There is a smoke bush (Cotinus species) near my workplace that is right now in fall glory. All summer its leaves are an interesting green-flushed red, much lighter than the popular variety “Royal Purple.” This plant, whose variety I do not know, grows in full sun on a clay soil. I think it gets regular watering in summer from underground sprinklers. A few weeks ago, it began changing colour and has now attained a combination of reds, orange, orange-yellow and remnants of green that make it glow as if with an inner fire.
I have admired this shrub at this stage of colour the past three or four autumns, and I’m happy to have this picture, because visual perfection in plants is a fleeting phenomenon. This is one of the most important things I’ve learned as a gardener.
Gardens are part of the natural world, however manipulated by us, and are therefore ever-changing. Every week, every day, even, presents a new scene. Plants go from sprout to stalk to bud to bloom to seed to withering in a matter of months, and the gardener had better be paying attention, amid all the tasks of her busy life, or she will miss the point of the exercise altogether. An individual bloom, of a rose or peony, for example, lasts a week at most. A spike of delphiniums holds its perfection for maybe two weeks before individual florets start to get that “I’ve had enough” look. Fall displays of coloured foliage last for weeks, but inevitably a windstorm comes and it’s all over. I fully expect to find that smoke bush more or less bare when I go back to work next week.
But these things are cyclical; they recur. Every year plants grow, bloom and fade. Old gardeners know this, and look for their favourite sights every season, reassured to see the crocuses in spring (and fall), the daylilies’ bloom scapes in summer, the smoke bushes going through their colour changes in fall. The thing is to look and see everything there is to be seen, every time, because nothing lasts forever. The blue poppies are overwhelmed by competing tree roots or succumb to crown rot. The roses are defoliated by black spot and refuse to flower. The guy across the street decides he doesn’t want that smoke bush any more and cuts it down. All of these things are bad, but if you really paid attention and soaked up the colours and perfumes and textures when they were there, at least you have memories to draw upon.
This applies even more to the world beyond your garden gate, where you have no say in what happens. Pay attention. Really see that tree, that interesting rock, that nifty old house. Next week or next year they may be gone, and if you didn’t store up memories of them, you won’t even be able to remember that they were there. But if you go through the world with your eyes open, you will see all sorts of wonderful things.