Mike Hayman was rummaging around in Louisville last month when he found a photo he’d taken of Louise “Weesie” Smith in her Birmingham, Alabama, garden on April 15, 2015. The striking photo he sent me was of Weesie standing beneath beside an arbor covered with blooms of a Chinese fringe tree (Chionanthus retusus). Mike, his wife Leslie Pancratz, and I had driven down the day before to meet Weesie for a story Mike photographed, and I wrote, for The American Gardener.

Weesie Smith under her arbor with Chinese fringe tree. Mike Hayman photo

Over the past few weeks, the plants Louise Goodall Smith and Kurt Erwin Bluemel shared with me more than 25 years ago have triggered memories. A disjunct buckeye dug off a roadside near Haneyville, Alabama, and a grape hyacinth uprooted near a military base in the former Soviet Union are in bloom now in Salvisa. Neither plant is on anyone’s hit parade of love, but that matters little to me.

This got me thinking

Lots of people remember Weesie for her devotion to gardening, especially native plants. She was smart, tireless, curious, and unassuming. “I’m just a dirt gardener,” she told me, but Weesie was no pushover. She is remembered as a hard-nosed advocate for preserving natural areas in Alabama.

I met Weesie in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1984 at the 50th anniversary meeting of the North American Rock Garden Society (NARGS). She was standing alone. I walked up and introduced myself. I was 33 years old and knew only a smidgen about rock garden plants. Weesie once had a large garden on Pine Ridge Road but scaled down to a neat-as-a-pin, small suburban garden in Forest Park that was chock full of beautiful plants. Some of them precious rarities; others common as dirt.

Weesie with cross-vine, Bignonia capreolata

Kurt Bluemel, the Fallston, Maryland, nurseryman and garden designer known as Der Gras König—the King of Grasses—came into my life at the same Asheville NARGS meeting.  (I don’t know if Weesie and Kurt first met here, or ever met.) Kurt was charismatic, a life force—barrel-chested, self-assured, artistic, demanding, and in possession of a full, gray head of hair that rivaled Cesar Romero’s. We became friends and colleagues in the Ratzeputz Gang—a traveling cadre of plant nuts and prime rib lovers. (Believe you me, I enjoy a good steak every so often, but hanging with my Ratzeputz boys was a Steak-O-Rama every night.) The Ratzeputz Gang was named for a vile tasting German liqueur that we encountered in a German rathskeller one evening in 1987.

Kurt at Racetrack Playa, Death Valley, 2014

The adventure of two plants a world apart

On a driving trip in central Alabama near Haneyville, with her brother-in-law, the architectural writer and photographer G.E. Kidder Smith, Weesie spotted an unusual yellow buckeye (Aesculus glabra) growing in a little depression along an embankment. Weesie told me, “I marked it in my mind and decided I would go back and get one someday.”

The buckeye was different from the yellow buckeye. It was shorter growing, more shrub than tree. Mike Dirr called it Aesculus glabra var. nana. It was an odd lot taxonomically and presumed to be rare until Pennsylvania plantsman Bill Barnes realized this shrubby buckeye growing in full sun was a disjunct species, the Texas buckeye, Aesculus glabra var. arguta, out of its predominant native range (more commonly found west of Alabama in east Texas and Oklahoma). The straight species, Aesculus glabra, grows along the edge of moist woodlands in parts of the eastern U.S. and Canada. It was Weesie’s buckeye to me and, many years after planting it on a hillside next to the back alley, it is 8’ tall.

Weesie’s buckeye

Kurt’s grape hyacinth with Sedum ‘Angelina’

Bluemel’s modest grape hyacinth was collected in Soviet Russia in the lower Pamir Mountains, of what is now Uzbekistan, in July 1989, a few months before the Berlin Wall came down. The trip was equal parts botanic exploration and spy craft, according to Erik Weinstock, Bluemel’s stepson. They were traveling with the Czech botanist Josef Halda. The KGB kept a tail on them, but Halda was familiar with nosey Soviet minders. The seed collectors would slip out the door in the morning and hitch rides with “black taxis” into the Pamirs. Erik recalled being near a Soviet missile silo one day, perhaps near where the grape hyacinth was collected in a field. Halda identified this as Leopolida (Muscari) pamirica. I’m not sure if Halda recognized this as a new species or simply labeled it for convenience’s sake as from Pamir. I have yet to get a positive ID, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a good story.

Weesie and Kurt are with me every April.
A buckeye and a grape hyacinth keep their wonderful memories alive. This is no small comfort this week as we grieve, at least those of us in Louisville, over a mass murder close to home.
Our garden, this morning anyway, is the only peaceful place I know.