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Foolishness of ornamentals has evolved into usefulness

Foolishness of ornamentals has evolved into usefulness

Posted: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 8:00 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams

Ken Goddard, former University of Tennessee Extension agent here and bean, corn and switchgrass man par excellence, once remarked, regarding ornamental gardening, that if he couldn’t eat it or sell it, he wouldn’t fool with it.
He had a point and held an overwhelmingly common opinion in this part of the country. Say “garden”  here, and 99 percent of your hearers will think vegetables.
My rejoinder to Goddard was, “Well, I can buy corn and tomatoes at the Farmers’ Market, but where can I buy homegrown hollyhocks or azaleas?  
I have to grow my own, of course.
It would be interesting to know how many hundred thousand years ago it was when Oona Thag and Roga Zok were enjoying their luncheon together in Mesopotamia. Surely it was then that the hostess, returning into the cave with a bowl of fricassied possum or armadillo on the half shell, must have seen those wild tulips or crocuses growing just outside.
“Hmmm” — or grunt, grunt  — she must have said, and then thought, wouldn’t a posy of those be nice to spice up our stone-slab table?
The rest is history, on down to the hanging gardens of Babylon, to Roman cloisters adorned with flowers, to the great hardy borders and landscapes of the British Isles, and even on down to Williamsburg and, further (a lot further) down to the patches of petunias at our doorsteps.
Agreed, there was a lapse of more than a few millenia between the first domesticated edible gourd in Africa or the Middle East and the posy of wild tulips, but once the wheel got rolling, there was no stopping it. Ornamental gardening has since been evolving, almost without a lapse, and even during some of the most trying ordeals humans have experienced, i.e. wars, famines, plagues and etc. etc.
 Following the sequence to its logical conclusion (now, for all practical purposes) what does it reveal?
I would posit it proves conclusively that there is value in ornamental gardening, else why have we been doing it all that time?
I’ll go even further, and claim that to its most ardent devotees it has more value than some other forms of art. And it is art, certainly in its most sophisticated forms.
At some point in our distant past, Zork realized that those wild gourds came from one of those things he kept spitting out while eating the gourd. Some of the pile of refuse outside his cave popped out of the ground in spring and, several moons later, turned into a vine that extended many feet and birthed the gourds.
He then, certainly, realized he could collect seeds, save them, then take a crooked stick and punch a hole in the ground the next spring and plant  them. Not just anywhere, but precisely where he wanted them.
The next step, a few millenia later, another thought crept into one of Zork’s descendant’s two brain cells. The flowers that preceded the gourds were actually pretty. Not prettier than his companion and mother of his children, but prettier than, say, a butchered mammoth.
Gourd flowers are still pretty, and so are those of okra and any number of edibles. But haven’t we come a long way in wasting time on ornamentals?
From Poor Willie’s Almanack
You grow the gourds and okra. I’ll grow the azaleas and hollyhocks. Besides, I have nice friends that give me tomatoes.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is the garden writer at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Mondays at (731) 642-1162.

Published in The Messenger 8.14.12

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