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Arts / Museums

The Garden of Dreams

A French Chateau Takes Root in Houston Thanks to an Exotic Artist’s Flower Fetish

BY Jennifer Trandell // 08.05.16

Dreams are what make our gardens grow; imagination crowds the empty spaces with future blooms. Our favorite flower is as personal as our sense of style, and often changes with the seasons. Because Houston enjoys a year-round climate for flower cultivation, rarely are we denied the pleasure of petals.

In addition, there are few flowers we cannot grow in Houston’s temperate climate. Many exotic tropical varieties enjoy the heat and rain, while a great deal of northern-clime beauties will persist in the mildest of years. (To delight in the splendor of spring during the heat of summer, visit the exhibition of French floral painter Claire Basler at The Houston Design Center, organized by Yvonamor Palix Fine ArtsJardin Éternal is on display through August 5, so hurry. Alkusari Stone showroom has created a textural space for the exhibit that transports you to a French chateau and inspires ideas for the garden of your dreams.)

There is, alas, one flower that cannot call Houston home, and that is the perennial peony. The peony is not only beautiful and the subject of great works of art; in addition, it possesses a sublime fragrance. The flowers are native to Asia, Europe, and western North America, and In China, the magnificent bloom is regarded as the king of flowers. It symbolizes wealth, good fortune, and happiness. The scientific name, Paeonia, originates from Greek mythology. Paeon was the physician of the Gods and had marvelous curative powers, including the ability to bring the dead to life. Parts of the peony are still used in traditional herbal medicine. To delight in the fragrance, one must travel north into colder climates. My first experience of the lovely bloom and stunning fragrance was in June last year in Toronto.

As an avid gardener and botanical writer, the most common question I receive is, what is your favorite flower? When I answer, my response is often frowned upon, because my flower of choice is the rose. I second-guess myself every time, and quickly mention more unique and unusual specimens. But the truth is, I love roses. My grandfather grew roses for my grandmother, and when I was young, the fragrant blooms stood higher than I could reach. My grandfather had to pull the magnificent blossoms from the sky for me to catch their intoxicating scent.

Peonies and Acacia's in a row.
Peonies and acacias in a row, in dialogue with Claire Basler’s work at The Houston Design Center. 

Roses are a favorite flower of poets, painters, and gardeners. Many people shy away from growing them, however, because they’ve heard that roses are difficult to grow. I have found the opposite to be true; the less I mess with my roses, the better they grow. First, roses need full sun all day. Second, do not spray water directly onto the plant; instead, water at the base of the bushes.

During the hottest days of summer, I water once a week, maybe twice during drought conditions. Finally, prune and fertilize at the end of summer for a fantastic fall flush, and again around Valentine’s Day for spring blooms. Remove spent blooms to encourage new flowers. (And be sure to visit the display of antique and climbing roses in the McGovern Centennial Gardens at Hermann Park.)

To meet Claire Basler is to meet a true naturalist. She speaks French, and I, English, but we both are fluent in the language of flowers. Looking at her series of paintings entitled Ombelles Sur Ciel, I asked Basler if the umbel in the painting was dill, Anthem graveolens. She nodded and smiled. No longer did we speak different languages, but a universal tongue, that of nature.

Dill is a wonderful addition to a Houston herb garden. You’ll love the the flavor of the delicate foliage, and its texture and height enliven any garden bed. In addition, spring pollinators love the lacy florets. Cooler weather in autumn is the ideal time to plant seeds or store-bought plants. Summer’s heat will cause the herbaceous annual to bolt or produce seed quickly and not live a full life cycle; wait another six weeks to plant the seeds, and by early winter your dill weed will be rising to the sky.

Closing ceremony and party celebrating Claire Basler in Houston, “All Things Beautiful,” happy hour, Friday, August 5, 5:30 to 8 pm. The public is invited: The Houston Design Center’s Alkusari Stone, 7026 Old Katy Road, Suite 229.  

Jennifer Trandell is a native Texan. She has journeyed to more than 25 countries and lived in Asia, Australia, Europe, Hawaii, and Mexico. She holds a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology from the University of California, San Diego, and a master’s degree in art education from Lesley University. Follow her travel adventures here.

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