Kage Baker was a great gardener. She could grow almost anything except zinnias. Don’t know why those would not grow – zinnias are tough, usually – but she could not get them to thrive, anywhere we ever lived. Which was a genuine pity, because she loved them. But they withered or mutated into calendulas or were attacked by ants or eaten by gophers. One year they were all devoured by white-headed sparrows. A true grotesquerie.
For years she avoided tulips, because she felt they were boring. Florist flowers in vapid pastels, she said. La la, what a drag. Also, tulips have a reputation for being difficult. It’s a warranted reputation, too, but if you find the right varieties, the trouble is worth it. When we moved to Pismo Beach, Kage discovered exotic tulips. She also took up residence in a portion of California that gets cold in the winter, that has actual frost, that sometimes freezes. And when she planted tulips there, they bloomed.
Kage went crazy for tulips. Never mind those bags of sad, dessicated bulbs you find in the hardware stores – she pored over catalogues and ordered her plants from breeders. Her favourite was Old House Gardens (oldhousegardens.com) which specializes in rare, heirloom and antique bulbs. Tulips with petals like dragonfly wings and damascened stilettos. Tulips with fringes, with viral colour patterns, with toothed edges, with actual freaking scents! Tulips with odd numbers of petals, tulips that re-bloomed or had sprays of multiples; the aboriginal feral tulips from the wilds of Turkey and Afghanistan.
She planted them all in planters, so we could keep track of them. At first she took them up in winter and stored them in the fridge – we had one crisper for veggies and one for tulips – but eventually it proved cold enough to leave them in the earth. All our roses were ringed with tulips, and whole planters were dedicated to them. For a few precious weeks in January and February, the garden looked like a medieval tapestry. And since little else was blooming then (except nasturtiums. Nasturtiums will survive nuclear holocausts and the zombie apocalypse), it was twice as rich and gorgeous.
We never picked them. For cut tulips, we went to Trader Joe’s and got their wonderful, locally grown and ridiculously cheap tulips bouquets. You can find some really lovely odd ones in those. Kage always kept them until the petals went transparent and looked like stained glass, and fell all over her desk with a noise like ripped silk. I found tulip petals in all the drawers when I packed the desk out …
This time a year ago, only a few had bloomed. There were two buds; there was one fully opened flower, one of the red and white mixes she loved best. I forget which one – maybe an Absolom or an Insolinde or a Mabel; maybe a Striped Sail, which may have been her utter favourite. All I remember is that one tulip was standing in the garden, glowing red and white. Kage couldn’t go out to see it – she was simply no longer walking at all – but I told her about it and brought her a photo on my phone. She was delighted.
In fact, all that day she seemed to gain strength and energy. Anne and her daughters and the lovely Emma Rose were coming up that weekend, and more good friends were expected the next weekend, too. Kage was eager to see people, lively and in a good mood. She dictated notes on a story about a witch that married a troll – major in-law problems, there – and we read through another volume of P.G. Wodehouse.
I wish I had managed to help her to the window, though. To see the last tulip.