southernmost parts of Japan they will certainly not survive where I live, but how do I know where they come from? If they are from high elevations in the northern parts of the country, they may well perform for me in my little woodland glade. “Native to Japan” could mean very hardy or very tender but often one doesn’t have a way to determine which category a mostly unknown plant would fall into. It certainly cannot hurt to try them, anyway. How boring our gardens would be if we planted only the things we were told would do well for us. Fortune favors the bold, I always say.

Christmas orchids prefer sun to light shade and very humusy soil. Some are evergreen, others herbaceous, and most do not grow very tall. 12-18” is about average. Like most orchids, their foliage is nothing to get excited about but they produce very beautiful, small flowers in abundant clusters. A few species are richly fragrant and many will colonize rapidly where they are happy. Calanthe discolor grows about 12” tall with purple-brown and white flowers. It is believed to be the hardiest one. C. aristulifera is a bit taller and has large, very pale pink blooms. The foliage is evergreen so it may not be super thrilled to be here. It tends to be rare in cultivation. C. striata has golden flowers and blooms quite early in the year. They aren’t terribly expensive; perhaps I should order a few and see how they perform. Worst case scenario, they don’t adapt here. Best case scenario they flourish and multiply. If that is the case, I will wish I could remember the name of the orchid vendor that employed the sharp, unpleasant woman with the unkind eyes. I would send her a photo of my flourishing Christmas orchids in zone 3. That would wipe the smirk right off her smug, limy face wouldn’t it? I have to admit I would find that very satisfying. That’s probably not very nice of me. Well, she was rude. I can’t help it. Ha ha. In any case, plants that thrive in places that they aren’t supposed to are always especially thrilling to have.

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I have been struggling with insomnia a lot lately (which is why I’m blogging at 2:20 AM) but what’s really exciting about this is that I have a new friend to keep me company. Her name is Katharine S. White and she passed away several years before I was born. In Katharine I have absolutely found a kindred spirit, and I wish very much that she and I had known each other. This is the miracle of the written word; she is long gone, but she is actually still here. Sometimes, when I think about the power of writing, I am astonished. Marks and symbols left on paper translate into sounds and meanings and all down through the ages, through decades and even centuries, the life and words of those long deceased coming pouring down to us once more. Their voices still speak.

The book is called ‘Onward and Upward in the Garden’ (a terrific title) and it is considered a classic among horticultural literature. I am embarrassed to tell you that up until now, I’ve never read it. I don’t know why. I don’t have a good reason. I was aware of it, and had even seen it quoted occasionally, but had never really given it much thought. I found a used copy on Amazon recently and ordered it on a whim. Words do not describe how much I immediately fell in love with this author and I’m sorry I didn’t read it years ago.

So let me introduce you to Katharine. She was the editor in chief for ‘The New Yorker’ magazine from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. She was fiercely intelligent and respected by all her peers, extremely good at her job, and a heavy smoker. She was also a deeply devoted gardener, and she and her husband spent most of the year in New York, but summers in Maine. That’s where she gardened, and that’s where they went when she retired. Katharine’s husband was a few years younger than she was, and he was a writer. He was well known and successful; in fact he wrote what is quite likely the greatest children’s book of all time- ‘Charlotte’s Web’. Katharine’s husband was E.B. White, and he wrote an introduction for her gardening book that is one of the best tribute’s to one’s partner that I have ever read.

After her retirement in the late 1950’s but before her death in the late 1970’s, Katharine wrote fourteen essays about gardening for ‘The New Yorker’. These received acclaim and attention from all over the country and indeed the world, and after she passed, her husband lovingly and devotedly gathered together all these essays and had them printed as a book. In his own words, it “gave him something to focus on” while he was grieving, and it was a way of feeling closer to her because every day he was surrounded by her written thoughts and opinions and observances.

Katharine was an extraordinarily talented writer, but she found writing hard work and even though she had decades of gardening experience by the time she started writing, she always considered herself an amateur. People were generally astounded to find that she reviewed seed catalogues and gardening magazines as though they were world class literature and she was ferociously opinionated. Naturally, I liked her the minute I started reading. She was feisty and did not hold back. How refreshing!

She mostly hated what hybridizers were doing. Many of the things that thoroughly unimpressed her in the early 1960’s are things that I also hate. “Why”, she asked, “do the hybridizers insist on making everything larger and more double? Why ruin a flower’s natural and distinctive shape?” I have asked the same questions myself. She did not like seeing giant blooms on dwarf plants and she did not like giant plants with mingy flowers- I have also made these complaints. At a time when everyone received things through the mail, she developed a wide circle of correspondence with many growers and nurseries throughout America. She was an avid letter writer and inquirer. I have done the same thing over the years, but largely through the internet rather than the post. She often became friendly with these folks that she wrote to, and often worried after their health and well-being. I am of a similar temperament. I knew at once that she and I would have gotten along.

Katharine hated unnecessary abbreviations. So do I! She detested when Gladiolus were called glads, when Chrysanthemums were called mums, and snapdragons were called snaps. A friend referred to the regal delphiniums as “dels” and she was apoplectic! I am 100% like this, but not just with plants, with everything. There is a common trend among people my own age to now shorten words that do not need shortening. I hate it when people say “totes” instead of totally. One day a younger friend said “totes perf” instead of “totally perfect” and I very nearly clobbered him.

Katharine liked gardening traditions, but she also liked doing things her own way. She never belonged to any garden clubs or societies, and likely would not have fit in with them. She carved her own path, which I have great admiration for. When politicians and city planners made terrible decisions for the environment, she called them out on it! (*I have also done this.) She even corresponded with Ladybird Johnson (another person I hold in high esteem) who apparently agreed with her!

Katharine was an advocate for gardening with native plants long before it was fashionable or even acceptable. When a well known nurseryman of her day wrote of a new, fancy cultivar of French pussy willow he said it was a far superior choice than our “unreliable” native willows. Katharine was infuriated! She responded at once and with great passion- “what is unreliable, pray, about the native willows? I have found them trustworthy in every respect.” Do you not immediately love this woman? She said almost exactly what I would have said, and with the same degree of intensity.

We seemed to have similar taste in plants too, which pleases me. She wrote of one catalogue offering golden star (Mentzelia lindleyi), which she had not grown but the description intrigued her and she was planning to grow it herself. This plant was called Bartonia in her day, and I grew it for the first time two summers ago because the description in the Chiltern catalogue had the same effect on me!

