October at Cylburn

Yesterday we went for an autumn walk through Cylburn Arboretum. We take such walks regularly when the weather is sweet, and yesterday was such a day — the sun shining, the breeze moving through the richly colored leaves, the pines and cedars dark against a bright blue sky.

At the edge of the visitors parking lot stands an impressive bed or ornamental grass. The airy plants resemble a sea of swaying feathers, the seed heads topping their stems bobbing like ocean froth in the golden October sun. At a distance, the bed seemed a uniform dull sienna, but walking closer I see that the sheaths are a soft olive green, the seed heads pale, while deeper in the bed, the spent leaves are a dull and dry mahogany. Near the grass bed is a tall pine tree with heavy branches down one side and the other nearly bare. A marker identifies it as an Austrian pine, and its strong scent instantly brings to mind a string of Christmases past, the wreaths and garlands, the decorated tree, the palpable anticipation felt on Christmas Eve in the cold and candlelit church of my childhood. Its bark is unlike the familiar nubby bark of native pines, but composed of thick overlapping slabs of black, grey and silver-green. I touch it, rubbing my hand across the trunk, half expecting to feel cold stone instead of its warm rough texture. On the ground near the tree are cones that have fallen from the high branches. Nut-brown in color and long and tapering in shape, they deposit pine tar stickiness to my hands as I collect a few to carry home in my pocket.

Further along, across the wide lawn and trees in flamboyant shades of red, orange and yellow, stands a grouping of small trees still predominately green. Their branches are low to the ground, and they are planted close together, fat at the bottom, tapering upward, looking like a cluster of French nuns. Their leaves are small and still mainly green with occasional spotting of brown and ochre. “Hedge Maples” reads the identifying tag. We leave them to their silent meditations as we head towards the woodland trail. In spring this trail is abundant with azalea and wildflower but now only the markers tell me where flowers previously bloomed. The beds and path are littered with leaves fallen from the trees that arch overhead. I am a collector of leaves and rocks and shells and see in them mini-worlds or landscapes, and have used them as such in my paintings. I pick up a few and see that their undersides are a gray ashy pale, as if they were already melting back into the earth.

The trail leads back to the mansion house and the adjacent formal gardens. There are worn marble statues and stone benches and a garden sliding into winter. Some beds have already been cleaned and cultivated for next seasons plantings. But the rose bushes are still blooming, their last hurrah. There is one section of old roses, the blooms more flat-faced, the colors like old silk and the scents both sweet and spicy. And the nasturtiums have not yet surrendered. Their lily-pad leaves reach towards the sun and their blooms of bright yellow and orange complement the bright red cluster of chili peppers planted nearby. The biggest surprise was the bed of chrysanthemums at the back of the garden. These were not the kind that one buys at the garden shop or grocery store to sit on front stoops, nor the sort seen in most autumn gardens in shades of yellow and rust. These plants were easily 6 feet high, the weight of their stems and abundant flowers supported by the sturdy stakes to which they were tied. They were a luscious screaming assortment of color and shape: rounded soft lavender blooms, peach star-shaped flowers with bright yellow centers, huge many petaled blooms of deep purple measuring 5 or 6 inches across. There were crimson, apricot, and orange pompoms, magenta and bronze spider mums, fuchsia, pink and white variegated blooms next to bright acid yellow mums with curled, feathery petals. They bore names like “Berwick Wood”, “Dark Magic”, “First Peachy”, “ Double Trouble” and Comano Fire”. The garden was empty and quiet but for the muted voices of children on the faraway lawn and the buzzing of bees. The bees, as if on drunken holiday, had staked out this corner of the garden, where they dashed from flower to flower, perhaps knowing that this outrageous display signaled their last source of honey in this garden moving towards winter.

At home, I searched my garden books to learn more. Chrysanthemums, first cultivated in the Orient over 2,000 years ago, reached Europe in the 17th century. Normally the plant grows to its normal garden shop size, but by using a technique called disbudding, specialists can produce the tall plants and beautiful oversized flowers I saw today.

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