These are the things my garden told me.
My grandmother loved roses.
She grew hybrid teas, painstakingly fussing over them as they lay sickly in the tropical heat, bearing a handful of pale, anaemic flowers, ant nests between their roots. I hated them. I could not understand her affection when bougainvillea bloomed brightly bacchanalian nearby.
My grandmother loved Yardley’s English Lavender Water. She sprinkled it on her embroidered, white cotton handkerchiefs, and patted it on her bosom and brow at the peak of the day’s heat. It was cooling, she said. You need cooling, she said.
My grandmother was of the Windrush generation. She was firmly, proudly Anglophile, adored her too infrequent visits to the Mother Country where many of her sisters had followed the call for skilled workers in the post-war years, yet she had remained. I was not wisely curious enough to question why in those days, but I sensed her frustration, her desire to flee this tropical colonial paradise island.
Lavender swathes my front door now. I pick a sprig and put it in my pot of garden tea in these days of summer heat. The astringent taste is cooling, it calms and clears my mind, and I welcome it. I go in and out the front door on my daily errands, brush against the flowers and in the waft of their perfume I think of her.
Next to the lavender was a dying garrya elliptica. I watched it brown over the months after our arrival here, until I was certain of its fate, then asked my husband to remove it. I followed my car’s satnav to the nearest garden centre, walked the aisles of uninspiring late winter displays until I saw what I had not known I was looking for. Daphne Odora Aureomarginata, that queen of winter flowering scented shrubs. I buy one, return home, carefully plant it in the hole left next to the front gate, imagining the pleasure it will bring me in years to come in those greyest, wettest, most dismally English days of my birth month. It feels important to place it there.
I begin to tackle this new, rather neglected garden of mine, beginning with the weeds. I am following a bindweed root along the base of the beech hedge, concentrating with the gentle force needed to tease it out intact, when something rakes my arm, draws blood. I look in surprise at a rose buried deep in the hedge. She must have been magnificent once, originally planted when the hedge was a mere line of young whips, now buried in its exuberant growth. I note her presence, mulch her, she bears a single, magnificent bloom when the lavender comes into bud in the summer. I resolve to move her to a more fitting location in autumn.
With the summer in my most English of gardens arrives a riot of colour. A mallow tree bears an unending cascade of hot pink hollyhock flowers and for the first time I see how they remind me of hibiscus. Bright red crocosmia fly above the patio steps like exotic birds, gentian mounds of geraniums reflect the tropical sky, a wall of dancing fuchsia penstemon rivals any carnival display. I feel at home. I think my grandmother would have loved it here.
My mother calls me, tells me that a cousin has been looking into the family history, between there and England. She wants to know everyone’s full names to complete her research. I learn for the first time that my grandmother’s middle name was Daphne. I catch my breath.
Roses and lavender and Daphne. My tropical grandmother lives in my English garden.
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