Why I Research Old Gardens

the following is a transcript of a talk delivered to the 10th annual meeting of the Heritage Rose Foundation in Tallahassee, FL in 1996 by George R. Stritikus, who was a County Extension Agent for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System at Auburn University. 

You know, it really is so. Most of us live in our own little worlds! They are so very different that it is a real miracle we can communicate with another person at all. But our lives do intersect with other people, at specific points. An interest in old roses is the reason our lives have intersected here today.

I am to speak to you on how and why I have researched old gardens and roses of Alabama for the last 20 years. Let’s begin with the more abstract aspect – Just why do I do this? There are several reasons that come to mind. Let’s look at each and see if they are a part of your world.

We need to step back and look again at the age old philosophical argument between heredity and environment – nature and nurture – are you born with it or do you acquire it?

I knew I acquired my interest in flowers at an early age. My earliest memory is of my father helping me plant some nasturtiums seeds in a flower pot on the porch steps. The earliest photo I have of myself, beside baby pictures, is me at about 4 years old, sitting in the grass beside our house, with a few daffodils in my hand.

I have always attributed the development of my interest in plants to my third grade teacher, Ms. Marguerite Page. She was the librarian at Baker Elementary school in Ensley. She had us bring flowers from home, which she would grow on the window ledges and sell at the PTA Fair to get money to buy new books. Last year, I recounted that story to the newspaper journalist who was doing a feature story about me and the 1-800 Garden Information Line I am responsible for at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Within the week, I got a thank you note from Ms. Page that left me quite puzzled. She said the sparking of interest was actually the other way around. My enthusiasm was so great, it inspired her to continue the project for several years after I had gone. Point of fact, she gardened in her front yard every morning of her retirement up until she died, last year.

It appears that I was born with the interest in plants, as well as having the interest stimulated within me. If the truth be told, I think any answer to the question “Why” will be a mixture of both heredity and environment. But there is another reason to why. What reward do I experience so that I continue the activity?

To try to answer this, we need to go back to the Middle Ages for a minute. Classical theology said that God had certain attributes – among which were creator, redeemer, preserver and sustainer. Part of our being made in the image and likeness of God, is that when we participate in activities which possess these attributes, something deep within ourselves resonates, saying “Yes! This is what Life is all about!” At least, this is the way it is for me!

While we are speaking of theology, all of us are said to have inherited Adam’s nature, but some of us have inherited more. Deep within me, I love tending to a garden. I would venture to say all of us here get the same sense of satisfaction interacting with Nature. We each possess our unique visions of that First Garden, and our gardens reflect that aspect of our own little worlds.

But I have inherited another trait from Adam, one that can really be a curse! I must know the name of all the plants around me. I hate not knowing! Those of you who share this affliction will know how I feel. You have possibly noticed that the names for the most common of plants can often be the hardest ones to find!

All of these things have a lot to do with why I love gardening and research garden history.

About twenty years ago, shortly after moving to Montgomery, I went to the state of Alabama’s Department of Archives and History, and asked to see anything in the files on Alabama gardens. The lady came out with only one folder. In that folder were 2 sheets of paper! I said to myself “No. No. No. This will never do!”

Today, the updated bibliography I have handed out to you lists all the items I have generated thus far, which comes to about 650 pages dealing with Southern gardens and roses in particular, and I still have more to write up!

It concerns me that the casual observer might say that I have been able to accomplish so much through nothing more than “connections” and “luck.” But that is really a very superficial view, and doesn’t portray the complexity of what has been going on these 20 odd years.

I have tried to step back and reflect on just how I assembled this body of information. I arrived at three basic principles. My advice to you would be to practice these for yourself and see what happens:

1. Follow your heart. Listen to that inner voice which nudges you to turn down that particular road when you are out driving, or to examine a particular book when you are doing research.. Serendipity is everywhere. In actuality, it seems that information is just waiting for somebody to uncover it. This is another way of saying that there is something bigger than just your brain that is operating and it can be utilized very effectively in your search for information!

2. Share your enthusiasm for what you are doing. Take a few old roses in a jar with you when you go to do research and share them with the staff. You are thereby making an impression that is worth a great deal. When asked cold turkey if they can recall any gardening materials in the files, most librarians will say “Not really”…because they haven’t been thinking about the materials in that way. But as time goes on, things will pop into their heads, and out of their treasures they can bring forth wondrous things to show you! I really didn’t find all these materials myself. Many of them found me, came to me from people who knew of my interest.

3. Get the information out and give credit where credit is due. The stereotype of a southern historian is one who is secretive about their information, wanting to do more research in greater detail before publishing anything at all. Historical research is never completed and never reaches the finishing point which that kind of careful scholarship seems to demand! It is by far better to get the information into circulation while your alive to dialog with it, than to become a reference source yourself after you’ve gone!

In conclusion, I would like to go back and look again at why I love plants in general and old roses in particular. I rescue and research old roses because it enriches my life. Having them around us, researching them in books adds the richness of a tapestry to our lives which they would otherwise not possess. I dare say many of you feel the same way.