In the Garden: The art of restraint

On Shavuot, it's customary to decorate with plants whose ability to grow in hard conditions is legendary.

kalanit flower 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
kalanit flower 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Outtake: Herbaceous perennials are so-called because of their soft stems and persistence from year to year. They may completely disappear from view but come back seemingly from the dead in spring or summer If Succot teaches us about the temporality of life, and Pessah is about freedom, Shavuot gives instruction as to the meaning of restraint. Shavuot is ostensibly an agricultural holiday, a celebration of the first harvest, yet the emphasis is not on how much your land produces, but on the quality and quantity of what you give away. Your first fruits are taken to Jerusalem and brought as an offering for the Temple priests. Back home, your harvest cannot be enjoyed until you have tithed it appropriately, carefully leaving appropriate amounts for the poor. The story of Ruth is a tender tribute to restraint and self-sacrifice. When Naomi's husband and two sons die in Moab, she urges her daughters-in-law not to follow her back to the Land of Israel, even though she would be alone without them. Ruth follows her anyway. Although Naomi is kin to Boaz and, by rights, could have become his wife, she restrains herself, stays in the background, and gently manipulates Ruth's betrothal to Boaz instead. Boaz, although attracted to Ruth, is nevertheless willing to sacrifice his desire in allowing a relative to marry Ruth because of Levirate protocol. Only when this relative demurs does Boaz make Ruth his bride. JUST BEFORE the people received the Torah, commemorated on Shavuot, they were told to restrain their flocks from grazing at the foot of the mountain. God had caused luxuriant trees, flowers and grasses to grow on Mount Sinai prior to giving the Torah. After hearing the first of the Ten Commandments directly from God, the people's souls departed and, upon being miraculously resurrected and hearing the second commandment, understood they needed to restrain themselves from direct contact with the Almighty and needed Moses to be their intermediary in receiving God's laws. It is customary on Shavuot to decorate the home and synagogue with plants. The most fitting plants for decoration, since they last for a week or longer in a vase, are herbaceous perennials, whose ability to grow under adverse circumstances is legendary. In the garden, their restraint is demonstrated in a minimal need for water and fertilizer. Consider the Negev and Yeroham irises, their deep crimson, brown or purple flowers vivid against pale sandy soil, or the violet blue Gilboa iris, flourishing in heavy, unfertile earth. These plants put forth their opulent blooms year after year without complaint, and from scant resources on which to draw. Herbaceous perennials are so-called because of their soft stems and persistence from year to year. They may completely disappear from view but come back seemingly from the dead in spring or summer. One of the most charming native perennials is cyclamen (rakefet). I have found it growing in wild abundance in a park near the Jerusalem Theater. To ensure that your cyclamen survives the summer, often in a defoliated condition, make sure it has a dry and cool garden spot. And then you must have seen that red to red-orange anemone (kalanit) with the lacy foliage. It pops up unexpectedly in untrammeled open spaces and vacant lots. Its seeds are readily available in packets at flower shops. HIPPEASTRUM IS the cut flower of choice for late winter and spring gardens. These plants are known as Amaryllis and produce gigantic trumpets of orange-red, pink and white. They spread slowly but, once they have naturalized an area, are beyond compare. The workhorse of the herbaceous perennial garden is the spring- blooming lily-of-the-Nile (Agapanthus). Although most famous for its meter-tall porcelain-blue varieties, there are also violet and white cultivars, as well as dwarf types. These are plants last a lifetime as long as they are divided every several years. You can have a summer full of orange and yellow cut flowers if you plant a patch of daylilies (Hemerocallis). There are scores of daylily varieties, including burgundy, mauve, and double-flowered versions. At summer's end, the naked lady (Amaryllis belladonna) blooms in fair-size trumpets of pink. In summer's shade, you can be refreshed with the cooling white of calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica). Peruvian lilies (Alstromeria) bloom throughout the year. They spread like weeds but you won't mind seeing them proliferate while blooming in red, pink, yellow, orange and white. They always last more than a week in the vase. Dwarf Peruvian lilies with a cushiony form are also available. The writer would be happy to answer your questions on gardening.