Nothing beats a field of purple and pink phlox. The plants grow low to the ground and are considered weeds by many, but for a brief period they radiate joy and, for author Leslie Kemp Poole, they offer a wave of nostalgia for her grandmother’s front yard that would explode with the flowers when she was a child.

Granny has been gone four decades now, but whenever Poole spots a patch of phlox, she remembers the magic of those long-ago days hanging at Granny’s small, wooden house in North Tampa.

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of the The Marjories contributor series Lessons from the Marjories, where Florida women explore connections between the three Marjories and their own lives.

“Spring is beautiful because it is familiar. Its implications are stirring because we understand them.”

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

To many Floridians, spring is not a date on a calendar but a subtle change in weather from warmish to warm-hot with humidity. Author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings likened it to “nuns in soft clothing, making no rustle in their passing.”

The season comes early here, heralded in February with the annual leaf fall from oaks that dump last year’s greenery seemingly overnight in favor of new growth — and pollen. Soon after, the cypress trees, long bare and brown-needled, suddenly are bathed in bright green, another sure sign of coming heat.

Best of all are the wildflowers, when Florida spreads a glorious carpet of color along backroads and pastures that compel me to stop and admire their simple elegance. And to me, nothing beats a field of purple and pink phlox. The plants grow low to the ground—many people consider them weeds—but for a brief period they radiate joy and offer me a wave of nostalgia for my grandmother’s front yard that would explode with the flowers.

My grandmother, Mamie Bell Kemp, lived an independent, hard life. Her parents didn’t expect her to survive at birth but she disproved their doubts and grew up with seven siblings, living to be 82. As a young woman she moved to Tampa and married, but when the Great Depression hit, her husband walked out, leaving her with two small children and a third-grade education. She took on a number of jobs to support her family, catching a bus since she never learned to drive. She survived while her children and grandchildren thrived.

On various occasions I would spend the night in Granny’s small, wooden house in north Tampa, sometimes with my two sisters and other times with my cousin. There wasn’t much to do — “The Lawrence Welk Show” is the only thing I remember watching on her television — and the spare home didn’t have air conditioning. Many an afternoon was spent sitting on the front porch, waiting for a breeze and guessing what color car would drive by next. Then we would wander around the front yard. It probably didn’t look like much more than weeds to those drivers, but to children, it held magic. In the late afternoon we’d gather around the Four O’Clock bush and guess which yellow bloom would open first. A tall orchid tree scattered its pink petals on the ground, and we could look at, but not touch, the rose bushes next door.

But it’s the phlox that my sisters and I recall, rioting in spring across Granny’s lawn and storming onto a neighbor’s property.

Mamie Bell Kemp

“She had the natural Florida yard before it was cool,” says my sister Joanna.

Granny has been gone four decades now, but whenever I spot a patch of phlox, I remember those long-ago days hanging out at her house, which has since been expanded and renovated to the point that it is unrecognizable to me. The newer structure now fills the yard, and there are no wildflowers to enjoy or evening flowers to anticipate.

So, I’m left to look for them on long drives into North Florida, sometimes along Interstate 75, where they are becoming more rare, but more often in the two-lane roads that crisscross Rawlings’ neck of the woods in Cross Creek, located between Ocala and Gainesville.

A few years ago, I was driving in that area with a friend and quickly pulled the car off the road to exult in a large lot of wildflowers of every shape and color. My friend nervously noted a man walking down the driveway but instead of leaving, I turned and asked if it was his property. He proudly proclaimed it to be so and spent several minutes talking about his love and care for Florida’s flowers. He happily let me take a dozen photos before we parted — a lovely encounter between strangers with an affinity for beauty.

“There is no one sign of spring, but several spontaneous burstings.” – Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

I’ll take a field of wildflowers any day over a planned, groomed garden.

That said, the yard at my home is a tribute of sorts to Granny’s property. When I suggested to my husband several years ago that we get rid of the St. Augustine grass and go with something more natural and less dependent on water and chemicals, he was a bit skeptical. But as we did our research Michael became more enthused and jumped whole-heartedly into the project, eventually expanding the concept into our backyard. So now we have a no-mow yard with little need of water. And our own place of magic.

Occasionally people walking down the shady street stop to look at our flowers and the many butterflies they attract. One woman bound to a wheelchair used to come daily with her caregiver— they said the yard made her happy. The addition of an almost-squirrel-proof bird feeder has been particularly entertaining during COVID for Michael, whose home office overlooks the yard. He keeps binoculars and a bird book on his desk to be on the ready for the next bright visitor, which has ranged from woodpeckers to painted buntings.

Lawn service and tree-trimming companies regularly leave their cards on my doorstep, wanting to give the whole place a once-over grooming. When caught by them in the yard, I explain that we like our palm trees and their berries intact — they are a feast for migrating robins. They walk away scratching their heads. I pay no mind; their losses are my riches.

Rawlings noted that because spring was “familiar and beloved, we watch every gradation. It is dear to us because knowledge of it is necessary to recognize its variations. There is no one sign of spring, but several spontaneous burstings.” She looked for blooming jessamine, wild iris, orange blossoms and the call of the whippoorwill. “For the seasons at the Creek are marked not by the calendar, but by fruits and flowers and birds,” she wrote.

My “Creek” may be limited to my suburban neighborhood, but I’ll be marking spring in a similar way, including a drive to look for Granny’s phlox.


Leslie Kemp Poole, PhD, is assistant professor of environmental studies at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. She is author of “Saving Florida: Women’s Fight for the Environment in the Twentieth Century” and former executive director of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society. Poole is an editor of the recently released book “The Wilder Heart of Florida: More Writers Inspired by Florida Nature.”


Credits:

Photos Courtesy Leslie Kemp Poole and the State Archives of Florida.

Leslie Kemp Poole

Leslie Kemp Poole, PhD, is assistant professor of environmental studies at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. She is author of "Saving Florida: Women’s Fight for the Environment in the Twentieth...