To get to Flora, Mississippi, you drive north from Jackson between the teepee and Indian mound in Pocahontas and past the Petrified Forest into the rolling landscape of Madison County. Flora is somewhat off the main highway, a quiet little community that began as a whistle stop on the old Illinois Central line. As we drove, I couldn’t keep my mind off the fact that Flora was the Roman goddess of flowers; I later learned that the town was named after the wife of the man who donated the land for the railroad right-of-way, but the coincidence proved to be excruciating-ly apt.
The event I was attending was a plant swap, and not just any plant swap, but one that had been started 26 years before by the town librarian, Janice Watkins. Now, twenty-six years is a very long time for any community event in a town this size, and particularly impressive for something as offbeat as a plant swap, but Mrs. Watkins’ swap had endured, propagated by people from all walks of life from Flora and surrounding towns who had a love of growing and caring for plants. The people were (like me) older, most above forty, mostly female, but some men, and most seemed to know one another, but it wasn’t long before everyone was chatting up a storm.
The swap was held in the library’s community room; three long tables were set up before some seventy chairs set in close ranks. As the people filed in and signed the register, their plants were given a numbered stake and set on the table. Soon the tables as well as most of the seats were filled and the swap began. First, there were a few community announcements (“The PTA will be holding a bake sale…”), then one gentleman got up and told of some local restaurants the attendees might like (a pizza place, a burger joint, a Mexican cantina, and one place run by a chef who sold Kobe beef but also had a meat and three at lunch).
Then a gentleman got up, introduced Mrs. Watkins, who most everybody already knew, of course, now retired, but who still held the swap at the new library across the street from the old one in city hall. The man went on to tell how Mrs. Watkins was instrumental in getting the new library built, which for a small-town library was a very impressive facility indeed, with a kitchen, a community room, a courtyard and several open rooms filled with shelving and books. There was a moment of confusion before the door prizes were awarded when we realized none of us had been given numbers, but names were (often haltingly) read from the register, and the gardening gloves, boxes of Miracle-Gro, calendars, diaries, notebooks, huggies and other what-nots were awarded.
During this time, we’d all been scoping out the plants on the long table, and in all there were probably about seventy-five; some had decorative hangers and ribbons, some sported bits of paper with names taped to plastic spoons or forks. Before the hat with plant numbers was passed, we had plenty of time to cruise the tables and see the offerings, and some people talked about the plants they bought. I told the story about how my grandmother gave me a cutting for the beefsteak begonia I’d bought some thirty years ago; one lady told a rambling story about her late brother and a lavender Siberian iris that may or may not be an iris after all; and one particularly well-informed individual (there’s one in every crowd) shared the story of how jewels of Opar got its name from an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, with Opar being another name for the lost continent of Atlantis (which may or may not be true).
And the names! In the eternal language of Flora herself the names, strung together, sounded like an incantation: begonia, hydrangea, sansevieria, ajuga, canna, sedum, crinum, ficus, vanilla plantifolia, firmiana, ruschia; then the folk names: milk and wine lily, Chinese parasol tree, orchid cactus, Mexican petunia, apostle plant, squirrel’s foot fern, pearl bush, mother of thousands, chicken gizzards and many others. Everyone seemed to have their eye on a particular plant; the little lady behind me really wanted a scraggly paw-paw someone had brought while I was jonesing for the chicken-foot cactus. In the end, she got a brown turkey fig, which she found adequate compensation, but I ended up with an anemic aloe that put me in mind of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.
Driving home on Joe Cocker Road east out of Pocahontas, I thought how the sort of people at Mrs. Watkins’ plant swap may not run out and buy the latest variety of zinnia or order dahlias the size of dinner plates online, but they are the grass-roots gardeners of our culture; these are the people who tend for the plants that thrive year after year, generation after generation with a modicum of care, the types of plants your granny grew, the kind you read about in Welty, Douglas and O’Connor. These people tend and pass along the gentle flame that inspires us to care for growing things, which is an act of devotion older than Ur. As for my scraggly little aloe, I will care for it and think of Flora.