We also both liked monkshoods, amaryllis, lilacs, single flowered roses, and houseplants. She wrote a whole section about houseplants and was very funny describing herself as being like a nursemaid, and having to “fluff pillows and offer comfort and support.” She despaired about her bird of paradise in a large tub; how was she going to get that indoors for the winter? I commiserated with her and nodded and smiled with her, thinking how little has changed, really, since she wrote this section in 1960. It is amazing how relevant and timeless her work is- beyond the fact that she is very pleased about catalogues that offer “several plates of full colour photographs”, I hardly notice that decades have passed since she wrote.

She writes much about the popular flowers of her day- petunias, marigolds, pinks, snapdragons, etc. but she has also writes about things that few people were growing. She had a fondness for gourds (I like her even more) and she liked gloxinias. I don’t know if gloxinias were popular in the 1960’s or not, but she loved them. She loved African violets too. I feel genuinely and truthfully as though she and I would have gotten along famously, and it’s nice to have a terrific book to curl up with on those nights I cannot sleep. There is genuine pleasure in a comfortable chair, a dependable lamp, and a wise and discerning soul speaking to you from the pages of a book. I am going to read this book again and again! I am just over the moon about having discovered this hitherto unknown (well, unknown to me) author!

I will end with something her husband wrote in the introduction, which was published after she had passed away. Katharine adored spring flowering bulbs, and chose them carefully and with great expectations. It was one of her favorite things to do. I will quote him here, but the very last line, where he speaks of her plotting resurrection, was perhaps the most stirring and gorgeous thing I have read in a very long time.

Katharine would get into a shabby old Brooks raincoat much too long for her, put on a little round wool hat, pull on a pair of overshoes, and proceed…hour after hour, in the wind and the weather…as the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion-the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.”

What I’m getting for Christmas is…fat. I’m getting fat. I have fallen into a place where I can’t stop eating and I keep baking things! I am also getting older (I’ll be 38 next month) and everyone knows once you’re not in your twenties anymore, your metabolism pretty much buys a one-way bus ticket out of town and you have to work twice as hard to lose half as much weight. This is becoming a (semi-hilarious) problem.

I really love food. I really LOVE food.If I were very wealthy and financially independent, I am confident that I would be a very portly man indeed. I sometimes get really excited when I start thinking about food that I’m going to eat later in the week. I have been bribed into doing garden work I didn’t want to do because a friend said “I will bake you a pie.” I said “make that two pies and you have a deal.” (*To be fair, Kathryn’s pie is so delicious that you damn near need a cigarette afterwards.) Being a gardener, I actually grow a lot of delicious things. Fresh tomatoes and fresh carrots and beautiful fruit and flavorful herbs and brand new potatoes and newly picked beans and a ripe plum picked on a warm morning…everything the garden produces is so outstandingly wonderful. I can’t stop eating everything in the garden, but the garden can’t be held responsible for making me overweight. Well, it sort of can. Chocolate zucchini cake and pumpkin pie and cream cheese carrot muffins aren’t exactly low calorie but I can convince myself these are in fact, vegetables, and therefore good for me.

I have an interesting history with food, I think. I have a strong German-Mennonite background and everyone knows the Mennonites can only make dinner for 50. Also, Mennonite cooking is delicious. Everything that came out of my Grandma’s kitchen was made with lots of butter and lots of cream and lots of love. I was never really “fat” as a child, but I was definitely thicker and heavier than the other farm boys. As a teenager, I became very overweight (I now believe a lot of this was overeating due to depression) and at the age of 19, I was 240 lbs. Then I went off traveling and decided to change my eating habits and do a LOT of walking and in six months I managed to get my weight down to about 170. This was great. Clothes fit better, I had more energy, and attractive and interesting people began to show an interest in possibly dating me. (*This is in general a really bad idea because I’m neurotic and need constant validation regarding my work but that’s a topic for another post.) Anyway, for a few years…I was reasonably thin and slender and that was fine. Then I started working in a book store.

Working in a bookstore was one of the most fun and interesting jobs I’ve ever had. It’s been many years since that time in my life, and I’m still friends with most of my former co-workers and I have really good memories of working there. In the book store is where I met Nicole. Nicole was very smart and very funny and also kind and warm and just lovely in every conceivable way. She laughed a lot and I always looked forward to having a shift with her. Nicole was responsible for the cooking section and was (is) also a very good cook. Nicole invited me to her house for dinner a few times. Everything was delicious. Like, amazingly delicious. Then Nicole started introducing me to marvelous and hitherto unknown food writers like Julia Child and AJ Liebling. I started cooking like I had never cooked before, and then the food network came along. Two Fat Ladies (one of the best cooking shows of all time) and Nigella Lawson and Ina Garten became bestsellers in our little bookstore as a result and Ina Garten (the barefoot contessa) made baking a cake seem like the most sensual, indulgent, erotic experience in the world. (It kind of is, or it can be, anyway.)

Then I moved to Calgary. I met Madison. She was always having dinner parties and inviting people over and we started cooking together and baking together and going to try new restaurants together and it was jolly fun times. Remarkably, I managed to maintain my reasonably trim figure probably because I was not only really active and hiking in the Rockies a lot, but I was generally only eating when I was legitimately hungry and I wasn’t eating myself into a coma. I would have a piece of cake; I would not eat the whole cake. Now, I’m trying to scheme ways I can eat the entire cake. This isn’t a good development. After Madison passed away, I didn’t want to cook anymore. I didn’t enjoy being in the kitchen, and nothing made me feel as horrifically alone and depressed as cooking for one. I gave away most of my cookbooks. I stopped bringing my friends cookies and squares and apricot scones. I cooked only when necessary and didn’t do any baking or anything fancy unless I had friends coming over and even that was rare. I forgot that cooking was something I enjoyed, and perhaps had even been good at.

Well, now here we are many years later…and I’m back on the cooking and baking train. In spring of this year, I unpacked some boxes that have been sitting in storage at my mom and dad’s house for a few years. I found Madison’s mixing bowls and her measuring spoons that she had bequeathed to me. I had a little cry, and then told myself to get over it already and they’re just mixing bowls, for goodness sake! Pull yourself together, man! I decided that Madison would want me to use them and enjoy them and remember our good times together, so that’s what I decided to do. Then I met David.

