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Beautiful in Death 2

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In the midst of teeming life in a summer garden, I’m taking a moment for death. If there’s anything gardening teaches us, it’s that we can’t nourish new life without some kind of death. Heck, we can learn that from the dead, rotting things in our compost, which turn into the best soil you can get.

But death isn’t just beautiful for what it does for the next generation: it can also be beautiful in itself. The last petal of Apricot Beauty, at the top of this page, can still give me a thrill, different in nature from the unfurling buds and full, fleshed-out flowers, but a quiver that goes as deep into my soul.

Even the threat of death can be beautiful. For instance, while we consider scotch broom to be an oily, fire-hazardous, aggressive, crowding-out-natives pest; while I root up scotch broom whenever I find it in soft ground – I still couldn’t ignore its blazing yellow blooms as a backdrop for these on-their-last-legs ‘Annie Schilder’ tulips and late, tiny ‘Hawera’ narcissus.

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The pale golden muscari a friend gave me dies in a quieter beauty, softly lit by sun:

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This sunflower bract echoes the soft golden muscari yellow, but the grain amaranth around it points it up with fuchsia arabesques.

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This dying lily foliage is another yellow, softened by the light-brown oak leaves around it, a brown that echoes the color on the fading leaves.

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Lily-flowered tulip ‘Marilyn’ takes the fuchsia from the amaranth and puts it into a swirl; it’s as cheerful and sassy in its old age as I’d like to be.

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And then ‘Lady Jane’ reminds us of that final step of all dying plants, the one the leads us back to life:

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Bonus: if anyone still needs to be reminded of how death and life are intertwined, try this minute-long video of a tulip’s elegant dance of death:

{ 8 comments… add one }

  • Helen at Toronto Gardens July 20, 2009, 5:50 pm

    I know what you mean. I’m also a big fan of frizzled tulips. But is this death? Or is it a pause — they used to call it a beat in theatre class, or a caesura in poetry — between one phase of life and another? It’s like the moments of rest in the music that accompanies the video you linked to.

  • lostlandscape(James) July 20, 2009, 7:21 pm

    I like your photos of plants past what would normally be considered their prime. The full blooms are nice, but I’m glad you see that there’s lots more to plants to appreciate. I remember reading a piece on Piet Oudolf where he stated that he picks plants that look good when they’re dead. It’s all part of the process, isn’t it?

  • Sylvia (England) July 21, 2009, 7:36 am

    Pomona, I do like these pictures, they are beautiful. My garden is beginning to look autumnal (fallish?) now, much too early but our weather has been so grey and overcast that some plants are getting ready for winter. Want any rain? It has rained all day here and the ground was all ready saturated, my new lavender plants are looking sick!

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  • Town Mouse July 21, 2009, 7:58 am

    Great photos! I so agree, it’s hard to tell when it’s time to snip something off, it still looks beautiful….(Love the last pic with the seed pods).

  • Pomona Belvedere July 21, 2009, 9:01 am

    Helen, I love the idea of death as a beat, a pause. It seems very true to me, because as all observers of nature know, life flows on, no matter what.

    James, I like Oudolf’s plant-selection criterion! I always feel admiring but faintly uneasy in gardens where dead things are hurried away and replaced with shiny new ones. Maybe it’s because I came to gardening from the woods, where death and life cycles are part of the beauty.

    Sylvia, it’s true, the word “fall” is beautiful but there doesn’t seem to be a good synonym for “autumnal” from it! We would love your rain; can we arrange a summit? I have some 100F weather I’d love to exchange.

    Town Mouse, it’s nice to know others enjoy these stages of plants, too; thanks for the props on the photos. (I’m very partial to the seed pods, too.)

  • Daffodil Planter July 23, 2009, 12:18 pm

    Pomona, Elegantly put, with photos, video, and words.

  • Naomi Sachs July 26, 2009, 11:09 am

    What a beautifully written and illustrated post, Pomona. I personally couldn’t agree more; there is something poetic about seeing the garden in all of its stages, and of course leaving seedheads of some flowers, like Echinacea and Allium, looks lovely through the winter and provides great food for wildlife. I think that in more institutional landscapes, maintenance people struggle with this idea that everything has to be perfect and vibrant, that any hint of death or decay (especially in hospitals, nursing homes, etc.) would be seen as threatening or a “downer.” Perhaps. But I do try to educate at least my individual design clients about the beauty you talk about, and to revel in the complexities of the garden in all of its stages rather than just flowers in bud and bloom. Perhaps I’ll refer them to this post!

  • Brad B August 5, 2009, 11:25 am

    Great pics and well said.

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