Thursday, August 02, 2007


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (8/1/07)

Slothful gardeners deserve a good word. Some people are just naturally inert. Medieval and renaissance physicians called them phlegmatic. Their system for analyzing human personalities was built on the foundation of bodily fluids called “humours.” It was simple. They identified four humours, sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, and various combinations of the four to identify types of personality.

The theory was that bodily fluids were like sap in a vascular plant. As life-forces they affected the physique while also emitting vapors which influenced the personality.

The sanguine’s humour was blood. Energetically cheerful, as gardeners, the sanguine like bright, cheery flower gardens bursting with annuals. The choleric’s humour, the spleen’s yellow bile, makes for aggressive gardeners who love to prune, dig out old, diseased plants, and unleash pesticides on the infected. The phlegmatic’s humour, the lung’s phlegm, produces slow moving, viscous, sluggish gardeners, big into energy conservation. A minimal gardener, the phlegmatic favors a low maintenance, sheep fescue (festuca ovina) lawn. A melancholic’s humour, the gall bladder’s black bile, produces a cool, dour gardener whose garden consists of gravel-covered black plastic sheets in place of a lawn, a couple of ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa), and instead of flowers a collection of weeds sticking out here and there through the decaying plastic and around its edges.

If genteel, high-toned gardeners are discovered sniffing their underarms on a hot, muggy day during monsoon, they’re checking their humourous vapors. A sanguine gardener may need a few whiffs of yellow bile to fight off an invasion of grasshoppers. Of course, a well-rounded gardener has all the humours in balance as in Antony’s eulogy of Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “His life was gentle, and the elements\ So mix’d in him that Nature might step up\ And say to all the world, ‘This was a man’” (V.v.74-76.) A gardener with the elements “so mix’d” would have a balanced garden, but our concern is with the phlegmatic, the lazy lout who wants to take it easy and have a beautiful garden.

“Take it easy” gardening begins with bulbs, rhizomes, corms, tuberous roots, and fleshy roots, those things a gardener plants and pretty much forgets. They are the garden introverts. Make things comfortable for them, feed and water them now and then, and leave them alone to do their own thing. They want their space. Don’t even pick up their dirty clothes where they’ve left them after blooming at a garden party. Daffodils (Narcissus) and tulips (Tulipa) need to suck the life-juices (humours) out of the leaves to store them in their tear-drop shaped bulbs for their next blooming season a year away. Both are notoriously slovenly but beautiful introverts.

Bearded irides (Iris germanica) are rhizomes, abstemious but elegant beauties. Their rhizomes are finger-like, fat roots, which are planted horizontally to the soil almost at its surface. Feed them a couple of times a year and water them once a week during dry spells. Let them alone during the winter. All they want is sunlight. Party animals they aren’t. Beautiful and aloof, they are a sloth master’s dream.

Another fetching rhizome is the Lilly of the Valley (Convallaria majalis.) A tasty rhizome is the subtropical ginger root (Zingiber officinale,) a sure loser for the lazy in the high country.

The dahlia (Dahlia) is a finger-like tuberous root whose fingers point down rather than horizontally. Sadly, it’s demanding. A native of Central America and Mexico, it doesn’t winter well in the high country and has to be dug up and carefully kept warm during the cold months wrapped in peat moss. Although it’s extraordinarily beautiful, it’s a bother for the slothful.

Another useful tuberous root is the daylily (Hermerocallis), a bright cheerful flower although not a true lily. It demands little, survives the winter, and blooms for most of the summer, the lazy lout’s best friend.

Nix the gladiolus (Gladiolus.) A corm of varied and elegant beauty, it has to be dug up in the fall, preserved during the winter, and replanted in the spring. All that extra work just for beauty and grace, how disgusting!
As usual, the French have a word for it. Ennui, tiredness and boredom. However, ennui can be beautiful. Vive le ennuyé jardinière.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007

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