Madison once told me that men are always either hungry or horny, and if you see a man who doesn’t have an erection, you should make him a sandwich. In the spirit of going boldly forward and new beginnings and finding yourself again and all that, I have started baking again. And baking. And baking. I don’t know how this came about, exactly. It might have been Madison’s mixing bowls. There might have been a little magic left in them, I wouldn’t be surprised. Anyway, I started baking for David. A tangible and delicious way to express my love, I felt. “Here, I baked maple-walnut brownies for you…” or “can I bring you blueberry-almond muffins at work this morning?” “Maybe I should make a pumpkin pie…I have that beautiful heirloom pumpkin that Moira gave me…” and what about making some strawberry tarts? So it goes. Now we are moving into the Christmas season and nothing fits me properly. I made my Grandma’s German apple cake four times since the beginning of October and I can tell because none of my jeans want to button up anymore. As I type this I am legitimately thinking about baking rice krispy squares this afternoon…which David and I will probably eat. Also I could make those really good peppermint-chocolate squares that my Mom makes and I made some very good cranberry-macadamia cookies not long ago and I should make those again and is there really enough butter in my fridge? I should make a grocery list.

So, David and I keep saying that we have to eat better. We should do more walking. We joke that we have not been practicing safe snacks. I keep saying after Christmas I will make an effort to stop shoving ALL the food in my mouth ALL the time. I say this, but if I get any new cookbooks for Christmas or my birthday, well then God help us all…

As I have mentioned previously, I am a devoted fan of amaryllis (Hippeastrum) and there are currently four of them in my kitchen. I have a white one, a red one, and a pink one (along with a recently acquired bright red poinsettia) and one very unusual amaryllis whose story I am going to tell you here. The butterfly amaryllis (Hippeastrum papilio) is a species that all gardeners should try at least once in their lives. One of the reasons that I love plants is that they all have such fascinating stories to tell, and this gorgeous and improbable flower really tells one of the best stories.

It starts, as many good plant tales do, with someone who was an avid collector. Dr. Carlos Gomez Rupple was an Argentinian plant enthusiast but whether he was a botanist or a horticulturalist or just someone who loved gardening I have never been able to find out. In 1967, he was visiting a garden in the southernmost part of Brazil and encountered an amaryllis that he had never seen before. This stunning and elegant plant had more slender stems than other species and the most fabulous, large flowers of brilliant ruby-red heavily veined and shaded with an electrifying lime green. It seemed part orchid, part lily, and part fairy tale! Entirely smitten, Dr. Rupple acquired the plant for himself. He brought it to the attention of the Argentinian botanist Dr. Pedro Felix Ravenna, and in 1970, it was declared a new species. It was named Amaryllis papilio (later changed to Hippeastrum papilio), after the Latin word for butterfly. This new amaryllis was a sensation in the botanical world but where had it come from?

The answer to that question remained hidden from science for decades. Believed to be extinct in the wild, some botanists surmised that it was perhaps a naturally occurring hybrid, that (unusually) was able to come true from seed. If its parents were indeed two different species, that would explain why no one had yet found it in the wild. Either way, it was widely believed to be extinct (again, I’m not sure why this assumption was made) until the early 1990’s, when California plant breeder and horticulturalist Fred Meyer discovered it in the wild. (*Fred Meyer is perhaps best known for his introduction of the very dwarf and exceedingly marvelous lemon that was later named for him.)

In the southern rainforest of Brazil, not too far from the Atlantic coast, in the most unlikely of places…Fred Meyer found a beguiling and extraordinary amaryllis with lustrous crimson and jade flowers…growing high in the treetops. Remarkably, the amaryllis was growing as an epiphyte more than 60 ft. off the ground! It seemed quite comfortable in the crotches of trees where great quantities of organic material such as shed bark and foliage had accumulated deeply enough for the bulbs to root in.

The forest it grows in is deeply fragmented and today there are fewer than 100 known plants in the wild. The colour of the blooms is highly variable, and ranges from cream or pale green to a very deep green, with the red colouring ranging from a bright red to nearly burgundy. The chances that these few remaining plants would ever be discovered at all is so unlikely that it really boggles the mind when one thinks about it. Although extraordinarily rare in the wild, the butterfly amaryllis has adapted very well indeed to life in cultivation. It is increasingly available to gardeners, and easy to grow in addition to being beautiful. When it first became available commercially in the late 90’s, it was selling for up to 40 dollars per bulb. Now, prices are much more reasonable (usually around 25 bucks). I have found it for sale this year in two different garden centers, and having not had one for a long time, I bought one.

Unlike many other amaryllis, this species is usually evergreen, maintaining its leaves during the dryer part of the year. Flowers most often appear in October (spring in the southern hemisphere) but if you buy one now, you can just pot it up and expect it to flower quite quickly, actually. Whether it lives beyond flowering though, is something else altogether. My experience with this species is that it is harder to maintain from one year to the next than others, and folks on the internet have agreed with me to some extent. The first time I grew it, I paid some outrageous sum for it (maybe not so outrageous when you know its back story) and it flowered marvelously with little effort. In the spring, long after it was finished blooming, I went to transplant it. There were a few meager leaves emerging but it looked pretty shabby. When I knocked it out of its pot, I was astounded to discover that the bulb had not produced any roots whatsoever- the flowers were apparently fed solely on the nutrients that had been stored in the bulb! I never did get it to form roots; needless to say it died. I tried again a few years later; this one rooted but never did become vigorous or perform well ever again. I gave one to my friend Mary Lynn at one point and I know it flowered in her dining room; I’m not sure if she kept it over or not but I know she enjoyed it. (Knowing Mary Lynn it’s probably flourishing away for her still with nary a care in the world but I will have to ask her about it.)

Butterfly amaryllis is now widely propagated by growers in Holland and in mild climates (such as the Carolinas and parts of Australia) it is often grown in the garden. It said to be vigorous and easy, multiplying from offsets and even able to handle a light frost. It has also been used for hybridizing ever new and more exciting forms of amaryllis. As I sit here typing these words, my butterfly amaryllis is beside me with her soft green stem supporting the cargo that will soon become flowers. I can hardly wait; they usually produce at least two stems and the flowers are long lasting.

