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W.C. Handy had Beale Street in mind in mind when he wrote, “I’d rather be here than any place I know.” In March and April, many of us feel the same way about our entire city when every day seems to bring forth another wonderment of nature. Is there a better place in America to watch spring unfold? Perhaps. But all we have to do is sit on our porches, walk around our neighborhoods, and drive through our city to take it in.
I well remember my first introduction to the horticultural delights of Memphis. I drove into the city in late December 1972, just days before I began my job as food editor of The Commercial Appeal. As I navigated through the unfamiliar streets of Midtown, I was mesmerized by the glossy green leaves of behemoth Southern magnolias, trees I had never seen before.
A few months later, April brought bold and colorful flowers to almost every front yard I passed. I asked a co-worker about the magnificent magenta, pink, purple, and white blooms I was seeing. “Are you talking about the azaleas?” the thoroughly Southern woman replied in a voice tinged with disbelief. These shrubs, I quickly came to learn, are so common that natives of this region cannot imagine anyone NOT knowing them.
Today I shudder in confronting my early ignorance. I grew up in St. Louis, where magnolias and azaleas struggle to thrive in its Midwestern climate. Then I spent three years in Michigan, where spring sort of arrives by mid-May but never with a bouquet of azaleas.
Other transplants from northerly regions report having similar reactions to the exuberance of spring in Memphis.
Rick Pudwell, director of horticulture at Memphis Botanic Garden, remembers how struck he was by the prevalence of green in the city’s landscape when he arrived here in mid-February 1986 to interview for a job at the Memphis Zoo. He had traveled here from the mostly brown and white landscape of snowy Chicago to mild sunny Memphis with its abundance of broadleaf evergreens like hollies, Southern magnolias, and azaleas. Shortly after he assumed the job as foreman and horticulturalist at the zoo, he experienced his first Memphis spring, noticing not only its beauty but its length.
“In the North, spring is later and more compressed,” he says. “Here it unfolds more slowly so we get to enjoy it for two or three months.”
I don’t have to tell anyone spring is early this year. In my garden it began in January with the appearance of a daffodil that more than lives up to its name, Early Sensation, and continued with what seems like hundreds of long booming deep coral flowers. Without getting nipped by the usual frosts, Asian magnolias with abundant star and saucer shaped flowers in white and shade of pinky purple reached a pinnacle of perfection. Blooms on forsythias, loropetalums, quinces and cherry trees made early appearances, too.
To those who fret about what weather surprises in the near future might do to plants that have yet to bloom, I say, don’t worry, be happy with what is.
For Diane Meucci, who also hails from Chicago, the Memphis landscape is all about natural areas forested with deciduous trees. Although urban and suburban sprawl is eating up a lot of the native forest, we still experience it in parks like Shelby Farms, Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park, and Overton Park as well as the edges of developed areas.
“When I first came here I was blown away by the dogwoods and redbuds,” says Meucci, who co-owns Gardens Oy Vey in Arlington with her husband, Wolfgang Marquardt. “I think those trees should be planted in every parking lot.”
Because redbuds are fast growing, they seem to “protect” the dogwoods that need more time to reach their glorious maturity, Meucci says. Daffodils and hellebores give her pleasure and the sight and fragrance of wisteria growing up alongside Southern magnolias and tall trees excite her senses.
I’m glad that after living here 44 years I still feel that newness and wonder. Native Memphians may have their exuberance tempered a bit by never knowing anything but this annual show.
“It’s hard to celebrate what always been in your back yard,” says Dale Skaggs, director of horticulture at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens. Skaggs left his hometown in 1997 to pursue studies in horticulture, botany, and landscape architecture in Oregon, a region whose conifer-filled landscape captivated his attention.
“But what I missed most when I was there were the dogwoods, azaleas, and spring ephemerals we have in Memphis,” he says.
Spring brings a whirlwind of work to anyone who earns a living by making landscapes gorgeous for others. For Skaggs, Pudwell, and Meucci, it can be difficult to stop and smell the roses.
“I probably stop and appreciate plants individually more in the winter than the spring,” Skaggs says. “But I am still enamored with trilliums and azaleas — especially native varieties — and I can’t get enough of wild blue phlox, foamflowers, and yellow woodpoppies.”
The best way to get to know great plants for the spring garden is to observe what you see all over the region. Take photos of the plants you admire and then ask an expert to identify them. Stopping and snapping pictures of flowers, trees, and shrubs is something I do so often I need a bumper sticker that reads: “Caution: I brake for plants.”
Christine Arpe Gang has been writing about gardening in Memphis for more than 30 years, primarily for The Commercial Appeal. She seeks out the best plants and growing techniques to share with her readers and use in her own garden.