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Night Air

Island Life

We are once again to that time of the year when one can walk outside at most any time of the dark period and either sit or stand to drink in the darkness in a relatively comfortable ambient environment. It is also that time of year where nobility pays a brief but highly anticipated visit here. The end of June and the early to mid parts of any July generally find one Sir Cedric Morris out making a show of things in my front yard. As it is, when he finally “arrives”, Sir Cedric is literally performing twenty four hours a day, being the unstoppable showman that he is. One might at this point find this type of marathon exhibitionism to be humanly impossible, and one would be correct in this assumption. In this case, however, we are not talking human abilities, but rather the yearly one time blooming of a climbing rose named after someone who was once an artist and a plantsman.

When one thinks about a climbing rose, often what comes to mind is a portion of a fence or a trellis on a wall that becomes partially covered with foliage and bloom, and hopefully some fragrance. Sir Cedric is something akin to a tidal wave or a progressive snowstorm that starts off as a slowly unfolding blanket of white that over a period of days eventually leads to a general white out of single white blooms that open in clusters over the entire length of the vine which climbs its way through anything that will support it. As the bloom period progresses, each white flower eventually falls apart creating a snowfall-like cascade of petals which transfers the snowpack from the treetops to the ground underneath. All the while the air is filled with just a hint of rose fragrance that drifts from the front yard, through and around the house and out into the back yard where it persists even more on nights when warmer air lasts later into the evening.

As I step away from the plant world and enter ever more deeply into the realm of still and moving images, I find that names and cultivars of the plants that are still here drift in and out of memory. In thinking about Sir Cedric I was remembering its provenance for me and that this giant vine had been one of what I used to call Kevin plants. In this case I recall getting cuttings from what then was a huge plant climbing through the limbs of a cedar tree in the backyard of Kevin Nicolay in his garden on lower Queen Anne. I remember thinking at the time that this was not a plant for small city gardens, and that the pairing of this rose and the large evergreen was the only way this would have worked in this vertical sense. Twenty four years on in my own front yard, Sir Cedric has gone both sideways and up, having long ago crept off the twenty foot long trellis it was first planted next to and has reached maybe thirty to forty feet in many directions.

I was about to state here that Sir Cedric was by far the most successful of the Kevin plants I still had, with my group of starts taken as cuttings from Kevin’s backyard behemoth. Then I remembered that the formidable Japanese Orange that stands just in front of the Sir Cedric trellis was a direct transplant from Kevin’s garden. It used to be known as Poncirus and now seems to have been renamed Citrus trifoliata-  this small tree is never as showy as Sir Cedric and the citrus fruit it produces are neither showy nor very edible, but it has lasted with little or no care just as well as Sir Cedric has.
Up until today, all I knew of Sir Cedric Morris was that he had had this rose named after him. I had never really considered mining the depths of the dungeons of the internets to see what I could see there until now. What I found in the google search is that Sir Cedric has also had an annual poppy, a hardy geranium, a narcissus and a California wild flower named after him. I found that he was not knighted, but instead had inherited a baronetcy from his father that also brought with it the title of “Sir”. Cedric was a painter of note, with a style that resembled a mix of Picasso, Gauguin and van Gogh, and can be seen in collections at the Tate and the National Portrait Gallery in London. He and his partner of over 60 years, Arthur Lett-Haines were both a part of the founding of the Colchester Art society and the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing. Sir Cedric lived to be ninety three, having passed on in 1982.

All of this gives the rose now blooming away out front more meaning and weight as a Kevin plant. In many ways Kevin  was nobility in the plant and art worlds even though he was never really titled as such. He was one of the founding members of the Northwest Perennial Alliance, and he revived and amended an antiquated method for doing botanical watercolors, with a scattering of his paintings of finely detailed and observed botanical illustrations in collections around the northwest and elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, Kevin did not match Sir Cedric in his longevity, passing away at 33 amidst the wave of those lost to AIDS back in 1990. The citrus out front came here when Kevin’s garden was being taken apart after he died. I have no idea what if anything survives of his garden in Seattle, although it is most likely now the dirt beneath some sprawling condo development. While just a memory there, at least a part of it lives on and thrives right here.