Isn’t it an incredible world indeed, where for the paltry sum of 25 dollars I can grow an extravagant and lovely flower from the rainforests of South America right in my kitchen…a flower that came to our knowledge purely by chance, and is now increasingly available to gardeners while its wild ancestors run perilously close to extinction. This plant is both rare and offers something rare- bicoloured blooms of cardinal red and apple green. Frankly, I think it’s just a little bit too suspicious that this is a real plant at all…one has to wonder if in addition to being rare and gorgeous, this amaryllis isn’t also just a bit magical.

This morning, I woke up in a very comfortable bed and went into my kitchen and put the coffee on. It was snowing gently outside, and I put on some music. I had a very nice shower with perfectly clean, hot water and a text message waiting for me that said “I love you and can’t wait to see you later today.” I am speaking in Medicine Hat tomorrow night so I had some things to get ready for that and I sat quietly in my bright, peaceful living room afterwards surrounded by books and pine cones and beautiful rocks that I’ve picked up here and there.

This picturesque, quiet little life that I lead and that I am so enormously grateful for…came at great cost. Today is Remembrance Day. I think it is tremendously important- essential, rather- that we all take a moment to think about the incredible freedom that we as Canadians are privy to. This freedom was purchased for us by very brave men and women who were willing to leave behind their own safety and comfort on our behalf. It is because of their valor and sacrifice that I wake up every day in peace and contentment. I am not persecuted for my faith or lack thereof, nor do I ever fear that I may have to dodge bullets or enemy attacks from above. Every single day of my life I enjoy freedom and security that is unprecedented in much of the known world. I have never had to flee anywhere or try to cross a border in secret. I have never had to take up arms nor do I lie awake at night worrying that I might have to. I am unspeakably grateful to all who went before me that I might have the life that I have- indeed that we all have.

As far as I am aware, no one in my family ancestry served in the military. As Mennonites, I think my family members on both sides were conscientious objectors. Part of the Mennonite confession of faith says “as disciples of Christ, we do not prepare for war, or participate in war or military service”. I have very mixed feelings about this but we won’t get into that today. It is possible that on my biological father’s side (I do not know him) there was a person or persons who served in our military, but I am unaware of it. War was generally not spoken of in my house while growing up, although we were made very much aware of the importance of Remembrance Day and taught to be very respectful.

When I first moved to Alberta and started hiking in the Rockies, I was amazed at how the names of so many mountains and places were references to the first and second world wars. Many are named after various war vessels (such as Galatea), or aircraft (such as Sparrowhawk), or important people (such as Edith Cavell), or significant places (such as Vimy). I’m sure there are well over a dozen mountains in the Rockies whose names are not pondered by most people unless you are aware of the history and Canada’s strong ties to Great Britain. My curiosity about the places that I hiked, and the history of those places, inadvertently led me to finding out a lot about Canada’s involvement in these events, and thus made me more aware and grateful whenever I set out on a trail.

I am sometimes asked by gardeners if it is possible to grow the Remembrance Day poppy, which we all wear as a sign of respect and gratitude, in our gardens. It is indeed. The corn poppy, also called field poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is an easy to grow annual that is best directly sown where it is to flower as they do not like having their roots disturbed. It prefers a sunny site with average, well drained soil and will often self-sow where it is happy. Seeds are readily available from most garden centers and mail order suppliers.

As I sit here typing these words, snow is falling gently outside my window. I have cranberry cookies baking in the oven and candles lit. I am listening to the unspeakably gorgeous new album from Scottish singer-songwriter Karine Polwart. (The record is called ‘Laws of Motion’ and if you don’t go and download it immediately, you are doing yourself a huge disservice.) Basically right now I feel like I’m inside a Christmas card from the 1940’s.

My kitchen is warm and full of plants. Today is my nephew’s birthday so I called him and his inquiring, gentle little heart brings me joy. A year ago this week I was arriving home after walking the Camino Santiago trail in Spain. I am surrounded by friends in Canada. I am a free agent in the universe. I come and go as I please, and I am grateful. I am always grateful. Sometimes I am angry, sometimes afraid, but always, always I am grateful.

There is so much to enjoy and soak up in the world. I am running around with metaphorical sponges trying to absorb it all. When I feel sound and perfect, I try to bottle all the good things so that when I feel darkness again, I have resources available. Today was ethereal and full of grace. I counted every blessing. I bowed my head under the rushing wind that pushed the snow clouds over my home. I embraced the November light that bends and curls and reaches over rocks and tree trunks and fallen leaves. The days are short and the shadows grow long. There is beauty in the world consistently, but today I was very alert to it for some reason. All day long, the light shifted and heaved and threw itself across my living room floor and it felt like an invitation. I was surrounded by books and I was aware- strangely and curiously aware- that I am not alone. Voices from gardeners past came down through the ages to the pages under my fingers. I was still at times, still and very silent. I should start doing yoga again. I should be this mindful every day, I tell myself.

I went for a walk and found it stimulating and overwhelming at once. I walked to the nearby cemetery and stood among those who have gone before me. The linden trees are full of seeds and they stood like soldiers with their smooth grey trunks resplendent in the sinking sun. Cars rushed by, seemingly oblivious to these great wooden centurions sheltering the crows and shining quietly in the dim and soft light. I felt like I was in a scene from a film; I went home and made some (decaf) coffee. Even the scent and the colour of the coffee was beautiful. A plant from the eastern parts of Africa whose seeds are now found roasted and brewed in every home in the world. It’s sort of miraculous, don’t you think?

A ring-necked pheasant darted into the coulee through the tall grass just as I turned to go home. In many mythologies and cultures, the pheasant is the symbol of fire. How striking this glittering male with his emerald hood and ruby face. I wanted to touch him. That’s not quite true, actually. What I wanted was to gather this bird in my arms and weep for all the wonders in the world, and for how lucky I am to be here, and because the living things in the world mean more to me than gold or fame or success or anything else. Instead I just went home.

On the way home, I counted the nuthatches in the trees. I love the gentle, little zipping sounds that they make. “Peep, peep, peep…” they call from the branches. Up the trunks they go, and then they creep down, face first. Gripping the strong bark with their little dinosaurian feet, finding insects and seeds to sustain themselves.

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How many seeds does a nuthatch eat in a lifetime? How many of these trees were home to their little hidden nests in the spring? How many of these little sisters live in my neighbourhood? “Peep, peep, peep…” they call from the branches and I felt connected and holy.

