Fondness for Flora - Desis and Gardening

By Shivani Tripathi

Springtime puts a spring in one's step! Tree branches, once barren, now radiate with yellow and pink buds. Birds are chirping as they make nests and fluffy bunnies bounce behind their mother. People relax on porches and patios after winter months and take pleasure in nature's beautiful display.

It's the time of year when gardening enthusiasts, and novices, purchase seeds and plants. While gardening is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States, with some estimates showing as much as 77 percent of households dabbling in some form of the pastime, one must admit Desis have their own style and preferences. Flowers are beloved by the community which prizes beauty, fragrance and color.

This is illustrated by many examples within South Asia: women decorate their hair with a string of flowers, marigolds adorn an idol or a blanket of blooms is placed upon a saint's tomb, and a home wrapped in garlands is sure to be a space where a wedding is to take place. Rose syrup blended with cold water refreshes as the temperatures start to rise. You might even know a Desi with a floral name such as Juhi, Roja, Jasmine and even Gulshan, which means flower garden and Bahar which means Spring. Countless poems across languages celebrate the joy of brilliant blossoms and the calming effect of gorgeous greenery.

South Asian communities are also rich with practical botanical knowledge and there are plenty of Aunties and Uncles who know which herb will cure a stomach ailment and which leaves, when chewed, can ease nausea. For many Desis residing in American suburbs, enjoying the great outdoors often means a jaunt to local plant nurseries and/or hardware stores. It is easy to see the community is partial towards certain vegetation with the rose emerging a clear winner. Jasmine variants can be found in shopping carts, as well.

Vegetable gardens are also prized amongst South Asians. For decades my family has shopped at Chinese grocery stores as the grocers have carried vegetables also found in India, such as a bitter gourd, taro root and daikon radish. From the same store we would purchase packets of seeds for vegetables such as Japanese eggplant and would start a garden in the Spring. When family friends visit our home, the elders would give a tour of the garden which gently reminded visitors of a different time and place. If a plotted garden is seen as too time consuming, many South Asian families enjoy dedicating windowsill or patio space to an herb garden comprising of plants such as mint, fenugreek and curry leaves.

These greens don't need constant care and attention and there is much satisfaction in plucking fresh leaves, smelling their aroma and using it in a dish. Hope springs eternal for some when it comes to growing plants native to the Motherland such as banana and even mango. Bananas can thrive in places like Florida, but I have yet to see a mango tree in America. I have, though, seen attempts made by Uncles who feel the right amount of devotion will get a fresh mango seed to sprout.

While taking care of potted plants is often done with relative ease by Desis, lawn care is a different story. In India, one has either farmland and/or orchards in rural areas or potted plants in urban spaces. The vast majority of homes in Indian cities and towns do not have a lawn, thus secrets related to a crisp, emerald green front yard is something neither passed down or even coveted. In American suburbia, grass of the right hue and height must be regularly maintained with watering, mowing, edging, fertilizing and aeration.

Potted plants aren't scrutinized the way a front yard is and the owners of an unkempt lawn are often judged as being, well, unkempt! Recent droughts, especially in the state of California, made people examine whether the water-guzzling patch of land can be put to much better use. Fancifully designed rock and cactus gardens began popping up along the West Coast to lessen water usage and when regulation on water consumption eased, more people planted organic vegetables gardens where mowers once marched.

Cultural preferences aside, gardening provides a wonderful opportunity to connect with nature and others. I got my green thumb from my Nani (maternal grandmother) who had a fondness for plants, especially tulsi, or holy basil. When we would garden together, she would share stories from her life while providing me with instructions on how to make roots less compact so they can soak up nutrients. But not all the seeds we planted saw the sun, and some buds that were getting ready to blossom suddenly fell to the ground, and a few flowers were eaten by a bunny that was adorable before we caught it nibbling on our hard work.

Whenever I would feel disappointed by such occurrences my Nani would soothe my sadness by saying, “It's no big thing. You can plant again!" Understanding the temporary nature of everything, feeling hopeful for the next season and having gratitude for growth in the present are some of the valuable lessons gardening can teach.

----------

Shivani Tripathi cannot remember a time she wasn't madly in love with Indian cinema and writing. She spends time in New York, North Carolina and Twitterpur at @Shivani510