In July, just after the black sage in my front yard finishes blooming, the Hooker’s evening primrose sends up stalks of yellow flowers. The stalks grow taller each day with new buds at their tips. Early evening, the buds open, each one unfurling four heart-shaped petals creased down the middle and joined at the base. Sphinx moths and other night-time pollinators dart from flower to flower, guided to the nectar by the crease, wings and silky petals glistening in the moonlight.
When the primrose is blooming, I devote a few minutes each night to sitting outside with the flowers. I am nose-height with the first primrose of the season, but such intimate proximity doesn’t last: As the days, weeks and months go by, the stalks of flowers grow taller and taller. Soon they are past the top of my head, the porch railing, the windows and, by early September, some reach the eave of the house. Autumn nights, with spires of primrose around me, I am in a forest of flowers reaching toward the stars.
I first encountered Hooker’s evening primrose at Mono Hot Springs high in the Sierras, just east of Kaiser Pass. At 6,700’ elevation, Mono Hot Springs was a favorite summer destination for my family. From our campsite by the gentle controlled flow of the south fork of the San Joaquin River, seven-year-old Antonia and nine-year-old Evelyn rode inner tubes about a mile downstream, where they clambered out, hoisted their inner tubes onto their heads and started the half-mile hike back to camp through lodgepole and ponderosa pine forest. All day long, they looped through camp again and again, guarded by our border collies, Abbey and Lucy, who anxiously watched them float away and then ran to meet them at the place they climbed ashore. Each time the four of them returned, the scent of coyote mint wafted behind them from the tendrils that had brushed their ankles as they trekked through the pines.
Late one afternoon, chilled from a particularly long day of fun, Antonia and Evelyn acquiesced to a short hike to the hot springs. The mineral-pool-studded hillside was a jumble of wildflowers: shooting stars, corn lilies, mountain bluebells and, waving above them in the breeze, large yellow flowers with heart-shaped petals just beginning to open for the night. Settling into a pool of warm sulfur-rich water flanked by primroses, I put my arms around Antonia and Evelyn and felt something close to bliss.
I reveled in the primroses every time we returned to Mono Hot Springs for our week of pure summer. Then, as a teen-ager, Evelyn declared her distaste for camping and Mono Hot Springs ceased to be in our lives. Distracted by the demands of parenting and work, I forgot about Hooker’s evening primrose until Evelyn was in her last year of college and a card from my friend Mary arrived in the mail.
The card said simply, “From my garden to yours. Hooker’s evening primrose.”
Inside the envelope were tiny black seeds so fine they looked like dust. Tears welled in my eyes with memories of children, dogs and days gone by.
A few months later during the first rain of the season, I lightly raked some patches of ground in my front yard and scattered the seeds. Within weeks the first leaves of primrose appeared, tiny flecks of green on translucent stems as slender as spider silk. The flecks grew to small rosettes so abundant that the patches of ground, bare just weeks before, now looked like green throw rugs. Some thinning was needed. Taking advantage of a cloudy day, I carefully separated the seedlings and transplanted them along the front of the house. I reasoned that, since the windowsills were five feet above the ground, three-to-four-foot-tall stalks of flowers would be just about right.
“The World Wildlife Fund has just issued its 10th Living Planet Report: More than half of the world’s birds, mammals, fish, amphibians and reptiles have been lost since 1970. The seed in my front yard is a tiny bulwark against more loss.”
All spring, I watched the soft ground-hugging rosettes of long pointed leaves mature to about a foot across. Then, just after the summer solstice, the rosettes pushed up stalks of buds. Soon thereafter, my nightly commune with the primrose began, as did a new summer morning ritual: breakfast by the dining room window so that I could watch the carpenter bees and other pollinators visiting the flowers. The insects flew as if there were no time to spare. And there wasn’t – every morning, even though the flowers had been open less than fourteen hours, many were already starting to wither in the early morning light.
All summer, I breakfasted with the primroses, watching the stalks of flowers inch higher and higher each day for months. By August, all along the front of the house, the stalks looked like giant golden straws beaded with green husks of ripening seed, each stalk topped with a bright yellow beacon. The husks deepened to golden brown as they dried, elongated and split open at the top. Finches and sparrows came to feed, delving their wedge-shaped beaks into the four compartments of each husk for seed. Day by day, the outer walls of the husks curled back like stiff petals as the birds probed ever more deeply. Some mornings, more than three dozen finches perched on the stalks, slotted between the husks, the stalks bobbing and swaying with each burst of excavation.
By the end of September, most but not all of the seed is consumed. Some of the stalks look untidy, listing far from vertical, but I am loath to prune them down. The World Wildlife Fund has just issued its 10th Living Planet Report: More than half of the world’s birds, mammals, fish, amphibians and reptiles have been lost since 1970. The seed in my front yard is a tiny bulwark against more loss.
Someone who passes by my yard and glances at it for only a few seconds will gain only the most superficial impression, and therein lies the problem: the typical passerby will look at the garden and measure it only against conventional notions of beauty that care nothing for the extinction crisis we are in. Without these creatures, how beautiful will our world be? A world largely empty of everything but people and our artifacts is the world we are making. And we are making that world with every decision that values initial impressions over commitment to the creatures that remain.
I want to say to all passersby: Come and sit with me in my garden. Sit with me in the moonlight and watch the sphinx moths hover at the primroses. Sit with me in the morning and watch the finches feast. Open your heart to these beings and what they need. Open your heart to the unconventional beauty of these spires of primrose and seed.