By Jim Bishop. Well, I’ve made it to 65. The original plan was to be at Kings Canyon National Park in the Sierras and sit atop the rock where the famous photo of John Muir was taken and where the Sierra Club was founded. However, an odd twist of nature instead left me sheltering in place at home.
So, instead I celebrated by making a chocolate cake similar to the one my mother made for many birthdays. Many times, she made the chocolate cake from the recipe on the back of the Hershey’s cocoa can with Chocolate buttercream frosting for my birthday and many others.
The recipe is still the same, but the ‘can’ is no longer metal and is now plastic. However, another birthday cake from almost 50 also comes to mind that also had a big impact on me.
In high school in Houston, I often walked to and from school to avoid the ‘cowboy’ bullies on the school bus. On the way, I’d pass by this house down the street that had this wonderful garden that stood out from others in the neighborhood. I remember the dense pine that stood in the front lawn that was always ringed by beautiful flowers. In spring the pansies were magnificent. I never saw anyone home, but probably would have been too shy to say anything anyway.
In February of my sophomore year, I’d stayed out after midnight at my friend Steve Millard’s house and rode my bicycle home, put it in the garage and successfully snuck in the backdoor without waking my parents up. As I was getting ready for bed, I heard some pops like fireworks out front, heard glass breaking and then people yelling to get out. By the time I got to a front window, there was a bright glow from down the street, and I could see a house I’d just ridden past by was on fire. I woke up my parents. I so startled dad awake and the glow from the fire was so bright that he thought our house was on fire. He wanted to climb out the bedroom window. Luckily we lived in a one-story house. By the time we got into the street the fire department had arrived along with many people that had seen the glow and showed up to watch the spectacle as the shingle roof burned so hot that it was lifted into the air by the heat of the fire.
The next morning was a Saturday and many of us in the neighborhood showed up to help with the cleanup and recover any personal items in the house that could be saved. It was there that I met the next-door neighbors to the house that burned, Johnnie Pruitt and her husband. The beautiful garden I’d looked at many times belonged to them. Later, they invited me to see their backyard. I was blown away by all the wide raised beds of flowers and plants, all new to me. Over the next several months, I’d visit them whenever I could and even tried to take care of their garden when they were out of town. They taught me about candling pines to make them grow denser and how to trim plants in a natural way. Slowly, they started giving me plants for our house. They gave me geraniums (I’d learn years later they were really pelargoniums.), which looked to my untrained eye like they needed a lot of water and I drowned them. They gave me rudbeckias which were planted under the pink crepe myrtles on either side of the front walk. And they gave me this strange looking fern leaf clump of something that had an herbal smell. Johnnie said to divide it and it would grow into more clumps. So, I did. Not knowing the name, I dubbed it Mrs. Pruitt fern. I was much surprised when the following spring it sent up these stiff sprays of white flowerheads. Today, I know it was common yarrow, Achillea millefolium. It is native to much of the U.S., Europe and Asia. I see it frequently when hiking here in San Diego and many other places and gardens around the world. There are countless colored flower garden selections of this plant.
A couple of years ago, I bought a lot of mixed Southern California wildflower seeds and yarrow was in the mix. It now grows in several native areas on our hillside. I’m also recalling why I haven’t grown it much for the last 50 years. Once it gets regular water it runs and spreads quickly outcompeting other plants. The yarrow shown in the accompanying photos, I recently picked from the garden. It has already gotten a little out of control and will be cut back and separated from more desirable plants after it finishes blooming.
Besides learning about gardening from the Pruitts I also learned another lesson. In the early 70’s, several military officers were being court martialed for the Vietnam Mi Lai Massacre. A petition was being passed around the neighborhood calling for charges to be dropped. Somehow, I knew that Johnnie and her husband didn’t sign it. I asked them why. They very simply and plainly explained to me that it is possible that innocent children and women were killed, and their village burned, and that if true it would be wrong to not let justice take its course. I was only a young teenager at the time and other than the nightly news and the fear of being drafted and sent to Vietnam I did not really know much about the war or the massacre. But it made me think about justice and jumping to conclusions, and what group pressure can get people to do without thinking through their actions. It also made me aware of the larger world and what will be our place in history. Their comment has stuck with me all these years and seems more appropriate now than ever.
But back to cake. A short time later, Johnnie’s sister was dying of cancer and had moved in with the Pruitts. Somehow, I found out it was Johnnie’s birthday and mom suggested that I bake her a birthday cake. Really not a big deal since I was pretty good at baking cookies and cakes. So, I was excited to present Johnnie with a cake thinking she would be a little surprised and maybe happy. Her sister helped pull off the surprise and was so thankful saying she wanted to do something, but just didn’t have the energy to do anything. When Johnnie saw that cake, she started crying. It really caught me off guard and I thought I’d done something wrong only to learn that those were tears of happiness. So, 49 years later here's to Mom’s chocolate cake, the Mrs. Pruitt fern and lessons learned long ago.
Jim Bishop was the president of the San Diego Horticulture Society from 2012-2018 and honored as the 2019 Horticulturist of the year. He gardens on his steep one-acre hillside in Mission Hills and also makes frequent trips to explore plants and gardens around the world. His blog, My Life with Plants, documents some of his travels and past gardening experiences.