Ellen Willmott was a British artist and gardener who had several plants named after her, including a white, double-flowering lilac and a pale, pink-edged rose. The best known plant that bears her name, however, is a biennial sea holly, eryngium gigantium, known as 'Miss Willmott's Ghost.' Apparently Miss Willmott enjoyed sprinkling the seeds of this particular plant about--in effect, leaving her "ghosts" to appear in the gardens of her friends and acquaintences long after she had departed those places.
You can see an image of her starry, silvery doppelganger (or a similar cultivar) at the bottom of this first picture, courtesy of King Coyote and Flickr. When I first read about Miss Willmott's sneaky propagation of this eryngium, I shuddered. I couldn't imagine someone ever doing that to my garden, and I knew that I would never be so brazen as to invade someone else's garden in that way.
Or... would I?
Hmm. Time to digress for a minute:
Like so many women in her generation, my fraternal grandmother was a "homemaker." Since she was very good at sewing and upholstering, she often did work for other people out of her home while my grandpa earned a living mixing and laying cement. I have always been amazed at how easy Grandma made it seem to create new, tightly fitting cushions for an old rocking chair or whip up a bride's dream dress with nary a pattern book in sight.
Grandma still lives in the house beside my childhood home, where she and grandpa raised their 6 kids--and where I "pilfered" some of her variegated iris this summer. Grandpa died at 57, before he even reached retirement age, and she mostly relies on monthly social security checks to pay her bills. As you can imagine, she could definitely use the money that I would happily pay her for her work on my bridesmaids dresses, business suits, and so on.
Unfortunately, whenever that is offered she insists rather indignantly that, "I will not let my grandchildren pay me for any sewing work! I'm just happy that I can still do this for you." Her good German stubbornness has percolated down through the generations, however, and I can't help but think of how she's saved me at least (yes, at least) $700 in alteration costs over the past decade.
And so I have become determined to do something--preferably something that she simply will not be able to be mad about--to pay back her kindness in some small way. And this is how I came to understand Miss Willmott a whole lot better.
See, I was looking at tulip bulbs this fall when suddenly, an idea clicked. Grandma really loves her "pretties," even though she can no longer do a lot of the heavy work in the garden. She might balk at me offering to buy her mulch or bringing over a new trellis for her now-huge clematis, but... well, really, what could she say about tulips?
Tulips come up in the spring, when any color that breaks the grey/brown of a Northwest Ohio winter is sure to bring a smile. And by the time she becomes aware of their existence, the actual acts of buying and planting them are long over. There has to be some statue of limitations (or so I can claim) on complaining about a random act of beautification. And my trump card is this: Before Grandma can even utter the words, "Kim! You didn't have to do that," or shake a finger in my direction... she will first have to figure out that I am the person responsible for the riot of 120 'Impression Mix' Darwin hybrid tulips in her front garden and huge cast iron pot!
Just a few key, trustworthy family members knew about my tulip-planting plan, which was successfully completed earlier this evening. Armed with a bagful of bulbs, a trowel, a shovel and a 5-gallon bucket, I snuck over to her house just after she left for my cousin's basketball game. I carefully skimmed the mulch off of the top of the bed and stored it in the bucket while I dug up some ground for the "large drifts." (The trowel was used to plant some bulbs into the cast iron pot as well.)
Eventually the bulbs were all tucked in, mulch was replaced and smoothed, and a dusting of oakleaves was randomly raked over the area to further hide any evidence of garden disturbance. It was a little later than twilight when I gathered up my things and started walking home with red cheeks and frosty fingers. And suddenly I thought of Miss Willmott, and remembered my initial horror at her eryngium-strewing hubris, and grinned.
I'm not about to make a habit of planting seeds or even random bulbs in other people's gardens... but I think that I understand her a little better now. I would imagine that as she left a garden in which she had sprinkled her magic ghost-dust, she was hoping for the same thing that I was tonight: To have planted not just a plant, but some delight and wonderment for another gardener to discover.