Brian Vanden Brink
A trail of sand, curling like a tendril along the dunes of Sandy Neck Beach, holds a hundred of Shirley Cross' footprints. She leaves them one by one like breadcrumbs on a path through windblown sea grass. "Mother used to take us to the sea to discover things," says Shirley, 87. "She called them picnics, perhaps to excite me, but they were learning tools. Every time I go on a sea walk, I think of her."
Shirley stoops to uncover a fuchsia wildflower, its petals flitting about like moths in the mild breeze. "This is a Rosa rugosa," she says, telling the legend of how this Asian native arrived on the Cape via a shipwreck. "Plants are territorial, just like humans. They're always looking to increase their territory. I'm simply intrigued by the vehicles they use to travel."
Shirley was one of a few females studying botany at Harvard in the 1930s. Though she shies from the title "Doctor Cross," preferring to be called by her first name, Shirley received a doctorate in biology. Her dissertation became an integral part of the revised edition of Gray's Manual of Botany.
"I recall approaching one of my professors--perhaps the greatest botanist in the nation, Ray Ethan Torrey--and telling him I was interested in a career in botany," she says. "He asked me if I was certain I didn't want to concentrate my efforts in home economics. Then he saw my marks, and chose to rethink his previous opinion. I was definitely in the minority, as a woman. However, I looked at my mother for inspiration. She may not have held a doctorate, but she was one of the sharpest naturalists I've ever known. We would go on Sunday drives and she'd say, 'There's a spot where jack-in-the-pulpits must be growing.' She'd ask my father to stop the car, and we'd get out and explore. Soon enough, we'd find jack-in-the-pulpits. She had a sixth sense about flowers."
So does Shirley. For 62 years, she's lived in the same Cape Cod home, built circa 1750 on an acre of land. The trees that shade her house--two towering white pines she brought from her mother's woods as saplings, several sprawling apple trees she started in pots when she was a new mom, and a dawn redwood she planted when her three sons were young--are like family. Every spring, the blossoms in her wildflower garden resurrect memories of hours, days, months, years spent here on bended knee.
"When my husband, Chester, and I first moved to the Cape, we planted potatoes because we were poor and had to eat. Gradually, we added vegetables," she recalls. "When Chester's cranberry bog started making a little bit of money, I had the luxury of planting flowers. I remember taking my boys into the garden and teaching them about weeds," she says.
"Of course 'weed' isn't a scientific term. It's anything the gardener doesn't want or has trouble getting rid of. Take forget-me-nots, for instance. Some people see them as weeds, but I think they are the loveliest of flowers. Beauty is in the eye of the gardener."
She grows perfectly giddy over the star-of-Bethlehem, a member of the lily family, in the corner of one bed. "That's a blasted weed, and difficult to rid a garden of, but how can I complain when it boasts flowers such as these?" She points to white petals that look as though they've been starched and pressed.
For all the hours Shirley spends in her garden at home, she works an equal amount tending the wildflowers at nearby Green Briar Nature Center. Sponsored by the Thornton W. Burgess Society and adjacent to the "briar patch" made famous in Burgess' stories (The Adventures of Peter Cottontail), the garden is Shirley's brainchild. With patience--"the essential tool in any gardener's box," according to Shirley--she's transformed a quiet slope of land on Discovery Hill Road into a celestial space that attracts schoolchildren from across the state and tourists veering off scenic Highway 6A. The garden, blanketed with wildflowers from around the world, features plants in their purest forms. Shirley allows very few hybrids to root in this soil.
She calls them all by name. "Look at these bluets," she says of a small patch of tiny flowers clustered like jewels on a broach. "They're from the meadows, and the meadows, as we know, are endangered." And then she kneels beside three lilies, which took two years to seed and another five to bloom. "But when they do, oh, the yellow blooms hang like temple bells, with beautiful little freckles inside." Her fingers, wearing thimbles of soil, point to the ragged robin, a dusty pink, frail flower. "They do look raggedy, don't they? But I'm so proud of how they've grown."
Subscribing to a trial-and-error theory, she moves plants here and there among the garden's shady and sunny, moist and dry, spots. "I don't ever give up on a flower," she says. "It's a matter of matching them with their correct environment. And sometimes a little fertilizer helps. I'm intrigued with the process of planting a garden."
Guests are equally amazed at the agility and endurance of the octogenarian behind this one. After reading by the fire she builds on cool mornings, and then working for hours at a time both at home and at the Green Briar, she spends evenings doing yoga exercises to keep limber.
"I have more than a full-time job. In fact, I should probably let go of one garden. Some people say I need to have my head examined, but I'm too afraid of what they might find," she says with a laugh. "With my family scattered about and my husband, Chester, passed away, these gardens are my life. They keep me young."
Kneeling low, planting seeds with gloveless hands, Shirley cups a handful of velvety soil. "My fingers belong in the earth. A degree gives you a certain amount of knowledge, but work is what teaches a gardener the most about the seeds. After all, it's not about us. It's about the seeds."