Recently, my friend, Andi asked me, “What’s your favorite flower?” Daffodils came to mind, as they were a childhood treasure. But that wasn’t the answer. My love for a specific flower has grown more complex over the years as I have traveled through different landscapes. New flowers have impressed me, and I no longer see a flower from the outside only. I have found unique qualities to love from the inside. For example, I feel a certain empathy towards flowers such as scarlet penstemon. These tough tubular blossoms can make their home in gravel or rock. Like me, they need the sun and don’t like crowds. I had to think long and hard to answer Andi’s question.
My mother planted flowers in the back yard of my childhood home in Southern California. The mild winters and warm weather kept almost any flower in perennial bloom. Along the house and fences, my mother grew roses, geraniums and carnations. If I smell these flowers today, my mind immediately time-travels to the warm sunny days of my youth.
My two sisters and I made perfumes. Father smoked cigars, and sometimes, these cigars were encased in glass tubes. We squished rose and geranium petals with our fingers. Pushed the petals deep into the glass. Added drops of water and leaves. We gave our tubes a vigorous shaking, twisted off the lid, and sniffed. We worked our potions until the fragrance was just right: something that smelled like green tea and ripe fruit. After our day’s work, red, white and pink carnations were tempting treats. We pulled off the blossoms, sucked sweet honey from the base.
Although I loved all the flowers in my mother’s garden, daffodils were different. My mother planted the brown bulbs in the fall and told us that, come spring, flowers would bloom. And even though I knew they would come, the first daffodils of each spring were pure delight as the brilliant yellow flowers popped all around our home.
Years later, when I lived in the high desert, our daffodils pushed through the snow. Yellow against a sea of white. I still feel a thrill at the sight of daffodils in the spring. They keep the time, tell me the seasons: soon there will be longer days and warmer nights.
In my thirties, I came to love wild flowers. Who knew so many flowers existed between 7,000 and 10,000 feet? As a back-country guide in the Sierra Nevada, the mountains were my backyard, and the flowers along the trails were as intimate as those my mother had planted in her garden.
In moist meadows, pink shooting stars blazed with neon color. Up close, the deep-pink blossoms nodded; bright yellow covered their base. I’d risk swarms of mosquitos or falls into the mud to capture their splendor. I still have an old photo of a meadow of shooting stars, but the picture doesn’t capture the whole story. To get close to the flowers, I had to wade deep into the soft, wet ground. My boots sank slowly into the mud as a horde of stinging mosquitos covered my body. I snapped the picture quickly, tried to make a run for it, but due to the heavy mud, I moved in a slow-motion trudge, my hands wildly slapping at insects. It was worth the effort, though, as each year in the grey of winter, I would open my photo books, see the flowers of summer and remember that sunshine and flowers would soon return.
But a favorite? For a while, it was harlequin lupine. This flower is a cluster of color: pink pea-pod-petals circle pods of yellow and white. Later, it was the dainty globe lily: an almost translucent, silky-white, fairy-lantern. In early spring, there was the joy of finding blood-red snow plants poking though a snow-dusted forest floor. In summer, the minty smell of pennyroyal filled the air long before the plant came into view.
I love spotted tiger lilies, crimson columbine, fire weed and fox glove, pine-drops and poppies. I can’t choose a favorite. When I see Andi, I’ll tell her I like my flowers wild. I am the lover who pours her affection on the one I’m with in the moment.
Kandi Maxwell lives and writes in the Sierra foothills of Northern California. She walks through forests, soaks and splashes in rivers, lakes and hot springs, and bends frequently in downward dog. She is a retired high school English teacher. Her work has been published in Fair Haven Literary Review, KYSO Flash, The Raven’s Perch, One in Four, Foliate Oak, and others. Her work has been nominated for The Best American Essay series.
Photo of spring lupine and California Poppy wildflowers with White Oak trees, Northern California Sierra foothills, by Terrance Emerson