In Sandwich, Massachusetts, one woman threads the earth with wildflowers--planting a piece of her spirit with every seed.

By Paige Porter
March 20, 2003
Brian Vanden Brink

A trail of sand, curling like a tendril along the dunes of SandyNeck Beach, holds a hundred of Shirley Cross' footprints. Sheleaves them one by one like breadcrumbs on a path through windblownsea 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, Ithink of her."

Shirley stoops to uncover a fuchsia wildflower, its petalsflitting about like moths in the mild breeze. "This is a Rosarugosa," she says, telling the legend of how this Asian nativearrived on the Cape via a shipwreck. "Plants are territorial, justlike 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 inthe 1930s. Though she shies from the title "Doctor Cross,"preferring to be called by her first name, Shirley received adoctorate in biology. Her dissertation became an integral part ofthe revised edition of Gray's Manual of Botany.

"I recall approaching one of my professors--perhaps the greatestbotanist in the nation, Ray Ethan Torrey--and telling him I wasinterested in a career in botany," she says. "He asked me if I wascertain I didn't want to concentrate my efforts in home economics.Then he saw my marks, and chose to rethink his previous opinion. Iwas definitely in the minority, as a woman. However, I looked at mymother for inspiration. She may not have held a doctorate, but shewas one of the sharpest naturalists I've ever known. We would go onSunday drives and she'd say, 'There's a spot wherejack-in-the-pulpits must be growing.' She'd ask my father to stopthe car, and we'd get out and explore. Soon enough, we'd findjack-in-the-pulpits. She had a sixth sense about flowers."

So does Shirley. For 62 years, she's lived in the same Cape Codhome, built circa 1750 on an acre of land. The trees that shade herhouse--two towering white pines she brought from her mother's woodsas saplings, several sprawling apple trees she started in pots whenshe was a new mom, and a dawn redwood she planted when her threesons were young--are like family. Every spring, the blossoms in herwildflower garden resurrect memories of hours, days, months, yearsspent here on bended knee.

"When my husband, Chester, and I first moved to the Cape, weplanted potatoes because we were poor and had to eat. Gradually, weadded vegetables," she recalls. "When Chester's cranberry bogstarted making a little bit of money, I had the luxury of plantingflowers. I remember taking my boys into the garden and teachingthem about weeds," she says.

"Of course 'weed' isn't a scientific term. It's anything thegardener doesn't want or has trouble getting rid of. Takeforget-me-nots, for instance. Some people see them as weeds, but Ithink they are the loveliest of flowers. Beauty is in the eye ofthe gardener."

She grows perfectly giddy over the star-of-Bethlehem, a memberof the lily family, in the corner of one bed. "That's a blastedweed, and difficult to rid a garden of, but how can I complain whenit boasts flowers such as these?" She points to white petals thatlook as though they've been starched and pressed.

For all the hours Shirley spends in her garden at home, sheworks an equal amount tending the wildflowers at nearby Green BriarNature Center. Sponsored by the Thornton W. Burgess Society andadjacent to the "briar patch" made famous in Burgess' stories (TheAdventures of Peter Cottontail), the garden is Shirley'sbrainchild. With patience--"the essential tool in any gardener'sbox," according to Shirley--she's transformed a quiet slope of landon Discovery Hill Road into a celestial space that attractsschoolchildren from across the state and tourists veering offscenic Highway 6A. The garden, blanketed with wildflowers fromaround the world, features plants in their purest forms. Shirleyallows very few hybrids to root in this soil.

She calls them all by name. "Look at these bluets," she says ofa small patch of tiny flowers clustered like jewels on a broach."They're from the meadows, and the meadows, as we know, areendangered." And then she kneels beside three lilies, which tooktwo years to seed and another five to bloom. "But when they do, oh,the yellow blooms hang like temple bells, with beautiful littlefreckles inside." Her fingers, wearing thimbles of soil, point tothe ragged robin, a dusty pink, frail flower. "They do lookraggedy, don't they? But I'm so proud of how they've grown."

Subscribing to a trial-and-error theory, she moves plants hereand 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 ofmatching them with their correct environment. And sometimes alittle fertilizer helps. I'm intrigued with the process of plantinga garden."

Guests are equally amazed at the agility and endurance of theoctogenarian behind this one. After reading by the fire she buildson cool mornings, and then working for hours at a time both at homeand at the Green Briar, she spends evenings doing yoga exercises tokeep limber.

"I have more than a full-time job. In fact, I should probablylet go of one garden. Some people say I need to have my headexamined, but I'm too afraid of what they might find," she sayswith a laugh. "With my family scattered about and my husband,Chester, passed away, these gardens are my life. They keep meyoung."

Kneeling low, planting seeds with gloveless hands, Shirley cupsa handful of velvety soil. "My fingers belong in the earth. Adegree gives you a certain amount of knowledge, but work is whatteaches a gardener the most about the seeds. After all, it's notabout us. It's about the seeds."