I don’t know what’s gotten into me today. Today I felt like a participant in the universe and not merely an observer. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older, or perhaps it is an accumulation of having made good choices for myself over the preceding years. Maybe it is a combination of these things. Maybe it is the shape of my lover in the doorway, or a growing awareness that I am doing what I am meant to be doing in the world. Whatever it was, I am keeping today. I am storing it up, canning it and putting it away on a shelf, like my Grandma does with pears every year. I will pray for more days like today.

November is not my favourite month of the year. There is the entirety of a long winter stretching out before us and we are well past the fire of summer and the warmth of autumn. November redeems itself, to some degree, by combining its chilling winds with beautiful, soft light. The juxtaposition of these two entities, muted light bending around trees and buildings and softly grey, pearly skies distilled on frosty mornings is curious and engaging. November, possibly, is a time for magic.

The ancient Celts certainly thought that it was. They venerated November 1st as a sacred day. It was believed to be the day of the year when the curtain between the realm of the dead and the realm of the living was at its most thin; there is a reason that “All Hallows Eve”, the night before November 1st, became an occasion for spells and ritual.

Here in the central parts of Canada, we do not have the beauty of autumn and winter flowering shrubs and perennials. No Arum italicum grows through the winter months in our climate, no witch hazel provides us with February blooms. Camellias are unknown to gardeners in these parts, there are no banks of heather or boughs of holly to be found here. If we are to enjoy these gems, we must travel to milder parts of the country. Winter comes to the prairies carrying a sharp blade. She is a hard mistress; her beauty is austere with jagged edges. This was always a harsh land; Canada was never anyone’s fool. Anyone who disrespected her rules died of frostbite and exposure. Winter is unapologetic here in her severity.

November is the month where I thus bow my head to the snow queen and her coming reign. In this month of preparing for wind and snow, I try to approach the coming days of ice and frost like a meditation. Like the perennials sleeping in my garden, I must find sanctuary and rest in the dark times. I must make peace with a now mostly colourless landscape. It was into these thoughts of approaching cold and inclement weather that an astonishing miracle occurred in my garden.

Yesterday, I arrived home in the middle of the afternoon to find a single, lavender- purple bud emerging proudly above the blanket of leaves in my woodland garden. “What sorcery is this!?!?” I asked out loud as I paused to investigate. An autumn flowering crocus has appeared and a brief examination of her surroundings has shown that she has companions soon to be emerging with her.

I always tell gardeners that there should always be something in the garden to look forward to, and that fortune favors the bold. One should experiment and try new things in the garden. Sometimes you lose, but it’s really exciting when you win. Autumn flowering crocuses are a big gamble in my part of the country. They are rarely encountered; indeed many gardeners here are quite surprised to learn that not all the crocus are spring bloomers.

The genus Crocus is placed within the iris family, Iridaceae. The vast majority of fall blooming crocus are not reliably hardy on the prairies and those that are worth trying are rarely available to gardeners unless you are willing to grow them from seed. (Luckily most crocus are easy from seed and will bloom in two to four years.)

Crocus speciosus is native to Turkey, Iran, and the Ukraine and is the one that has suddenly appeared in my garden. I planted the bulbs in early September; a cheap investment from a local box store. I did not have high expectations even though this is the one I have been most successful with in the past. It grows 6-7” tall ( which is tall for a crocus) and usually begins to flower in September. Blooms are rich violet to mauve or purple usually with dark veining and orange stigmas. There is also a white flowered form. The blooms are followed by interesting seedpods if they are not taken by frost first. I pretty much forgot about the fact that I had planted them when wonder of wonders…they appear! Here they are valiantly pushing their way up through their blanket of fallen leaves. All through the last two months while I have been wandering and writing and adventuring and gardening, those little crocus bulbs were rooting and establishing and preparing themselves. Now here they are. Perhaps they will be decimated by frost. Perhaps they will get a week of warm weather and produce a few blossoms. The important thing is…they provided a moment of astonishing magic at a moment when I was least expecting it. This is the great miracle of keeping a garden.

There are other fall blooming crocus I would like to try, but the one I covet most is Crocus caspius. It comes from the high mountains of Iran and has white flowers lightly brushed with lilac. It looks promising but I haven’t found it for sale anywhere yet.

Many people are surprised to learn that the saffron we have on our spice rack is derived from a crocus, and an autumn flowering crocus at that. Crocus sativus has large, lilac-coloured, fragrant flowers that appear anytime from September to November, with each plant flowering for as little as 10-14 days. They grow about 6-12” tall and they can eventually form large clumps. Saffron is native to Turkey and the middle east, but it has been cultivated for so long that it is no longer found in the wild. It favors well drained, sandy soil that is fertile but not too rich.

Grown and harvested for at least 3600 years, no one knows how saffron was discovered. The beautiful, thread-like red stigmas of the blossoms are dried and produce the cherished spice. We know that the Romans sprinkled saffron water on their cushions and benches and the wealthy also scented their bathwater with it. It was spoken of in the Bible as an item of luxury, and the Indians eagerly traded with the Persians for it; using it to produce a brilliant yellow dye that marked the highest caste of society. Tradition holds that Sir Thomas Smith risked his life to smuggle a single corm through Arab customs (hidden in his cane) and was thus the first person to bring saffron to England way back around 1330.

Saffron is used to flavor soups, sauces, stews, chutneys, rice, and even salads. One of the most expensive spices in the world, the short bloom time and the fact that even today they are harvested by hand means that saffron sells for an exorbitant price per pound. Fortunately, it is an extremely potent spice and only very tiny amounts are needed to go a very long way!

The saffron crocus is only hardy to zone 6 but does very well in pots and makes a lovely addition to a greenhouse or conservatory for October or November. I have grown it a few times and cherished its violet goblets of bloom on those grey November days.

The genus Colchicum is also called autumn crocus, but they are unrelated to the true crocuses. These plants are different enough to warrant being placed in their own family (Colchicaceae) and there are about 160 species, all native to cold parts of west Asia and Africa. They are really only hardy to about zone 4 or 5, but they are increasingly showing up in prairie garden centers. I have known them to sometimes survive here, but I do not know a single garden in my climate where they flourish. The coldest place I have seen them doing well is the Denver Botanical Garden, which is significantly south of here.

