Redbuds and Wild Sweet William

by Mimi Hedl

Mature redbuds

Our homestead finally decided to embrace wild Sweet William. For 41 years I’ve admired this early spring wildflower richly blooming along creek banks and in those shady areas on the edge of woodlands. In spring when we’d drive ‘Ol Red, our 1962 red International pick-up, to visit friends in Bay, we’d pass by Second Creek where the trees hadn’t leafed out to hide the show the Sweet Williams put on. It was simply breathtaking, all that lilac-purple caressing our eyes after a winter of browns and grays. Ron always drove slowly but when we’d approach Second Creek ‘Ol Red crawled. We both felt spellbound by the soft haze as a spring breeze enticed the flowers to sway. It was a gentle prayer to spring and all her possibilities.

For years I tried to get a start of this flower. They were not easy to dig out of the gravelly soil and I didn’t have enough experience to know just what to do. I simply wanted them and kept trying and failing. In 1989 I discovered Missouri Wildflower Nursery in Brazito, a long drive from Strawdog, especially in the old truck. Every spring I would make the pilgrimage and look and look at all Missouri’s native plants, then buy a few, always a wild Sweet William. I still didn’t have a sense of how to recognize where a plant would grow, perhaps because the homestead hadn’t developed enough to have micro-environments. When I look back at all the failures I realize what persistence it takes to make anything thrive, except of course, that which we don’t want. It’s a fickle world indeed.

Finally, after 15 years, one plant survived under the wild plums we planted along the walkway to the house. And then that Sweet William came back in spring with another seedling, precious jewels to my eyes. As they slowly, slowly increased, I would move one seedling to a new spot. Sometimes I chose well, other times they didn’t make it through the spring season. (I think of Dolly Parton’s song, Wildflowers. There’s a line, part of a refrain, “wildflowers don’t care where they grow”. I want to write Ms. Parton and explain to her that they do care where they grow, they have particular demands, but once you meet those requirements, they luxuriate and thrive. But of course that truth would ruin her song and she’d have to come up with totally different lyrics and since it’s such a pretty song, I let that one go.)

Now that hundreds, maybe thousands, of plants grow with abandon, I remember the process of making a home for these beloved wildflowers. How do you teach an adult in our digital culture, let alone a child, to have faith in time and experience and not expect immediate results? For me, not a patient person, I realize my main gift remains persistence in the face of defeat and feel humble and grateful for that seemingly bland quality. Of course the head gardener guffawed at the philosophizing that I regrettably shared with her, including the Dolly Parton story.

Sweet William and celandine poppies

After I’d pointed out the redbud seedlings we’d left over the past few years, she interrupted me and said, “Not WE, that was just you. I wanted to leave them all. You do all that highfalutin’ talking about where a wildflower will grow and how you’re so persistent and then when a redbud decides to grow somewhere, you don’t let it. You’re just all talk. And then to think you’d go and ruin Dolly Parton’s song!” Oh dear what a land mine I stepped into. Maybe I do talk too much with the head gardener. She doesn’t get my sense of humor. If she knew she had been pulling up thousands of redbud seedlings over the years, she’d be livid. She doesn’t recognize the seedlings when they’ve just sprouted and I say, yes, that one should go, when we’re weeding together. Redbuds would grow in every nook and cranny of this fertile soil, if we let them.

I try to explain to her that one redbud tree will provide enough shade so we can sow specific native plants under the canopy, decrease the grass growing there and thus allow us to stop mowing. My big goal is to reduce the mowing so when I’m not so strong, there won’t be much to mow. Maybe a pipe dream, but… And it’s working. Look at these 4 year old young redbuds grown from seed, blooming for the first time. There are perhaps a dozen trees just like these scattered around the homestead. When a seedling escapes my attention, as SHE would never notice, I scan the territory and decide if it’s a good choice or not. The seedlings are easy to pull up the first year but require great effort the next and so on as they have a magnificent tap root.

Four year old redbuds

So I ask her, “Don’t you love the shade those trees provide on hot summer days, just slipping into the shadow of their leaves, lingering for a few moments, maybe even taking a brief rest?”  “There you go again!”, she says, “always having to say something fancy. Just get on with the work.” I look at her and smile, maybe she has a bit of Ronald Reagan in her I think, then agree, and say yes, let’s move on.

After this conversation with the head gardener, I refrained from opining with her on how the redbud trees add another dimension to the landscape, I guess you could describe them as a flourish, that magical element that brings the surrounding trees and understory alive. I could not have pre-planned this. I did not have the vision or the luxury of time to see all the possibilities of the homestead. My nose was to the grindstone, like most of us in our daily working lives. Now that I can lift my head and stroll around, seeing what seedlings appear where and how they’d fit into the entire landscape, I have a new freedom. It excites me every day. Of course now I run out of energy and have to pace myself, but the vision becomes clearer and gives a thrill to these spring days.

And the early spring days fill with mowing and weeding, sowing seeds, setting out early transplants that can handle a late frost. I’ve admired this anemone, named after William Robinson, an English gardener in the late 19th century who advocated wild gardening, revolutionary in a time of formal gardens in England. A small colony has grown over 25 years and I revere this anemone as a tribute to him.

We now, finally, have some sensible spring weather after the heat wave of over 80 degrees for at least a week causing gardeners to lose their minds and set out tomatoes and peppers, sow bean seed and otherwise lose all control and run wild, working until after dark. Spring does do that to us, makes us madder than hatters running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Oh, too much philosophizing, I’ve been warned and will simply go gently into the spring’s night air letting all the fragrances seduce me as only spring can.

Ethereal spring

One thought on “Redbuds and Wild Sweet William

  1. Your little red pencil did some fine tuning and I thank you. Though next time could you use a regular pencil? The red ones make me think of school, staring out the window and waiting for 3 o’clock.


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