ALL’S WELL THAT AGES WELL
Study Your Flowers & Bees To Stimulate Your Brain
by Peter William Gribble
My Aunt Edith loved her plants and her garden. Uncle Walter, her husband used to joke that she grew all the native ferns found in Canada. Bonsai was another passion of hers and she helped run the Toronto Bonsai Society as secretary for ten years. Her basement was a grow-op, lights hanging everywhere shining on an unbelievable plethora of fascinating exotica (all legal) collected from around the world.
I wasn’t able to visit often, but it was a joy whenever I did for we shared the love of plants. She carried on by herself well into her late seventies. We would talk on the phone about plants, but when I last visited her I was startled by the change. Her former meticulous watering had grown haphazard. Many plants, nurtured for years, stood desiccated in their pots. I offered to help but she adamantly refused saying everything was fine. Nor would she answer why her plants were dying but my question was probably why I was never invited back.
This was the mid-70s when Alzheimer’s was little known. Shortly after, she was moved into a care facility and the house was sold.
References to dementia now seem everywhere with people, young and old, half-joking about their faulty memory, a distracted, wandering mind or ‘senior moments’. How do you combat the stealthy corrosion of our attention? First: turn off the tech devices. Second: bring your attention back to the world around you. Several years ago, a long term study at the Rush University Medical Centre showed seniors reporting greater purpose in life exhibited better cognition than those with less purpose even as plaques and tangles (frequently associated with Alzheimer’s) accumulated in their brains.
Therefore, when the senses seem to flag, re-stimulate them to keep the others going. The main sense – the sense of self, needs stimulation too. Keep the brain alive! Improve your memory by exercising it! If you are a gardener, learn Latin! At least the botanical variety of it. If you know your own family history, you can learn some of your plant friends’ scientific names, too.
Start with our common tomato. It depends on binomial nomenclature or the “Jane and John Doe” of plant names.’ Except that it’s arranged: Doe, Jane and John, like announcement columns in newspapers. The species name of our tomato is Solanum lycopersicum. The first word is the genus the tomato belongs to: Solanum, which is thought to relate to the sun or to the verb to comfort. The second name, in this case lycopersicum, means wolf-peach because the fruit were so large compared to other members of the Solanum family.
Together the two parts form the species name. Any name after Solanum lycopersicum, such as “Early Girl” or “Sweet Millions” is the specific variety of the species. Think of it as the nickname setting it apart from all the other Solanum lycopersicums, though ‘Wolf-peach’ is an arresting enough name for anyone to go by.
Once you’ve established that you’re dealing with the Solanum family the name is reduced to its initial with a period (S.) So when you see: S. tuberosa, you’re looking at the potato genus. When you’re planting seeds of S. melongena, you know you’ll harvest eggplants.
When learning the Latin for plants imagine you’re at a huge family reunion. There are too many to remember all at once. So start by learning the ones you’re already familiar with and go from there. Create a memory jog to induce the name to pop back easily.
Who could forget old Wolf-peach? What a tomato! You get the picture.
If your eyesight is fatigued from staring at a screen all day, try planting flowers with stronger hues. Or consider a rare type of garden: one you listen to. Plants rustle, clack, whisper, shush, swish and creak. Some trees are downright noisy, others more discrete. Certain bamboos kick up a ruckus even in a moderate breeze. Plant a variety of flowers to attract a wider range of pollinators.
Can you tell the difference between the buzz of a bumblebee and a honeybee? Not all bumblebees sound alike either. There are morning, afternoon and evening bumblebees, each with their own individual pitch and hum. Many have very regular habits, returning to the same flowers at the same time every day until the flowers are done.
And, of course, having a bird feeder will bless you with birdsong. Think of adding a wind chime or a water feature.
Touch your garden and reacquaint yourself with your nerve endings. Comb your fingers through different ornamental grasses. Do it carefully for some may cut, others caress. A few weeks ago certain leaves were like soft tissue, now they’re firm and stiff as cardboard. Spring shoots of the dwarf mugo pine feel like a mini-forest of upright Q-tips. Newly shooted Japanese maple leaves are feathery kisses against the face. Even the soft thorns on a young blackberry cane are pliable to the touch, but not for long. You may discover sensations in one hand are subtly different when felt by the other despite stroking the same thing.
Don’t do this simultaneously; take turns with one hand, then the other. I have pots of low growing Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa) on both sides of the deck chairs for just such meditative fondling.
A scented garden is an enriching experience. I noticed several years ago my own sense of smell seemed to be faltering and, to rejuvenate it, I started collecting scented plants. It worked – my sense of smell sharpened again. Honeysuckles, jasmines and roses were only the beginning. I love the grape jelly or bubble gum smell of certain irises, the clove-like smell of carnations and the salty-peppery scent of lupins. Not so, the pungent rue or the fishy Houttuynia, yet they are good contrasts. Monarda or beebalm and the many different mints, sages and thymes are good additions to the olfactory repertoire but the herb to lift the spirits is Aloysia citrodora or lemon verbena. Its sweet, sunny clarity is irresistible.
Pinch or rub a leaf between your fingers and inhale and wake.
Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull has a line “… Instead of being enfeebled by age, the Elder had been empowered by it.” If you are worried about diminished senses, or even tired ones at the end of the day, remember Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) whose eyesight was deteriorating in her fifties. It forced her to put aside her beloved needlepoint and watercolours. She went on to design over four hundred gardens, write fifteen books and transformed the way the world gardened.
Four hundred gardens? Most of us barely have time for one. So let that one garden – no matter how small – transform your senses and your life.