Most of the varieties grown in gardens are hybrids derived from Colchicum autumnale and Colchicum speciosum, with flowers ranging from white through pinks and purples. Blooms can be single or double. Grassy foliage emerges from the ground in spring and early summer, feeding the corms. (Or in some species, rhizomes.) The foliage soon withers and disappears. In fall, usually September or October, the blossoms emerge on bare stems and last for several weeks. They can be extremely beautiful, and look best when planted in mass. Colchicums like rich, moist soil and do best in a sunny spot, though they will also grow in the dappled light beneath deciduous trees. Well over 100 cultivars exist, and many have received the RHS award of merit. ‘Waterlily’ (enormous double pink), ‘Pink Goblet’, ‘Poseidon’ (purple-mauve) and ‘Alboplenum’ (white) are especially lovely. ‘Rosy Dawn’ has white throated, pink flowers that are beautifully scented. Often appearing in garden centers along with tulip and daffodil bulbs, colchicums will frequently flower right in their packages if not planted immediately.

It should be noted that colchicums are almost unbelievably poisonous, and the source of the drug Colchicine. This drug has been used medicinally for centuries and continues to this day, most notably for the treatment of gout. Colchicine poisoning has been compared to arsenic poisoning. Symptoms start 2 to 5 hours after the toxic dose has been ingested and include burning in the mouth and throat, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fever. It gets worse from there, and usually leads to hypovolemic shock, which can be fatal. In terms of gardening, Colchicine has also been used for an extremely unusual procedure- creating tetraploidy in desirable perennials. Most plants are diploids- meaning they have a set number of chromosomes in their cells. Tetraploids have double the normal number- tetraploid plants have larger, thicker flowers, usually more vigorous growth habits, stronger stems, better weather resistance, and often more brilliant colours. Bearded iris, hostas, lilies, and daylilies are all available at your favorite garden center in tetraploid versions. They are created by exposing the seedlings of desirable pairings to a Colchicine gas shortly after germinating. This kills about half of them, and doubles the chromosome count in the ones that live. It is basically a way of creating a desirable mutation. Tetraploid plants are infinitely garden worthy, and often sterile. How this procedure was discovered I don’t know, but I have grown a number of tetraploid cultivars and found them to be superb in every way.

The world is full of fascinating plants, seasons that go around in a continual circle, strange chemical procedures that verge on alchemy, and cloudy, silver hued days where lilac buds suddenly emerge from ground covered in dry leaves. I hope the frost doesn’t get my crocuses before they bloom. What a thrill it was to find a little garden magic at this time of the year.

Autumn is notably a time of harvest, and I came home from the farmer’s market today with a number of delicious things. Some fresh ‘McIntosh’ apples, some potatoes, some garlic, and an extremely beautiful French heirloom pumpkin. From the grocery store, I came home with an onion (which I meant to get from the market but somehow missed it) and a new spatula and a pomegranate. Glorious things happened in my kitchen after I got home. First, I made apple-cinnamon oatmeal cookies. The baby potatoes went into the slow cooker with some garlic and dill and Italian seasoning and olive oil and butter and some fresh oregano and that was that. David came over for supper and then we watched Stacy London’s ‘Love, Lust, or Run’ fashion show for a while because Stacy London is one of the most captivating and inspirational people of our time. David didn’t know who she was prior to today. Needless to say, David is now a fan of hers. Some of you might remember Stacy from the show she hosted with Clinton Kelly (‘What Not to Wear’) and I find a great many links between gardening and fashion. Clinton and Stacy always talked about colour, and how it affects mood, and sharp lines, and contrast, and softening things, and having a focal point, and really…there is a lot of co-relation between what people put in their gardens and what people put on their bodies. I always wanted to host a show called ‘What Not to Grow’ but none of the big networks have ever come around knocking on my door.

Anyway, my kitchen felt mystical and extraordinary today. There was gentle, gleaming light falling through my windows like spun gold. The immense bin of ‘McIntosh’ apples at the market all resplendent in greens and reds made me think of the northern lights in Saskatchewan winter skies. My magnificent pomegranate, the ancient fruit of matrimony and the sacred symbol of Hera (queen of the gods), was opened and eaten and acknowledged and savored. King Solomon carved pomegranates into the columns of his temple. Persephone ate those decadent crimson seeds in the underworld and thus became the bride of Hades. I love pomegranates. They are ancient and mysterious. They are also about as close as one can come to actually eating rubies. For thousands of years before I arrived on this planet, people were eating pomegranates. There are only two known species, and they are so unique in the plant kingdom that for decades they comprised their own family. DNA analysis suggests they are in fact related to purple loosestrife (Lythrum); something I would not have expected. Plants are full of surprises.

Recently, my lovely friend Karen lent me the book ‘The Enchanted Life’ by Sharon Blackie. It’s a fabulous book about how we can go about making our existence a little more fun, a little more remarkable, and maybe even… enchanted. I would recommend this book. She talks about the magic of everyday things and objects and encounters. I have been hugging trees and talking to birds and engaging with mountains and landscapes for as long as I can remember. These are all things she suggests doing (in a serious way, don’t laugh) to live a more exceptional life. Who would have guessed that I had been making the right choices all along? I thought about this book today as I pondered my distinguished pumpkin.

I have been a devotee of pumpkins and squash for some time now and there is an acclaimed French cultivar that I have held much affection for since I first discovered it about 10 years ago. ‘Rouge Vi Di’Etamps’ was introduced to North America in the 1880’s, but was grown in France for decades prior to that. It is a smooth, vividly reddish-orange pumpkin distinctly ribbed and much wider than it is tall. They have sort of a flattened shape to them, but this is not unattractive. The fruit is quite large (up to 15 lbs) with moist, dense orange flesh perfect for baking. It’s not the most productive variety and it needs a long season (115-120 days) but when it does well, it’s a splendid thing indeed. So striking is this pumpkin as I sit here looking at it that I half expect it to turn into Cinderella’s carriage at the stroke of midnight. It could carry me off to a ball, I suppose, if I were into that sort of thing. The fact that this pumpkin was locally grown by people that I actually know and am friends with makes it even better. I know where this pumpkin spent its summer, drinking the rain and spreading her vines out under the sunshine. I know the fertile Alberta soil that nourished her. “I knew her when she was but a seed!” my friend Jodie might well have said to me. I am going to keep my pumpkin for a while, until I decide what sort of recipe she should be ensconced in.

