Happily Re-rooted

Writer: 
August 1, 2003

 

Weeding wonders: the Coles keep Duke Gardens free of invaders

Weeding wonders: the Coles 
keep Duke Gardens free of invaders. Les Todd.

In a recent May morning in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, fifty-five brilliantly blooming acres at this time of year, oxalis had infiltrated the oregano, yellow pennywort was circling the camellias, and the ever-invasive indigofera had again crossed its borders, threatening the Georgiana, which was quietly minding its own business (photosynthesis) in the prickly company of cacti. “I would say weeding is our chief duty,” says Charity Cole, a volunteer in the gardens. “You have to be careful. Sometimes they look just like the plants they’re next to. And some weeds are just considered weeds because they’re not where we want them.”

Cole, who is five-foot-one, with short white hair, and a soft English accent, was tending to the perennial all?e with her husband, Desmond, as they have done most Tuesdays for nine years. As Duke Gardens volunteers, they are two of the 235 people who commit time each week to the gardens’ upkeep. The combined volunteer force amounts to the equivalent of six full-time staff members, more than a third of the total gardens staff. The eighty-nine-year-old couple has come to find themselves happily re-rooted in a Duke community they had never before had any link to or role in. “People ask us lots of questions,” says Charity Cole. “‘What is this? What is that? Can I grow it in Michigan?’ I’m particularly fond of the little ones. If they’re good, I might show them where a bird’s nest is and tell them to keep it a secret.”

The Coles came to Durham rather serendipitously, they say. It all began, aptly enough, with an advertisement for a book on gardening in The New York Times Magazine. “I ordered a copy and when it came, I got a letter from the publisher, which happened to be Duke Press, informing me that I had neglected to pay the shipping and handling charges,” she recalls. “So I sent them a check for four dollars. Well, then I received another letter from Duke and I thought, ‘Oh no, what have I done now?’ It was from the [then] director, Richard Rowson, asking me if the Desmond Cole on the check was the same Desmond Cole who was director of the United Nations International School in New York. I told him, ‘Yes, he’s my husband.’ Well, Mr. Rowson had two sons at the U.N. School, and so we got to talking. And when we told him that we were planning to move to the South but didn’t know where, he invited us to come and visit him in Durham. And he showed us the gardens.”

Fiscal mismanagement is almost always bad news, but there are those times when unforeseen outcomes give an oversight the appearance, in hindsight, of a great idea. Such is the case with the Duke Gardens. “President William P. Few liked to point out that Duke University, in both its organizational aspect and its physical components had been carefully planned in advance,” writes Robert Durden, emeritus professor of history, “but the university serendipitously acquired one of its most beloved special features, the Sarah P. Duke Gardens.”

The plan, as outlined by James Buchanan Duke, had called for a lake on West Campus. But the funds dried up and the project was cut. When an iris-loving neurosurgeon in the medical school named Frederic M. Hanes proposed that the abandoned woodlands be turned, instead, into iris gardens, no one objected, except to say that there should be flowers other than irises, too. And there are: Golden Slipper, Roman Holiday, Butterfly Bush, Cranesbill, French Lavender, Autumn Sage, Rue, Meadow Rue, Verbena, Bottlebrush, Bull Thistle, Fly-Poison, Indian Pink, Liatris, Spiderwort, Lilies, Daylilies, Forget-me-nots, Chinese Fringe-flower, Red Hot Poker, and many, many others.

“ Yes, it was all in the stars,” says Desmond Cole, who has the distinguished scholarly manner of a British prep-school teacher, which he was for much of his life. “This is a wonderful place to live, very much like England, architecturally speaking. And the people are quite nice. You know, I used to lose things all the time, but I’ve never lost a damn thing in eleven years here. If you lose something, somebody returns it to you. I left something on my car the other day and then there it was on my doorstep.”

Cole had never before had much of an affinity for gardens; “My father would put us to work on a plot of land he owned next to the jail,” he says, “and we would throw stones at the walnut tree when he wasn’t looking. So I haven’t much experience in gardening. Someone will say, ‘Why are my hollyhocks not like yours?’ and I say, ‘I don’t know. I’m just the weeder. Ask my wife.’”

He attended Oxford University, served in the British Royal Navy during World War II, and went on to teach, first in England, then in Brazil, where he met his wife—“Brazil, of all places!”—and finally in New York. “My wife has always been a gardener, and I was enchanted by it all. I realized how much I had neglected in life. I was born again.” Now he even has a favorite flower, the daphne. “Divine little plants, those daphnes.”

Charity Cole prefers roses, but the banana trees in the Asiatic Arboretum remind her of a tropical childhood, she says. “We had vegetation in Brazil you’d never see around here—banana trees, avocado trees, papaya trees with these magnificent leaves.” Duke Gardens, she says, can support a huge diversity of plants owing to its rich soil and warm climate, and the foreign visitor can typically find something from home, wherever that might be. “One time, a student came running down this path into the brush there. I said, ‘Excuse me, you’re not supposed to go in there.’ But I looked over, and he’s hugging one of the mallows and he cries out, ‘Ahhhh, I’m back in Java!’ ”

She knelt down and pulled up some more weeds around a bright yellow flower. “This is a Missouri Sun-Drop. But I’ve never seen this weed before. It must be new. Someone probably carried the seeds in on their shoes. You know that happens sometimes.”