Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hibiscus Stories

This might seem a bit odd for a midwesterner, but I've been thinking about hibiscus the past few weeks. Like so much else, there is a recent trigger that has caused the past to flavor my current thoughts.

The trigger has been the luxurious blooms that our two hibiscus shrubs have begun to produce. (Yes, they're finally blooming, now that it's getting time to trim them back and bring them inside so they don't freeze.) (I don't think I've quite figured out how to make them happy enough to bloom all summer long.) (I'm still learning.)

One of the hibiscus is a peachy orange, single one, that we purchased, so there's not much of a story with it. The other one has more of a history.

It's pink, double, and bears large flowers. And it's only bloomed for us a few times. We are not its original owners. It used to belong to a friend of mine, whose mother gave it to her in about 1995, I think. (Or was it the late eighties?) It was blooming profusely at the time.

My friend knew how to take care of plants enough to keep them alive, but I don't think she was particularly good to them. This hibiscus never went outdoors, never drank sweet rainwater. She kept it on the floor next to the sliding door to her back patio, where it got lots of sun but nevertheless showed its need by pressing its leaves and branches against the glass. It was there for years.

She watered it, but I don't think she fertilized it. I don't think she ever repotted it, either. It never bloomed for her, that I know of.

We acquired it in about 2006, when my friend moved, and the first thing we did was repot it and set it outside, and it started blooming almost immediately. And I think that's the last time it bloomed for us.

Starting last year, we've been removing it and our other hibiscus from their pots and planting them directly into the soil in a flowerbed next to our house during the growing season. I think that's made a big difference. It's special ground, I think.

Here's where the past enters the story--as you know, this was my Grandma Schroeder's house since 1930, and she was a garden clubber, green-thumb kind of lady. Her yard was like a botanical garden. And she had hibiscus, too.

In fact, they outlived her. She had acquired her hibiscus in the 1950s, as I understand it. By the time Grandma died in 2000, she had two, and they were veritable little trees, with a trunk diameter of about one and a half or two inches.

One of them had been a gift to her from her neighbor Clara Renner, who happens to be my other grandma. This was before my parents had married--from what I know it was just a simple neighborly gift, the way gardeners share plants with each other.

Each spring, Grandma would plant her hibiscus in the soil, often right where we're planting our hibiscus today. How many summertime parties did we have in her backyard, with her red and yellow hibiscus glowing against the pure white stucco wall? Grandma would gush over them.

On special occasions--like when she was entertaining visitors even such as us--Grandma liked to pluck a hibiscus flower and stick it in her hair, or attach it to her blouse.

She also used them as a garnish on her fruit platters.

When I was young, Grandma Schroeder's hibiscus were a subject of chiding and lecturing twice a year by my parents and uncles and aunts. In spring these large pots had to go outside, and in fall, they had to come back in. Sometimes Grandma lugged them up to the third floor. And she'd often move them herself--hence the lectures from her children: "You did that by yourself? Why didn't you let us help you? What if you had fallen? They're too heavy!"

Grandma was obstinate back then--"Well, I just wanted to get them in, and I didn't want to bother you . . ."--but in later years, of course, she welcomed the help.

What happened to Grandma's hibiscus? I hate to tell you, because it's kind of sad. About five or six months after Grandma died, it was getting close to frost and freezing. Her yard and plants had been kept up by my dad and my uncle, and at that point I was seriously considering buying the house.

And of course, I remembered the hibiscus--but it was too late. It was already dark, and getting late, when I learned on the news that the first freeze was predicted for that evening. I called my dad, who has much more experience than I in interpreting the weather forecast and bringing in plants. We discussed it and decided that even though a freeze was predicted, the hibiscus should make it through the night.

Indeed--they were located against the house, and the house is located in town, surrounded by concrete, and usually we're the last ones in the region to experience frosts and freezes. When the weather forecast says "frost," we usually go, "yeah, sure."

But Grandma's hibiscus did freeze that night.

I wish that my foresight could be something just a little closer to 20/20.

I was sad to lose them. And it was more than losing another connection to my Grandma. It had to do with the death of mature, beautiful, living things that depended on us. I felt we had somehow betrayed them, considering all the care they had received for half a century. They were fine, and going strong, and they died just because I chose not to drive a half hour to Jefferson City at ten o'clock at night and drag them a few yards into shelter.

But there's no going back, of course; you live and learn. Sometimes those freeze warnings do indeed mean that it will freeze.

And anyway, we do have our own hibiscus, now, with their own stories and colors, to lug in and out each fall and spring, to delight us with their blossoms, no matter how profuse or rare, to take their nourishment in this charmed soil.

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