A beautiful Sunday on the veranda at my parents’ house; a glorious roast leg of lamb for lunch, and afterwards my mother’s first ever perambulation around the garden in a wheelchair; she is 80, has been diabetic for 45 years and of late has become frail. ‘Broos’ we say in Afrikaans, which also translates as fragile and vulnerable. After fighting against the idea of a wheelchair for ages, she quite looked forward to the ride, and was amused by the word perambulation. (Did you know that pram, as in a baby’s pushcart, is a contraction of this word?) Out on the veranda she could admire the combination up against the house of the earliest of the diaramas, D. gracile, with its silvery-white bracts and soft mauve flowers against the orange Aloe saponaria which has been flowering since autumn.
Diarama (hairbells, fairybells, wandflowers or most poetically: fairies’ fishing rods) is one of the most beautiful of our indigenous flowers, and D. gracile is endemic to our area. It is a shorter and more solid plant than most, carrying its flowers on shorter and more upright wands and it is the first to flower. The bracts appear silvery in the sunlight and combine exquisitely with the soft mauve flowers. But the zing comes from the contrasting Aloe saponaria flowers! They are one of the few aloes that can survive our bitter winter nights unscathed. They multiply gleefully from the root and flower cheerfully for months on end.
So out we went, round the back of the house where the steps are shallow, and for the first time this visit she saw the primulas growing where they will – seeding in cracks one doesn’t even realise exist. She looked and looked as I practiced small manoeuvres with the wheelchair and the dogs looked on in exasperation at this new, slow form of going for a walk.
It always amazes me that we battle so to grow most primulas in South Africa – in fact many are quite impossible, disliking our harsh springs, but in late winter P. malacoides puts on a brilliant show, spreading as it wishes. Once you’ve planted it, it is there for ever. I remember one plant that somehow found its way to the steps to my classroom. Four years later there were so many that I allowed the girls to pick them on their way into class!
Out onto the drive we went, and past the first azalaes. Confidently my mother declared the white ones her favourite these days, musing on the days when the pinks, or mauves, or reds took her fancy first…
Down we went past the flowering quinces (japonica, or Chaenomeles speciosa). They were of the first shrubs we planted when we started gardening here in the early 80s; a red, a white and a spectacular small crimson one (perhaps ‘Atrococcinea’). To our delight the mix produced an offspring across the road, to where one of the beautiful but bitter yellow fruit must have rolled. It is apple-blossom pink. We stopped to admire it and to reminisce about the first time we noticed its blossoms. Subsequently one year I grew a large number of seedlings from here and planted two hedges on either side of the Anniversary Garden from them. Some are rampant, some beautiful, some non-descript. Turning seedlings into hedges is not a good idea at the best of times, but I love the haphazardness of it all.
On we went… stopped to pick a sprig of witchhazel, to discuss the nemesias which deserve a post of their own, the new growth on the roses and aphids and their absense (thankfully!) We looked at the changes I made during the winter to the Big Lawn, simplifying the upper edge and removing three of the five circular beds cut into it by our late great gardener, Phineas Magoale, who did so much to establish the garden. We looked at the young sweetpeas, planted where he had always done, and remembered how proud he used to be of them. Then we turned back and up the avenue between the Sequoia trees past more azaleas and two beautiful camellias, stopping and studying plants that have become friends in the years since they were planted: the Scilla natalensis, wild off the farm, beginning to shoot; the rose-scented pelargonium, always the worse for frost at this time of year; also from wild stock on the farm the Aristea galpinii, with the promise of their glorious blue stars only just beginning to show through the leaves although last week in Tzaneen’s sub-tropical climate I saw them in full bloom… then back around the house and another threshold crossed as she sank into her familiar, comfortable chair near the fire.