©2012 (700 words)
Last weekend, the central Florida burg where my partner and I live held its annual residential Garden Tour. It’s a big deal in these parts—a pay-for-view event that affords locals and out-of-towners the opportunity to access some of Mount Dora’s loveliest private Edens—many of them contiguous with its comeliest homes. Throngs turn out, wallets agape, for a glimpse of horticultural splendor in the last days of autumn before the first frost.
Rather than queue for the show, my partner and I went biking.
We decided to take advantage of the marvelous weather—mid-seventies, low humidity (finally!)—to get some exercise along with our sight-seeing. Besides, we were eager to escape our neighborhood, suddenly overrun with lookie-lous in SUVs.
Soon we were pedaling east away from our rental bungalow, eventually crossing Highland Avenue into a part of Mount Dora where the town’s Queen Ann dowagers, its renovated farmhouses and Spanish colonials, are less ubiquitous. As were the signs advertising the Garden Tour.
I know that in many parts of the country one needn’t travel far to encounter evidence of residential stratification. Yet here in the south—where manicured lawns and carefully tended gardens can in the distance of a few city blocks give way to whole neighborhoods of scrub oak, skunk vine, and Virginia creeper—that transition can seem particularly jangling. And yet there is something appealing about the shift as well, something invigorating about all those acorn-strewn raked yards and wild thickets of native flora.
So I was content to let my partner lead the way into less familiar parts of town. Besides, it was obvious that Ray had an agenda—one that he revealed some thirty minutes into our ride.
“Remember that flowering tree I told you about? The one I saw last week on my way home from the grocers?” he called over his shoulder as we coasted down Simpson Street. “It’s over here on the eastside somewhere. A stunning sight. I want to find it again.”
And we did—find it, that is.
How lucky am I, I ask you, to have such a persistent partner—a man not given to hyperbole in his choice of adjectives? I can claim as much because a silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa) in full bloom is indisputably a “stunning” sight.
Hardy and common in central Florida (though Ray, a Yankee boy born and bred, wouldn’t have known that), the silk floss’s avocado-green trunk and branches—both capable of photosynthesis—are studded with lethal-looking conical thorns. Indeed, the tree’s coarse armaments would seem to provide an environment incompatible with the delicate, bright pink flowers that explode across its canopy September into November. And yet the blossoms, shaped like fragile champagne flutes, unfurl in splendiferous numbers.
I suppose some folks might balk at the notion of a common, hale and hardy tree out-showing the showiest, most carefully cultivated gardens. Yet turning onto an east-side side street last weekend, Ray and I encountered the living proof. For there it was, a deciduous, fifty-foot work of art … on exhibit … in front of a nondescript 50s ranch-style house, the yards thick with goose grass and knotweed.
It’s a cliché, but braking to a dead stop in the street that afternoon, it came to me—an inchoate notion that the silk floss is a kind of arboricultural metaphor of the happiest sort. It seemed to me that there was something about the tree’s natural beauty—a splendor one doesn’t have to pay for, that isn’t limited to the most desirable neighborhoods—that was tremendously heartening.
I’m still not quite sure why I was so affected. Maybe it was the tree’s “wow factor” on display for the entire world to see; maybe it was just its stand-and-gape extravagance that I found uplifting. Or perhaps there was something about its honest majesty that offered a shred of hope—that in this crazy, secernated world, where even nature has become a commodity subject to the price of admission, there is still opulence that anyone can afford.
Like I said, I’m still mulling it over. But I’m almost convinced that’s what got to me. A garden of truth as simple and as accessible as that.