IN THE GRIMMER PARTS of Europe, as in so much of the world, you find very little variety among the plants cultivated for their beauty. The poor have to make do with whatever comes to hand, and when you go from village to village, from town to town, you see the same stock shrubs, the same common flowers, which have clearly been passed from home to home, for generations.
I was traveling through one of the uglier parts of Belgium by train, with a friend, on a pleasant morning in early spring, watching from the train window an endless procession of forsythia bushes and flowering quince, in an industrial landscape that has only recently been somewhat cleaned up. Both the forsythia and the quince—Chaenomeles speciosa, the plant that always used to be known in England as plain “japonica”—are known for their ability to resist pollution, which is no doubt why they became such a feature of a Belgian mining district.
I was thinking of some of the ritziest flower arrangements in the world, in the beautiful niches in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and how, shortly before this Belgian journey, I had seen the Met foyer filled with huge branches of that same flowering quince. To an Englishman, the sight is bound to amaze, for we seldom let the quince grow into a full-size bush. In our tradition, it is grown clipped against a wall, often beneath a downstairs window, where it acquires a characteristic gnarled shape. And when we cut it for the house, we would cut a few little snippets of it, and arrange them perhaps so as to look a little Japanese.
All these years, we’ve been treating it this way, when we could have been doing what the Belgian miners (and American horticulturalists) do: we could have let it grow free-standing and as large as it pleased, and then we could have cut great branches of it for the house. We have thought of it as a tender shrub for the shelter of a south wall—we have given it the most coveted place in the garden, when all it needed was a backyard in Belgium, a railway siding, a scrap metal lot.
My friend and I talked about the way New Yorkers understood something about cut flowers that we had always been too timid to take in: the beauty of a vast arrangement of something simple like forsythia. Then my friend said: “Mind you, I don’t actually like forsythia out of doors.”
There is a reason for this dislike, as I quickly pointed out. In English suburban gardens, forsythia always takes its place and blooms in close proximity to pink-flowering cherries, so that a somewhat assertive yellow is always associated with sugar pink. The two colors do nothing for each other. Move the forsythia away from the cherry and it reverts to its proper beauty. But in suburban gardens it is impossible to keep your forsythia away from your neighbor’s flowering cherry.
The problem is insoluble, and it is aggravated by the English passion for pruning. We like to tidy our forsythia into neat shapes. But the plant looks best the way it looks in Central Park—unpruned in the understory, as if it had sown itself around the woods. And we can enjoy something like this look if, when we come to harvest our forsythia for the house, we behave as if we were filling the urns at the Met, cutting away whole branches to force indoors—just as we can cut armfuls of flowering quince, if we grow the bushes in the way they seem to prefer.
I was thinking of this as we sped through the ugly bits of Belgium—how beautiful they were, the neglected railside shrubs of past generations. And I thought: I shall not stop growing japonica on a wall in the way my grandmother did, but I shall add to my collection as many varieties as I can find, and dot them around the garden, and treat them with a Belgian neglect. And that way I shall have something spectacular to bring into the house, the strangest cocktail of beauty by association: ancient Japan, the industrial Meuse, and all the extravagance of the Upper East Side.
Poet and critic James Fenton takes a fresh look at a pair of familiar shrubs