Doctor in the garden


by Jackie Alfonso | March 19, 2009 • When I was eight, my best friend was a botany professor. She had been hired by a local college after all the male professors went to war. When I knew her, she was 80 – maybe five feet tall, maybe 70 lbs. I met her one day on my way home from school. Some boys had raided her Chestnut Crabapple tree, and she was shooing them off.

“If they would ask they could have them, she panted,” but they just climb up and break off branches right and left”, and then she explained to me the importance of the knarled spurs that would be the source of next year’s crop.

She was a delight, tiny and pink, wearing a big floppy hat, elbow-length leather gloves, and black heeled shoes as she forked over her half-acre garden. Miss Horton showed me the wren’s nest outside her kitchen window, made us tea, lent me books. Her home was a rounded-roof building like a chicken coop. In it she had a grand piano, hundreds of books, African Violets, and usually a roomer who was a student at the college. We planted tulips in the fall – the first year ‘Queen Elizabeth’ after her favorite celebrity.

In the walk-out basement beneath her house she kept the gardening tools, the shelves of home-canned food, the boxes and tubs of carrots, beets, potatoes, Brussels Sprouts, onions, the jars of pickled crabapples, raspberry jam, baskets of Northern Spy apples, and a gleaming Model A Ford that she drove once or twice a year.

She did all the garden work herself, shoveled her walk unless the roomer did, and lived a serene self-sufficiency. On weekends, she would walk with me into a nearby wood, and teach me the names and traits of the trees, shrubs, flowers, insects we found there. We made our way quietly, so we could avoid frightening the many birds and small animals. Later she showed me how to look for information in her library – what sort of fungus is this? What do salamanders do in winter? Do giant water bugs bite?

It is a great sorrow, a lifetime regret, that her failing eyes and muscles coincided with my stumble into adolescence, and I could not find a way to accommodate the changes and her need for my help. In spite of my inadequacy, she shaped my life immeasurably.

I did not learn until many years later, long after she had died, that her doctoral research had been vital to understanding the link between black currants and White Pine Blister Rust. She had a huge role in saving one of Minnesota’s valuable “crops” and received little recognition for doing so.

Pickled Whitney Crabs after Miss Horton

1 peck unblemished crabs
1gallon cider vinegar
2 cups sugar
cloves, cinnamon sticks
10 scalded pint jars and lids

In a stainless or enamel pot, put vinegar and sugar and bring to a boil.
Place a few cloves and a cinnamon stick in each jar.
Prick each apple in several places with a large needle, and add to vinegar. Return to the boil, then fill jars with apples, put on lids, cook in boiling water bath 20 minutes.
Keep in a cool place out of sunlight