Finally, the big surprise of the day is that my amaryllis is showing just the tiniest sign of life. I am so excited! Now, I have to tell you about this amaryllis. The beautiful, large flowered bulb that so many of us grow in our homes in the winter months that we call amaryllis is not, actually, amaryllis. It is actually Hippeastrum. Well, it is now, anyway. Once upon a time, there were many species of amaryllis. Most had been unceremoniously dumped into the lily family, but eventually the botanists started sorting things out and when they were well and truly finished (if ever they are), only one true species of amaryllis remained. This is Amaryllis belladonna, sometimes called the naked lady lily.

This name alludes to the fact that the flowers appear on bare stems with no foliage present; they are naked, as it were. The Latin name honors a gorgeous young shepherdess in Greek mythology who features prominently in the writings of the poet Virgil.
Native to South Africa, the naked lady is hardy to about zone 5. It can, however, be easily grown in pots and is quite beautiful. Flowering in late summer through fall, this plant produces 24” stems of trumpet shaped flowers ranging from pale pink to deep magenta in color. They are mildly scented, and the late British gardening authority Christopher Lloyd once wrote of them as “smelling of cheap sweets.” About six weeks after flowering is finished, the leaves emerge. These feed the bulb into mid spring and then they vanish, resulting in a need to mark the spot or pot where they are planted! They can be kept in a cool greenhouse for winter and although they will survive a light frost, it isn’t recommended. They should be grown in a sunny site with good drainage and never watered when they are dormant- this is generally fatal to them. Warm, dry summers and cool winters suit them best. A few cultivars have been introduced, but the plain species is fine for most people. They can be propagated by fresh seed or division, but they tend to be resentful of disturbance. Other than that, they are long lived and low maintenance.

Anyway, so that’s the amaryllis I’m talking about. A local garden center had the bulbs for sale this spring, which I thought was weirdly out of season for this species, but never the less, I bought a bulb and took it home and planted it in a small pot. I tried watering it a few times to see if it would grow. It didn’t. It just sat there. I checked to see if there were roots coming out of the drain holes at the bottom of the pot. There weren’t. I got busy, and the amaryllis was left to its own devices, and eventually I put it away in my cupboard. I decided if it wants a dry season, it can have one. I didn’t water it for months. In late August, I got it out again. I started watering it. Nothing happened. Nothing at all. In mid September, I was actually going to throw it away but the bulb still seemed solid and by now, there were roots coming out the bottom of the pot. I put it outside for a few weeks, since September was warm. Then I brought it back in. I watered it again. I spoke to the bulb. I told her that I was in no hurry, that she should follow no schedule but her own. I told her that she could do things in her own time, and that she was appreciated and loved. I asked her if I could get her anything. She has a sunny windowsill here, and she is sitting next to a bouquet of dried Silene seedpods and a variegated weeping fig and a little 4” pot of fall blooming crocus. She seemed content enough. I went about my day. “The bulb will wake up when she is ready”, I told myself, “and not a moment before.” My kitchen was radiant with a kind of wizardry today; a haze of love and sunshine and produce and contentment. Attuned to this, at the end of the day, there is the tiniest green shoot now emerging from the tip of the bulb.

When I was a very little boy, I found a small space in between our two barns where the grass grew very tall (or so it seemed to me) and I would sometimes slip away and lie down there and feel the green under me and look up at the sky. I don’t know how many times I did this, but often enough that at the age of 37, I still smile when I think about my six year old self finding this “other world” where I could hide and play and be alone. This was the first space that I ever recognized as “sacred”.

What exactly is a sacred space? It can be many things to many different people, and it can be something broad in scope like “the prairies” or an “ecosystem” or something much smaller and more personal, such as a bookshelf or a hidden drawer in a beautiful old writing desk. I have spent much of my adult life creating “sacred spaces” for people, for that is truly what a garden is. I imagine there is probably a more clinical definition than what I am about to offer here, but to me, it is a space where we honour and pay respect either to a higher version of ourselves, or to smaller and less visible lives than our own (such as the insects in a flower border) and where we stop and hold ourselves to a different and more gracious mode of behavior. Churches are sacred for many people, as are cemeteries. Some of us would be more comfortable with stone circles and medicine wheels. The universe is not concerned with what space you adopt, of this I feel quite confident. What matters is that in a sacred space, you have a sense of entering in, and a feeling that you have arrived somewhere that is somehow removed from where you have been.

My main project for October is working on the lights crew at the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden here in Lethbridge. Nikka Yuko is most assuredly a sacred space. The annual winter lights festival (which opens in early December) is a visual feast of beauty and creativity, with hundreds of thousands of (Christmas) lights wrapped around every tree and bridge and pathway. It is a great deal of work to put together, and a great deal of work to dismantle it when the season passes. It is also sublime and transcendent and fabulous and worth doing. October can be frosty and cold on the prairies, with snow or biting winds or driving rain or all of these things. For the last two days, we have been blessed with beautiful sunny weather, an absence of wind, and a sky so blue I can practically taste it. The garden is closed to the public at this time of year, so it is only us as we measure and unpack and secure the lights. I have been struck, over and over again, by the profound beauty of Nikka Yuko as I go about my work day. I feel, nearly every minute of the day, that I am walking somewhere important and special and set apart. I think about the number of tourist feet that have walked these paths, and the number of locals who have come back again and again. (I am one of them.) I have thought today about all the souls who I have spoken to as I have conducted tours of this garden. I wonder how many of them have visited this garden in their mind long after they have returned to their homes. It is extraordinary what can happen in a garden. It is also worth paying attention when one happens to be there during the day and is mostly alone. One can easily be distracted. (*I’ll attach a few photos from earlier in the season for those who haven’t visited here before.)

Right now, the garden is full of birds. There are birds everywhere. Great scoldings of jays are flitting through the tops of the spruce trees at any given moment and always cackling or screeching or shrieking their little blue heads off. They come down to the water to drink frequently, and I am charmed by their brilliant colour and jaunty little crests. There are juncos and sparrows going about their day, and task-oriented little nuthatches that patrol up and down the trunks of the pines. Chickadees are calling and if ever there were a little bird that I would like to be friends with, it is these little black-capped cuties. They are curious and quick, getting on with their day and apparently happy about it. Magpies with their iridescent tail feathers glide from one branch to another, sometimes bickering with the jays. Flickers are patrolling the grassy knolls and I noticed today it was even warm enough for a few late season honeybees to be out foraging. The yellow potentillas are still blooming, and seem to be offering the bees a last little sip from the goblet of summer.

