One of my goals this year—with a solid year of gardening experience under my belt—has been to try to make my garden pretty as well as practical. I’ve partially succeeded. The Bachelors Buttons and Rose Campion I tried to intersperse among the vegetables became too weedy and too needy for my liking, so I pulled them out. Instead of planting flowers in the vegetable beds, I've settled for using pots to assign them to otherwise barren spaces. This has worked well except S complains that the plants definitely outnumber the people in our space. What can I say?
It didn’t help that my local nursery had a sale on annuals. During one of these visits, I learned they had decided to renovate the area where they typically keep the more expensive and exotic plants like roses and hibiscuses, which meant that they offered these plants at deep discounts. And that is the story of how I came to own a hibiscus.
Hibiscuses have the power to transport me through time and space. The variety I’m growing is called Strawberry Sunset. It blooms a rich, velvety red, and its vibrancy reminds me so much of the plants my mother grew in Trinidad. Well, “grew” should be used loosely since hibiscuses seemed to run wild on our property. It's a show-stopper in my garden. So much so that when S's aunts recently visited, they saw the plant and immediately exclaimed, "She's growing Kali-ma's flowers!"
Flowers play a significant role in cultures around the globe. They're specifically cultivated and used for decoration, medicine, and cooking—oh, and of course for their aromatic tendencies. We display them in vases, we grow them in our front gardens, and we bring them indoors to enhance our home. We give flowers to establish, maintain, and sometimes end relationships. We give them to friends and loved ones whom we count among the living and to those who have passed. There is something vulnerable in offering an item so fragile and so beautiful. This vulnerability lends authenticity to the gesture and makes it suitable in such varied contexts.
These are a few of the reasons flowers play such a large role in Hinduism. Flowers are a main offering to the gods in religious ceremonies. (Hindu gods will also be coaxed by clothing, jewels, perfumes, music, dance, betel and fruit, which are all present in some form during a traditional puja). In Hinduism, gifts to the gods are often in the same spirit as gifts we would offer to one another; giving flowers during a religious ceremony becomes a sign of respect and love, much as it does when we give these items to each other.
The gods are associated with specific flowers. The hibiscus belongs to Kali, a manifestation of primordial energy. She represents empowerment, and with that, admittedly, comes destruction, making her a fierce goddess. To understand why she is tied to the hibiscus requires delving into a bit of mythology.
Kali is form of Devi, the supreme mother in Hinduism. Devi was willed into existence by the gods, who each gave a piece of themselves to create her, and when she was fully formed, they—the gods—worshipped her in part because she was a perfect embodiment of all of them. This representation was somewhat self-serving: They had been at war with the demon king Mahishasura. During a break in the battle, Mahishasura declared himself Ruler of the Universe and began to march on Heaven to claim his prize with an army of demons. The gods created Devi out of the best of each of them to defend them, and gifted her with things that were sacred to them:
Shiva gave her a trident drawn forth from his own, Vishnu a powerful discus, and Indra, the king of the Gods, gave her a thunderbolt identical to his own. Surya, the sun God, bestowed his rays on all the pores of her skin, and Varuna, god of the ocean, gave her a divine crest jewel, earrings, bracelets and a garland of unfading lotuses.
So armed, she met the army of Mahishasura and slaughtered them. She met Mahishasura himself and killed him after a fierce battle. So great was her fury that though the fight had ended, she continued to rage through the battlefield. In giving her so many aspects, the gods had also given Devi many forms. Consumed by rage, Devi was had fully given herself over to an aspect of her personality tied to Kali, a goddess known for destruction. The gods realized they needed to stop her, but they were all were afraid. Shiva, the god of time and change (Kali’s male counterpart), went down to the battlefield, and laid down. Kali continued to dance until she looked down and realized she was stepping on Shiva. She was embarrassed because in that form, Shiva was a her husband. She withdrew her rage and to demonstrate her shame, stuck out her tongue, which is how she is often depicted.
The red hibiscus is representative of Kali's tongue. But it should not be mistaken for her shame. The hibiscus is symbolic of the blood lust that possesses her. As she represents a form of energy, this blood symbolism becomes life-affirming because it ties her to the life forces that pulse in all of us.
Okay, okay, but what does this have to do with my garden?
It's not surprising to me that S's aunts recognized the hibiscus as a flower belonging to Kali. In Bangladesh, she's celebrated in a festival that leads up to the observance of Diwali. But their exclamation caused me to think about why I may have wanted this particular plant beyond it's aesthetic contribution.
In Trinidad, my mom spent a lot of time cultivating a white hibiscus with a red center. She grew dasheen and peppers, and roses. When she moved here, she lost her garden while we lived in rental properties. Once my parents purchased a home, she set about growing the things that reminded her of the life she had left behind. And she used them in the same ways. While we were not an observant family, some of my earliest memories are of getting up early, bathing, and helping her collect marigolds for the annual household puja. I would watch her string these freshly picked flowers into garlands to dress the deities for the day's festivities.
Gardens are one of the ways immigrant families can create cultural spaces, which can then be used to teach children about the symbolism that's important to them. In this sacred micro-landscape, while learning about the care and handling of flowers, children also learn a bit about their culture and heritage.
I didn't select the hibiscus for it's connection to Kali, or for use in any sort of worship. I chose it because it reminded me of a childhood experience. As I've farther away from family, and with visits to Trinidad being rare at the moment, perhaps in my own way, I've looked to add a bit of my mother's culture to my garden.
Do you have a favorite in your garden that your a relative grew? What sorts of cultural tales does your garden tell?
Fuller, Christopher John. The Camphor Flame. Princeton University Press, 2004.
Goody, Jack. The Culture of Flowers. CUP Archive, 1993.
Mazumdar, Shampa and Sanjoy Mazumdar. “Religious, immigration, and home making in diaspora: Hindu space in Southern California.” In Journal of Environmental Psychology 29 (2009): 256-266
McDaniel, June. Offering Flower, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal. Oxford University Press, 2004.
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