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Chapter 27: Never in Captivity

It’s snowing. The gate is open. The parking lot is a solid sheet of ice. My car sashays to a stop just short of ploughing into the garden centre. Inside the house, it’s snug and warm. It’s a week before Christmas and the Christmas cactus by the door is right on cue, a cascade of deep pink pendulous blooms. “It’s been in the family almost 100 years,” Keith says, given to his mother, Harriet Henry Goldring, as a wedding present in 1914. The original died in the move from Brampton. This one is a cutting taking 15 years ago from cuttings another family member had taken some time earlier. It’s large – a couple of feet across. How big was the parent plant? Carolyn spreads her arms. “The big one, I remember picking up the spent blooms one spring – because it used to flower at Easter – I stopped counting at 600. It was huge. It lived on a wicker stand that belonged to Keith’s mom.”

The last time I phoned, they were at the end of their tether, day after day all through November struggling to get the huge sheets of plastic onto the hoop houses. “We are exhausted,” Carolyn told me. “We’ll just sit down in front of the television, Keith has a cat on his lap, I have a cat on my lap, and we sleep.”

Now, they’ve recovered. And how. They were out Saturday, burning the midnight oil at an Etobicoke church hall function. “We both felt better after a night of square-dancing,” Keith says. “It is my other life, I am a professional square-dance caller. I thought we’d be home by 10 but we were having so much fun we didn’t get home until midnight, one o’clock.”

Catalogues and reference books are scattered all over the place. “I had to put some of the books away so there’d be a place for you to sit,” Carolyn says.

“We’ve been sitting here for weeks,” Keith says.

The faithful standbys are at hand, after having spent the summer months on the shelves – the tattered copy of Hilliers Manual of Trees and Shrubs, the fourth-edition Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening, Ingwerson’s Manual of Alpine Plants. Another valued reference book: the Bernard E. Harkness Seedlist Handbook, which combines the lists of the three major alpine seed exchanges – the Alpine Garden Society, the Scottish Rock Garden Club, and the North American Rock Garden Society – and gives brief details of what the plant is like and where it’s from.

“He got tired of doing what we’re doing – he’d have 50 reference books around him when he started going through a seed list,” Carolyn says.

Carolyn shows me the Alpine Garden Society’s September journal – the Tibet special “He”- she means Keith – “fell in love with a plant that’s in here – oh, a yellow Incarvillea. Usually it’s pink, and we have introduced a couple of white ones.”

Keith turns the page to show me the pictures of the Society’s expedition into the Himalayas. “This is the view outside their tent.” An endless expanse of rock and rubble - Keith’s preferred landscape. And dotted around the bleak grey expanse, little white cushions of flower: Androsace tapete. Delicate and jewel-like… Out of this world.

“This is a plant that they are interested in. This is it growing,” he says in admiration. “There’s nothing else on that blasted piece of rock.” Keith muses about the chances of getting some seed, “bringing that plant here and feeling I’m very lucky if I can grow it here."

“He makes a list as he reads and gives it to me,” Carolyn says. The crumpled piece of paper written in a spidery hand pile up on the corner of his “desk,” a small fold-up table by his reclining chair in front of the TV.

“They discovered a new Meconopsis,” he adds excitedly. Meconopsis are a species of poppy from the Himalayas – Meconopsis grandis, a blue poppy, is one of the best known and fiendishly difficult to grow from seed. The new one is a deep red. Oh red! I exclaim, enthused.

Then I consider that most poppies are red, so the breakthrough doesn’t seem quite as exciting as it might be. That’s clearly not Keith’s view. “The possibilities for hybridizing are unbelievable,” he says. “Here’s an interesting one.” He points to a picture of a square plant. No other way to describe it. It’s a cluster of green squares on an outcrop of fractured square rocks, with a brilliant blue flower. Gentiana urnala. A whole new perspective on what a plant can be. “It’s taking the blinkers off,” Keith explains. “I tell people that’s what I’m trying to do here. It’s not the plant that makes it what it is, it’s the flower. You’re constantly running into this. Viola. ‘Oh yeah, I have it.’ I say, ‘Okay, here’s 145 of them Which one do you have?’ Foxglove. ‘I have it.’ They think they’re all up to here (he indicates shoulder high) and they’re all pink. No, they’re not. Unbelievable!

