Since a dear friend died too soon last summer after a years-long struggle with cancer, I’ve looked for her in plants with an idea in mind of creating a memorial garden.
Making these connections with life and death through plants feels natural after participating in the seasonal cycle in the garden for so many years. Watching and guiding fresh shoots and new growth, and then the flush of blooms at their peak, followed by a gradual release and dormancy, is like a cycle of grief, too. I’m finally ready, almost a year after my friend died, to bring these thoughts together.
For my friend, Sara, a strong, vibrant personality, I thought about plants that would evoke her qualities, maybe even make me laugh, as she did all the time. We met during college in Colorado and it was true friend love from the beginning. We shared a birthday, were pursuing similar courses of study, and had other common interests, including hating many of the same things, but we were also living our lives very differently. Mostly it was what makes all great friendships work — enough connection, attention and care to last for decades.
Here I’ll share my design criteria for plants that evoke my friend’s spirit. Since I’m choosing a range of plants that like different growing conditions, I envision them being worked into the landscape and not placed together in one spot.
A big, strong plant because that’s who she was.
I see a cluster of tall sunflowers here. I used to grow them in pots on a roof when I lived in Brooklyn and I’m imagining one like that. The plant is reaching for the sun and following its heat and light throughout the day. The stalk is too sturdy to break. When its season is finished, the birds will enjoy its seeds.
A plant that knows who it is and doesn’t care if you get it.
This is definitely Joe pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum). This tall, native perennial has been gushed over in this column for years. Flower heads top 6-foot stalks with clusters of shaggy, purple florets and are covered with visiting pollinators. People tend to complain that Joe pye weed gets too tall or grows too big, but it doesn’t need anyone’s approval and keeps growing and being lovely without you.
A plant that lights up the darkness.
Black cohosh (Actaea racemose) grows in full shade and has lovely white blooms. That could be any number of plants. What makes this one different is its size. Growing up to 6 feet, it is majestic, with feathery foliage and gently curving, spire-like blooms made up of tiny clusters.
Astrology and other spiritual practices were important to her. As a sister Leo, I think there must be plants that are radiant in late July.
This is challenging because there are many possibilities. I’m going with bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) for its beauty and grace in the garden. The delicate and dense pinkish, lavender flowers top four-sided stems cradled by whorls of leaves. The leaves can be made into tea, which she loved.
Can a plant be funny? Sure, it can. I’m looking for darkness to express her dark sense of humor.
Although it’s an annual, jewel weed (Impatiens capensis) is adept at ensuring future generations by spitting its seeds as a means of dispersal. It is known commonly as “touch me not” because, after its showy orange flowers finish blooming, they become explosive seedpods that burst upon contact.
The plant needs to be gorgeous, but not showy for the sake of prettiness. It is multifaceted.
Blue vervain (Verbena hastate) stands out for its lovely blueish purple flowers that draw you into taking a closer look. Standing 4 feet high, the graceful spires have blooms that open slowly and not all at once. I like to mix it with tall perennials that have yellow blooms to deepen the contrast. It is beloved by many pollinators, including cuckoo bees and halictid bees.