I call them flower portraits.
I've been a landscape gardener in Berkeley, California for the past three years. I can't imagine living in a city without it, not just because we humans need to touch the real, live earth from time to time, but also because the plant landscape has become a surprisingly dominant feature of my urban experience. I know more about the plants I walk past every day than I know about the people inside the buildings beside those plants. I can hardly take a stroll with a friend through my neighborhood without interrupting our conversation with, "Look at that marvelous Echium over there – finally blooming!" or, "What sweet California poppies! Aren't they early this year?" (Now I even add insult to the injury of interrupting whatever my dear friend was saying by pulling out my camera and lovingly snapping a few shots of that marvelous Echium and those perfect California poppies.)
You'd never guess how international and otherworldly your city is until you meet some of the plants people have tucked away in their back yards: Leucadendron from South Africa, Grevillea from Australia, Agave from Mexico, Citrus from Southeast Asia. Some plants have giant, shining, emerald leaves that look like what I'd expect a dinosaur to nibble on for its midday snack; other plants take me back to some of the more pleasant worlds my family used to visit when we watched Star Trek together.
In my years of landscape gardening, many plants have become my friends. Some I transplanted into the ground from four-inch pots and I have watched them grow into shrubs. Some didn't bloom last year because they weren't established enough to spend energy on flowering, but they're blooming now that they've had many months to root and strengthen. Some plants I don't even especially like, but I've known them to be in their place for so long that they feel like the neighbors you don't know very well, but you still smile, wave, and say, "How are ya?" to them when you pass them on the sidewalk.
City plants come with people. Each yard has someone living with it. My favorites are the little old ladies who are almost entirely blind and worry you by nearly tripping over the garden hose they couldn't see, yet somehow they manage to climb through their gardens like mountain goats and will most certainly chat your ear off until tomorrow about the plants they've known and loved for years that they've now asked you to care for. You have become the eyes they must use to see their plant friends. But not being able to see for themselves has in no way diminished their adoration of their gardens. Those gardens that they've planted and pruned and watered and fertilized and nurtured to maturity now cradle their spirits in strong boughs – spirits as green and light as spring leaves in the breeze.
Those flower portraits. . . they're not just of flowers.
Happy Earth Week.