“Speaking of unbelievable, look at this.” He shows me the cover of the June AGS journal. A fat cream spike edged by fan-shaped leaves at the bottom, alone in a rocky mountain landscape. Rheum Nobile. Rhubarb? Yes, indeed. “It takes three to five years to flower in its native habitat,” Keith says. “In captivity – never. It’s next to impossible to grow commercially, you never see it in any list anywhere.

“That’s why I’m building up this list on a computer.” The computer rearranges the list alphabetically, he explains as if he has discovered an obscure function. “Then I can find it easily. I actually have a use for a computer!” he pronounces triumphantly and then, in an unexpected reversal back to our earlier conversation, warns: “You have to watch out for the drunken Tibetan women.”

Yes, it appears this was a problem during the Alpine Garden Society’s Tibet expedition. Keith shows me the picture of a circle of women in among the tents and, according to the text in this scholarly journal, they were so disorderly that the botanists had to vacate the camp and lurk around in the rocks until the inebriated ladies got tired and went home. Plant collecting – not for the faint of heart.

The Squires have got their main order in. The alpine catalogue arrived Nov 30 and the order was dispatched last week.

“That’s a lot of propagating,” I say, looking at Carolyn’s carefully laid out lists, and thinking of the stuffed hoop houses.

“That’s what we do,” Keith says. “We introduce between 50 and 150 new species a year.”

“When you sow seed, do you get 100 per cent germination?” Carolyn asks, noticing my dubious look.

“Well, no.”

“I rest my case,” she says.

:Number 9 House, half of it is just seed waiting for it to do something for years,” Keith says. “These days I don’t wait longer than three years, I haven’t got the room.”

“But even if it does germinate, then it has to go through at least three years of growing it and watching it,” Carolyn adds. “It’s not going to be the same as it is in Iran or the same as it is in England.”

“We get information in here that most of the time is nowhere near accurate,” Keith says. “One book says it, and then the writer of the next book says that must be right, I looked it up. And so it goes on into multiple publications, each one stealing from the last.

“The labels are highly inaccurate. I’ve corrected posters for companies that are selling plants, I try to tell them, you’re in Canada, you’re not in the United States, that‘s not what the plant does in Canada. They say six or eight or twelve inches, in Canada, it’s two feet because we’ve got this tremendous sun here - one day, we’re wearing long johns, the next day we’re all looking for shorts.

“England has four months on a long slow rise in temperature. Here, you’re looking at 48 hours. There, spring is in February and it’s still there in March and it’s still there in April. We get spring on April 20th and everything is jumping and hopping because it’s here, it’s arrived, no ifs, ands or buts, it’s a rollover, it’s almost an immediate thing. In Europe, especially England, the British Isles, they don’t get that. As a result something coming through the ground can be three times the height it is there.”

He mimics a British horticulturalist’s pinched vowels. “’Oh no, it would never get that high.’ Well, it does in this climate, because it’s got this tremendous pull, it’s coming out of the ground, it’s 25 degrees Celsius.” He chortles. “Yeah. It’s got heat and sun yanking it out of the ground.”

Keith explains that information about hardiness is increasingly unreliable because English and European growers are geared to the US where climate conditions are completely different. Zones don’t mean anything, he adds dismissively.

“I’m going through four or five catalogues, each one of them has 4,000 or 5,000 species in it,” he says. “You have to be extremely careful not to order stuff that won’t make it through our winters. That’s why everything has to be so carefully checked and cross-referenced. If a plant’s from Africa or South America I’m extremely reluctant to try it.”