There is so much beauty in the garden right now that it almost stops my heart. Nikka Yuko is beautiful on any day of the year, but the Scotch pines are verily glowing with that Autumn sun on their coppery coloured bark. The moss that prevails in damp corners offers its emerald self to the world and all who pass by. Whenever it is convenient (and sometimes when it is not) I like to reach down and touch it. It is soft and yielding and ancient, and I like that. “The dinosaurs knew your grandparents”, I said to the moss this morning and I feel reasonably sure that the moss enjoyed hearing this. The Amur maples, now leafless for the year, have surprised me with the way that their abundant seeds catch the light and tremble in the lightest breeze. How pretty they are, if not necessarily flashy. The ornamental crabapples are ornamental indeed. Their beautiful shapes are more obvious now, with one trunk bending this way and another that way. They are heavily laden with glorious fruit that is a bit larger than a marble, some brilliant ruby red and others blushed orange or yellow.

I’m supposed to be at work; this environment is my “office” for the next few weeks. My job is to make the garden even more beautiful, and for the life of me, I can’t imagine how that could be possible.

Outside my window, the October sun is making a concerted effort to illuminate my kitchen. It is very quiet and peaceful in here. I am still in my pajamas and it is nearly noon. This doesn’t happen very often. September was extraordinarily busy but I really didn’t mind. I had no shortage of tasks that required my attention but I also didn’t feel overwhelmed, which is a nice balance to achieve. This might be the first quiet afternoon I’ve had in a month. A thick blanket of snow covers the garden and I am so glad I made the effort to pile as many leaves as possible into my woodland before it arrived.

The autumn colour this year has been nothing short of spectacular. Some years you get a good show in fall and some years you don’t. This was an exceptional year. Yesterday I was mentally calculating the number of species of trees in glorious fall raiment and it was well over a dozen. Each kind of tree seemed determine to outshine the others. I kept taking photos but the pictures did not seem to adequately capture how the light bends around them, or that inner glow that each tree was radiating. My street is lined with American elms. How lucky we are to have them, when Dutch elm disease wiped them out in so many parts of the continent. They have been burning with an enduring gold for nearly a month now. Birch and larch, crabapple and ash, linden and aspen have also been wearing party dresses in every conceivable shade that yellow is available in. Every day has been a visual feast. I never tire of looking. I never tire of drinking in all this splendor, of marveling at what trees do. Autumn is a gala event, and every tree and shrub is in attendance.

The shrubs have been a revelation. Double flowering plums are wearing warm shades of orange this year. The Ohio buckeyes- not always a sure thing with fall colour- have been wearing rusty reds and burnt sienna tones. Sandcherries and Preston lilacs are decked out in deep plum purples. Cotoneaster is wearing all the fall colours at once. The maples have been nothing short of extraordinary and there are so many kinds. Amur maples and Tatarian maples and sugar maples and Norway maples are wearing evening gowns of red and orange and straw yellow. A young scarlet oak, an unusual tree in my climate, grows in the park across the street from me. She wore lipstick red to this year’s event and I might not have even known about her otherwise. She was so colourful I had to go over there and investigate. Every mountain ash in my neighbourhood is wearing garlands of crimson or pumpkin-orange fruit and lustrous vermillion or tangerine foliage. Every walk I take, every street corner I stop at, offers something delicious for the heart and mind, and working as the supporting cast are all the pines and spruce and junipers and cedars.

Conifers do the heavy lifting when it comes to offering colour in the winter months but right now, the deciduous trees are hitting every note perfectly. Down in the river valley, the cottonwoods and chokecherries have collaborated to create vivid canopies of gold and ruby and the dark, mysterious fruits on the cherries reminds me of costume jewelry. I am madly, deeply in love with autumn. People who dislike the fall are curious to me. Do they not see what I see when they step out their door? I think now we are at an intermission. I have emptied the rain barrels, I have put many of the tools and equipment away for the year. The snow, I am confident, will melt. October usually offers its fair share of warm days as well as cold. I have stocked up on coffee and I have dug out my collection of fashionable scarves for the cold days ahead. The light is softening and dimming, slowly but surely.

I am planning ahead. I have a number of speaking engagements coming up, including one which I am working on today. My parents will be here for Thanksgiving, so I need to go grocery shopping and get out some of my cookbooks. I brought some ‘Bosc’ pears home from the farmer’s market on Saturday. Julia Child adored this variety and Martha Stewart called it “the aristocrat of pears.” They have warm brown skin and firm, crisp flesh. They hold up gorgeously for baking and their sweet flavor is exceptional. Their accolades are well deserved. I am thinking I might make a pear tart. I am not adventurous enough to try Martha’s poached pear recipe (at least not yet) but perhaps when I feel braver I will tackle it. I have some beautiful pumpkins on my counter that my friend Shelly grew, and I haven’t yet decided what to turn them into. Right now, they are merely objects of beauty, sitting here near me and offering up their sumptuous curves. How phenomenal that a plant took sunshine and compost and returned it to me as these alluring amber-coloured orbs.

Earlier this year, I joined the Pacific Bulb Society. I felt like this would be a good group of people to have in my corner, for questions that I cannot answer and possibly to trade seeds and bulbs with. For years I have wanted to grow the amazing Canada lily (Lilium canadense) and a kindly gentleman in Ontario has harvested some seed for me. I am checking my mailbox every single day to see if my seeds are here yet! I also gathered seed last week from martagon lilies in a friend’s garden. The bulbs are rather expensive, and I want a large quantity of them, so seed is the best way to do that. I don’t care if they don’t flower for four or five years and I have really no idea what colour they will turn out to be. I don’t really care, either. (The parent plants are white and several shades of pink.) There is a section near my bedroom window where it is shady and private and I look out at…a fence. It is very uninteresting. I would like to make a stone circle with perhaps a bird bath in the center, and surround it with martagon lilies and ferns. I am not going for complexity here, I want something very simple and elegant. “There is beauty in simplicity”, a Japanese friend tells me. I think he is right. The sun is breaking through now and it is quiet and lovely here by myself. One of Christopher Lloyd’s gardening books (well worn, I might add) sits here beside me. Perhaps I will put off working on this presentation and doing the grocery shopping and just read instead. Beauty in simplicity indeed.