It’s funny how the lack of a story sometimes turns into the story itself. Journalism can be serendipitous like that. For this week’s Across Country, I set myself the task of cataloguing the flowering plants usually seen around Christmas.
You know the deep red and sometimes speckled white poinsettia, the Snow On The Mountain with its delicate white flowers, and, of course, Christmas Candles, the tall bright yellow stalks whose petals vertically curved around themselves like the wick of a lit candle.
It sounded simple enough. Take a leisurely drive through the country, stop and take a couple of pictures, chat with a few of the community’s known green thumbs –– and job done! How wrong I was.
It seems like in a blink both the bold and subtle components that all came together so one could “feel Christmas in the air” were gradually falling away like dust.
In the last week?
A stern thumbs down for mass-produced sorrel drink and store-bought great cake.
This week, there were lots of scratching chins and furrowed brows, and the general response: “Well, I haven’t seen those in ages.”
Yet, undaunted I headed to Long Bay in St Philip for a chat with a former nurse and veteran green thumb –– Marjorie Butcher. Getting a photograph of her was much harder than acquiring a fulsome assessment of where all the Christmas flowers had gone. So I pursued the latter. One out of two ain’t bad, right?
Mrs Butcher has lived in Long Bay since 1963, and up to a few years ago had always possessed a thriving healthy garden of which she was justly proud. At Christmas time, her Snow On The Mountain was unmistakable.
Those days are long gone, as with the death of her husband Ralph, and a bout of ill-health, she is more likely to be seen at flower shows, and mingling at events put on by the Barbados Horticultural Society than watering ginger lilies early in the morning. So it’s no surprise Mrs Butcher can pinpoint the time around which she noticed the decline of so-called Christmas flowers in her area, and in those in which she took her cursory drives across the country.
“Snow On The Mountain? I don’t know if it’s the climate or what, but they seem to have gone under the Earth! I would say about the last three years I’ve noticed [a decline].
“In places like Andromeda Gardens . . . you might still find one or two of the Christmas flowers up there,” Mrs Butcher suggested.
Debunking my childhood assumption that Snow On The Mountain just spontaneously sprang out of the ground to create this magical white frost at Christmas time, Mrs Butcher explained: “Those are things that you get a piece from somebody and you plant . . . .
“I never really saw the seeds; but I know the ones that used to be around here by me in St Philip, you get a piece from X and you plant it, and it spring and, ya know, you cultivate it in that form and fashion.”
Cuttings could be acquired well before November or December, she added, if you knew where to look. But something else contributed to the decline of the seasonal flower. “The other thing in dealing with plants that I noticed, the Snow On The Mountain, if it was anywhere near a street light, you used to find that it wouldn’t flourish as much. You learned that over the years. If . . . there is a street light that is spotting on it all through the night, it never flourished like in some of the other places.
“Two or three houses below me used to have it, but where the street light was reflecting on it, you didn’t used to get these lovely white flowers coming out.”
So a cutting planted in, let’s say, early January wouldn’t look like much, but around the end of August going into September, a blossom or two would peek out. They would then fall off and bloom properly and in all their splendour at Christmas.
The life cycle of Snow On The Mountain, as explained by Marjorie Butcher!
Okay, so what about Christmas Candles? The same rules apply apparently.
They flourished, based on the care they were given after the cutting was planted. And in Long Bay, where Mrs Butcher lives, the salty air, the sea spray, the dry season, the rainy season and how they affected the structure of the plant all played a part in having healthy or not flourishing Christmas Candles during the season.
A friend in Amity Lodge, Christ Church, couldn’t recall the last time she had seen either Christmas Candles or Snow On The Mountain.
A relative in Ruby, St Philip, recalled one gorgeous poinsettia plant that peeked over a paling in Mapp Hill, St Michael, every year. She remembered it because she had never seen another quite that beautiful. There was no sign of it this year, though –– which seemed to make her somehow sad.
Another friend pointed out some Snow On The Mountain in Harmony Hall, Christ Church. His only comment?
“Nothing like what one would see when I was young.”
A lady in a nail salon overheard me discussing the column and said: “Girl, you have to go hunting in the country to find dem tings,” her not knowing that was where I had just come from.
Funnily enough, potted poinsettias were not a problem to find –– from Carlton Supermarket in Emerald City, St Philip, to Cost-U-Less in Welches, St Thomas. If you were willing to pay, you could have your Christmas blooms with nothing more than the swipe of a credit card.
So I had a hunch this non-story that was turning into another story altogether was about much more than trends in horticulture. And I knew just where to ask to confirm my suspicions: The National Conservation Commission’s Nursery & Landscaping Department. There, one can purchase pre-packaged samples of Snow On The Mountain with roots already sprouting.
Plant them around April, water and prune (especially during the summer), and presto, your garden is Christmas-ready. Christmas Candles are also grown from cuttings, and carefully tended.
Imported poinsettias are particularly popular, as they adorn corporate spaces with little fuss; and, depending on whether they are blood red, speckled pink or cream, they create maximum visual impact.
Here is where Liza White-Romain who works in the NCC Garden Centre confirmed what started to occur to me as the story developed. First, gardening, like any other endeavour, yields what effort and resources are put into it –– such as waking at dawn to water plants to stave off damage from the salty air, prune where necessary, select the right fertilizer, and the like.
Just as with the makers of mass-produced sorrel drink and coconut bread which are available year round, not as many plant and flower lovers, let alone average citizens, are inclined to go the old-fashioned route and grow their choice of seasonal blooms from scratch. Not when there’s the option to purchase blooms exactly as you want them.
And even if you are a green thumb, times are tough and you’re more likely to grow what you can eat. Christmas Candles, like it or not, fill only the eye; not the stomach.
Finally, Mrs White-Romain gave this assessment, and my hunch was confirmed: “If you check it good, it is not only those . . . . You know, once upon a time you could have walked around and seen a million and one dunks trees, guava trees; and now you aren’t seeing anything like that out there, because remember we trying to develop in terms of structure, and people are just taking up the land. All these things are depleted because of that.”
She added: “A diehard person that like really into Christmas is going to have those things. Then, too, a lot of the houses are being paved right around; so nobody has any space to put a garden bed.”
And so the penny dropped. Technically, there are no more or less Christmas flowers available to plant and grow as there were ten years ago. But the lack of effort to cultivate them is a sign of the changing times.
Mrs White-Romain reiterated: “People gravitating to the plants you can [buy and] put in your office [or rooms in your home] . . . and when you finish, you can plant them outside too.”
There you have it! The misty edges of Christmas memories wiped away by convenience, expedience and mass production. This one threw me for a loop –– another sign you just never know what you’ll find when you go ambling About Town & Across Country.
Eight more sleeps till Christmas! Bye for now!