Why?

“Southern hemisphere. There isn’t one in 20 of them that will survive. But a lot of southern hemisphere plants are being grown above the equator now because in the UK, people have taken to greenhouse-growing. This is the problem I’m having now with the societies, we’re getting all kinds of plant material in catalogues that isn’t hardy – because people have a greenhouse. It takes days longer to go through a catalogue now you’re getting into all this stuff they’re pampering and putting in a greenhouse. It’s not hardy in Canada, what do they care.”

A lot of the seed comes with complicated instructions – cover with glass is a common one. “We don’t follow that,” Carolyn says.

“We’re trying to put it through the wringer,” Keith says. “We’re going to try and kill it. In a mild way, not vicious,” he adds hastily. “We’re going to find out whether it’s going to grow in Sudbury or Edmonton or New Brunswick.”

“It’s interesting to see where they say it needs to grow,” Carolyn says.

“We have a better climate here than in England,” Keith says. “The plants are under snow. It’s winter protection. That’s why we can grow thousands more than they can. They get uptight about it when I tell them. Then I put my catalogue down.” He chortles at the thought of how many plants he has listed.

Carolyn has got her Port Merion plates out for lunch – my favourite pattern, I exclaim in delight. “When we move into the house, this will be for every day,” she says. “I have Royal Doulton and Minton for special occasions - my mother’s Minton, and my own Royal Doulton that I started collecting years ago.”

Carolyn is quite the grande dame. I can imagine her entertaining in style, but here she is cooped up in a section of what used to be the bulb storage house, with a home numbered and stacked in the basement below. She never complains, but occasionally a hint will drop. “I’ll be getting a new countertop stove when I get my new house,” she says one day. “We’re saving for it.”

Because of course, they won’t be buying anything on credit.

Carolyn serves up some pie. “Ice cream or whipped cream?”

“Whipped cream,” Keith says, “the kind you can stand your spoon up in.”

“He has high standards,” she smiles.

So, what didn’t get done?

“Soil,” Keith says. “We don’t have any soil.”

The soil will be needed for March when everything starts up again - and suddenly that doesn’t seem that far off.

“I usually have it done before Christmas. I’ll have to fight my way in through the frost into the pile of dirt. Inside it won’t be frozen. Usually at this time I have three bins full. The finished soil is full to capacity. The bin mixed up and ready to be processed is full. The bin with soil to go through to be mixed up is full.”

And now?

“Each one is 30 to 40 per cent full. That’s why the greenhouse men use the mix – light and easy and the girls in the garden centre can lift the pots. But it’s the worst possible thing that could happen to a plant.”

Lunch is over and the cats have stopped watching us for any stray titbits. They curl up together on a chair, looking quite adorable in each other’s arms.

“That’s something we’ve been waiting for,” Keith says, “instead of them whacking at each other and hissing. They are as different as night and day – and Mom has had quite a few hard knocks in her life, being thrown out of a car and having to get along before we got her. The kid has had it easy.” He laughs. “Like kids these days and their grandmothers.”

The light from the floor to ceiling window on the south side is filtered by the plastic that’s stretched over the front of the house. In winter, you can’t see out except from the window that opens onto the garden centre. One half of the front is the kitchen area, the other is Keith’s office where a collection of warm and contented plants are putting out bloom.

“This is a surprise,” Carolyn shows me. “It’s a Dracaena” A familiar indoors plant, with sword-like leaves, has sent a central stem up six feet, and there’s a beautiful cluster of white flowers.at the top.

“I’ve never seen a Dracaena flower before,” Keith says.

“The surprising thing is that it sends out its scent at night,” Carolyn says.

“I checked a couple of weeks ago,” Keith says, “I thought it would be fragrant, but no. That was during the daytime. Then we noticed a fragrance in the room at night and tracked it to the Dracaena.”

“It’s always a surprise when something you’ve had as a green plant produces a flower.”

Chapter 28: That's It