For spring, two stories about flowers

I’ve been neglecting the blog a bit as of late, but I’m back with a review today. But first, a little story:

When I was growing up, an older couple, the Martinoffs, lived around the corner from our house. Most of my memories of Mr. and Mrs. Martinoff were of trick-or-treating with my friends at their house on Halloween, waiting on the porch of their tiny bungalow as they shuffled to the door and greeted the gang of us dragons, princesses, and Power Rangers. They were always so delighted to see us neighborhood kids, enthusiastically complementing our costumes in their thick Russian accents. The rest of the year, I sometimes saw Mr. Martinoff in front of his home, working quietly in his garden. One summer, as my mom was walking by and stopped to chat with him, she complemented his beautiful pink peonies, telling him how much they reminded her of the garden at her childhood home. (My grandma was quite an avid gardener of all kinds of plants, from peonies to peppers to pumpkins.) Almost every summer after that, when his peonies were at their best, Mr. Martinoff would gather a generous bouquet of the fragrant flowers, and make the long, slow walk down the block (he suffered from Parkinson’s disease), rang our doorbell, and presented my mom with a beautiful arrangement of the flowers he knew she loved so much.

When Mr. and Mrs. Martinoff had both passed away, the developers who bought their little house were tearing it down. My mom and some other neighbors asked the construction workers if they would mind if they took some plants from the Martinoffs’ garden, since otherwise they would be destroyed during the demolition. Happily, the hard-hatted gentlemen agreed right away. Which is why now, every summer, Mr. Martinoff’s pink peony plant blooms in my parents’ front yard. And I remember Mr. Martinoff, and his small, but beautiful, annual act of kindness.

Now, then. On to the book that made me think back on Mr. Martinoff and his peonies. Paradise Under ImageGlass is part memoir, part horticultural history, and part exploration of the modern world of plant lovers and growers. The author, Ruth Kassinger (full disclosure: Ruth is a friend of a friend, but we have never met), in a short time-frame had to deal with the loss of her beloved sister, Joan, to a brain tumor, her daughters’ tumultuous teenage years and departure for college, and her own harrowing bout with breast cancer. After so much upheaval in her life, Ruth sets on the idea of constructing a small conservatory garden as an addition to her suburban home. The conservatory, when completed, becomes a sanctuary of sorts for her and her family, providing a warm, lush escape from difficult days and dreary weather. Ruth claims at the start of her story to have no green thumb whatsoever, being barely able to keep even a low-maintenance peace plant alive in her home. Over time, however, Ruth schools herself on plant selection and care, and her conservatory thrives (with, of course, occasional setbacks). Throughout the book, Ruth weaves her own efforts to create her conservatory with historical tales of greenhouses and plant lovers of the past, from the introduction of the pineapple to European gentry, to the scientific and engineering advances of the early creators of the first glasshouses, to the adventurous profit-seekers who risked life and limb to bring exotic plants from distant tropical shores back to Europe. Ruth also visits many contemporary growers, both small and large, and introduces her readers to the industry that produces those hanging baskets and hardy houseplants you can buy at any grocery store or Home Depot. Ruth writes beautifully about the physical and emotional healing power of plants, historically and in her own life. And her book makes me want to run straight to Johnson’s to stock up on flowers for spring!

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