In 1960, my father was transferred from Houston, Texas to Wichita, Kansas. I only have a few plant-related memories of Wichita. Our house had junipers and other evergreen foundation plantings with a Bermudagrass lawn and no trees. We planted portulaca seeds saved from Houston in the small garden bed along the front walkway. The neighbor two doors away grew giant brilliantly-colored zinnias on the south side of their house.
I do, however, have memories of the Cold War. On a clear night, my parents would get my brothers and me out of bed to watch the bright glow of sputnik as it passed over. Mom didn’t allow us to eat the snow or hailstones for fear that they were ‘radioactive’ from nuclear tests being conducted in Nevada and Utah. And mother said that should the Russians waste a nuclear bomb on Kansas, there is no doubt that the Bermuda grass would survive…but still be brown.
From Wichita, we were close enough to Colorado to go camping in the Rockies on my father’s two week vacation. More than the mountains though, I remember the endless fields of corn in western Kansas - that were in fact - as high as elephant’s eye. We stopped beside the road to take photos of zinnia fields that grew as far as you could see, and wonder, why doesn’t anyone grow sunflowers in the Sunflower State? For lunch we’d stop at roadside parks usually alongside a creek. I recall the load noise made by the leaves shaking in the hot breeze, and the fuzz from cottonwoods falling on everything and thinking what a strange tree and how tall they were compared to everything else on the high plains.
That summer my grandmother fell off a ladder and broke her back. My mother returned to her family home in Pittsburgh with my younger brother and me to help her father in his veterinarian business. My Aunt Betty showed me all the plants on the property. We picked fresh mulberries for breakfast. In the back, grandpa raised rabbits for food and fertilizer. Mixed into the flower beds was a strange plant called rhubarb with poisonous leaves, but you could eat the stems in early spring. My younger brother would stay on with mom in Pittsburgh while I was sent to spend the summer with my Aunt Mary and her family in Akron, Ohio. Their entire backyard was a large vegetable garden where they would grow all of their fresh produce. Aunt Mary would can fruit and vegetables in mason jars and store them in the basement for winter use. Though it would still be several decades before I would be willing eat them, it was here that I saw my first vegetables that didn’t come from the freezer or a can. On the front porch, between hands of bridge, my aunt would show me how to prepare fresh snap beans for cooking. In the garden, she’d explain how to grow beans, tomatoes, corn and strawberries. The different shapes and varieties of the plants were very surprising and fascinating to me. I was very confused that mulberries came from trees, strawberries came from plants that crawled on the ground and raspberries came from bushes. On Sundays, we’d go on long drives in the country and stop occasionally at roadside stands looking for good prices on seasonal produce. At one stand I remember seeing the strange looking orange and white turban squash. I wondered how you would eat anything so hard and strange looking. I wanted one even though my aunt assured me that a picky eater like me would never eat it.
Our stay in Wichita would be short and we’d soon be off to the tropical paradise of South Florida where my interest in plants would really take off.
Jim Bishop was elected President of San Diego Horticultural Society in August 2011.