My mother spent a lot of time outdoors in the last years of her life, which ended in 1985. She tilled the backyard into an organic vegetable garden. She cultivated the south side of the house with tomatoes. She coaxed roses to bloom even in the unbearable St. Louis heat and pruned the lilac bush into a lovely shape. But as far as I know, she never owned a gardenia bush.
She loved gardenias. When I was in sixth or seventh grade, my brother Mark and I pooled our allowances to buy Mom a gardenia for Mother’s Day from the florist by our church. A single gardenia with three vibrant leaves and a florist’s pin cost $8.00. We walked all the way home on Saturday with Mark gently cradling the florist’s box in his arms. She cried when she opened the lid. She wore the flower to Mass, pinned on the lapel of her jacket.
I tried to keep a gardenia alive on my porch in Kansas City. It lasted just a few weeks, during a time when my life itself had begun to disintegrate. In the intervening seven years, I’ve held that pathetic plant in my heart. I yearned for the sight of blooms that never emerged from its withered stems, for the heady scent of those absent flowers. I lamented the thought that my mother would have been so pleased with the potential of its beauty.
This spring, I decided to risk acquiring a gardenia from a nursery in Lodi. With a Japanese maple, I brought the tall gardenia bush to the tiny deck of my tiny house here in the Delta. I repotted the thing in a large clay pot sold to me by the manager of the nursery, using the soil which I’d be directed to buy enriched with the kind of additive that I had been directed to include with my purchase. I spent a total of $225.00 that day, for the two plants, the dirt, the pots, and the plant food. I closed my eyes and handed over my credit card, hoping that I would not regret my extravagance.
Within a week, the Japanese maple unfurled its tender leaves. The gardenia, on the other hand, went from lush to limp and eventually, all of its buds turned brown and dropped to the ground, unceremoniously followed by its yellowing leaves.
The nursery staff advanced conflicting theories. One person said too much light and not enough water. Another guessed too much water and not enough light. A third recommended neem oil. I took to the internet and learned that gardenias can suffer from mineral deficiency. The Google goddesses recommended Epsom salt. A neighbor cautioned that our treated water might be too harsh for the gardenia. I bought ten gallons of bottled water at a buck each and spiked the lot with two tablespoons of Epsom salt. Thus began my quest to save Lucy’s flower.
My neighbor Barb came over and moved the plant to a sunnier spot, a place from which it would get morning light but dappled shade in the heat of the afternoon. I forged ahead with the mineral drinks, and began watering with the park’s irrigation system as well, river water run-off with its natural organic material.
Slowly the bush came to life. Buds emerged. New growth pushed healthy leaves from its lengthening branches. One day I came home from work to see five blooms opened on the lower third. Eventually the entire plant bore the delicate, fragrant flowers. Now I walk past it every morning and again each evening. On weekends, I sit on my porch and smile at the sight of its burgeoning life. I do not know how to keep this radiant flora healthy over the rainy months. But I will learn. My mother told me once that I should never despair of finding my way, because where there is life, there is room for improvement. A wise woman, my mother; with excellent taste in flowers.
It’s the third day of the ninety-first month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.