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Green Acre #7: The Aging Beauty of Allium


Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

Allium is a genus of monocotyledonous flowering plants that includes the cultivated oniongarlicscallionshallot and leek as well as chives and hundreds of other wild species.


MAGGIE AND I were strolling along the other day chatting about this and that and nothing when she abruptly threw out an arm to stop me and pointed down at this sputnik growth alongside a garden path—”I will plant allium next year,” she announced.  Because she’s British, her announcements always carry particular gravitas.

At first I didn’t recognize it, it was kind of like running into a high-school mate 40 years later—there’s something about you but . . .

And then I did.

I grew a herd of allium sometime early in my gardening career (can you call something you do so haphazardly a career?) and recalled being enchanted by the fuzzy purple popsicle heads that sproinged about the garden but was put off in subsequent years by the price of the bulbs. Like 10 bucks each? I mean, these are spring thingies, they do nothing all summer, right? They come up and, bam, they’re over. If they bother to come up at all.


Stephanie’s allium, past tense. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

The purple fluff falls off and what’s left are these gnarly witchy fingers. I didn’t much care for the skeletal back then, the way the remains of something have a curious beauty.

The Japanese call this gradually increasing decrepitude wabi-sabi, finding enchantment in impermanence and gradual deterioration; a fine thing to cultivate when, to put it gently, you and everything around you are beginning to rot.

This is not the Iris Apfel school of age-defiance, the rambunctious posturing and costuming of bangles and baubles and giant red eyeglasses that bellow I’m Still Here (much as I cheer her on, and will, no doubt, be just as gaudy one day). It’s more the gentle acceptance and appreciation of age; of rose petals falling and mop-headed hydrangeas turning translucent in their parched fragility. Like the No. 7 Lift & Luminate facial serum commercial, featuring luminous 52-year-old ballerina Alessandra Ferri dancing with a hologram of her sprightly 19-year-old self. Watching her contains such a pleasurable sadness.

I did have an early introduction to an appreciation for decay, even if it took several decades to take root.

Maybe 30 years ago I picked up “Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain,” and spent a week’s vacation sketching. A fascinating book for those whose representational skills stalled out at age 8 or so, which is (for some reason) most of us, says the author. Turns out it’s all about not really seeing what’s in front of your face. You’re looking right at a chair or a chin and not able to get your pen around the contours.

And then you pick up the book and do a couple of exercises and . . . so maybe you’re not Picasso but you’ve actually produced something recognizable, something with depth, proportion, something that comes perilously close to—art. Whoa.

I was lying in a bubble bath drawing my foot on the faucet, sitting in the front-porch rocker sketching our big elm tree, hovering over my toddler daughter, sketching her sleeping, thumb-sucking baby face.

But the more I drew the more interested I became in exploring out-of-kilter shapes and, most particularly, odd-looking people; Metro was a particularly good resource. My eye flitted right past the pretty to itch at the thought of getting a bulbous nose on paper, corrugated foreheads, wattled chins, jutting bones and opposing hollows . . . the old were particularly enchanting, with all their parts coming unmoored in such interesting ways.

This went on for some weeks.

Now, every once in a while I pick up one of the sketches and am briefly impressed with myself—and then I recall that I put the book aside and returned to drawing very much as I did in Mrs. Turtletaub’s third-grade art class. It’s so much easier. I am such a disappointment to me sometimes (I am shaking my head).

So the allium has reminded me of all this, and seeing the spiky remains beside that garden path made me determined to damn the expense and plant them again next year. There’s enchantment to be found in their demise.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

Next week Gardener Cavanaugh dives back into her garden. Stephanie is currently working on a book about urban gardening.

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