Wintersweet in bloom always reminds me of Frances Reinhardt Puckett.
Mrs. Puckett was a piece of living history in Iron Station, North Carolina. She had been a schoolteacher for years, one of whose students included my mother. She was also a piano teacher and would sometimes allow a star pupil to play at the baby grand in the parlor, the one the Yankees had played on when they passed through the county during the war.
Thomas Edison visited her father, Ed Reinhardt, back in 1906 to search for cobalt and manganese for his steam-powered automobile. Mrs. Puckett was only six then. “He thought I was so well bred because he gave me a dime and I gave it back. What I wanted was a nickel – it was bigger!”
Edison and Reinhardt never found the minerals they needed, and gasoline-powered autos won out over Edison’s steam version. “Edison said if he could find a vein of cobalt no bigger than a walnut, we’d never have to buy gasoline again. I tell every young person that!” Mrs. Puckett was still reminding people almost 80 years later.
One sunny January morning I visited Mrs. Puckett when I was home from school. Light poured into the kitchen, and outside the window was a wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) in bloom, its blossoms releasing a delicious fragrance.
Wintersweet’s flowers are attractive but not showy, somewhat bell-shaped, with translucent yellow petals and a purple heart. Some varieties are solid yellow. The fragrance is enchanting: spicy, with a hint of vanilla and banana and lemon. You keep inhaling to decipher the blend. Like so many fragrant plants, and as its name implies, it blooms in winter. Wintersweet grows to be a large shrub or small tree to 15 feet tall with a 10-foot spread. It prefers full sun but will tolerate part shade and is not particular about soil.
I commented on the wintersweet to Mrs. Puckett and, as I might have expected, found some history attached.
The shrub was a gift from a soldier who brought a start of it home from World War I. “It was as cold as Siberia, and the lice…the lice were terrible. They would look for anything to scratch against to get some relief.” Mrs. Puckett went on to describe how the soldier (regrettably, I did not write down his name) smelled something wonderful, followed the fragrance, located the wintersweet in bloom and rubbed his back against it.
The battlefields of the First World War were horrible. Fighting cold, lice, rats and disease as well as the Kaiser is more than I care to imagine. Coming across some bit of unexpected beauty in the midst of the horror and suffering probably brought a greater solace than finding a good scratching post. I can understand why that soldier would collect seeds to bring home.
Many years later and many miles away, I planted a wintersweet outside my kitchen door in memory of Frances Reinhardt Puckett…and a doughboy known only to her and to God.
“Arty’s Garden” is written by Arty Schronce. Arty is a a lifelong gardener and a horticulture graduate of North Carolina State University. He lives and gardens in the historic Cabbagetown neighborhood of Atlanta. He encourages all Georgians to discover the pleasures of plants and gardening.