From 2010–2012, I served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in a small Ukrainian town. In 2017, my wife (who also served in Ukraine) and I returned for a visit.
We met with Natalia, a dear friend, and former colleague, at the school where I once worked. Together, we walked the old paths connecting nearby villages through the surrounding forest. It was a crisp, September day. The previous year’s leaves, from towering old lindens, crunched beneath our feet.
As we walked, I remembered the forest in seasons past. In March and April, millions of blooming white wood anemone and snow drops carpet the understory as far as the eye can see. A neighboring baba (granny) once asked if I would pick her a bouquet of those fragile, ephemeral flowers. As a child, she had plucked from those same woods. Giving them as gifts is a tradition common in the region for good luck and health.
Last spring, I observed Arboretum visitors marveling at the same delicate snowdrops popping throughout our own collections. I thought of that friendly baba. As news images show the utter destruction of Ukrainian cities, towns, and villages, I often think of her, long since deceased, and her love for those simple flowers.
Many readers will surely appreciate the Ukrainian custom of sharing snowdrops, of marking the seasons with walks through old forests. Indeed, Ukrainian identity as a whole is strongly associated with the natural world, and with plants in particular. The kalyna, better known in the U.S. as a guelder rose or snowball viburnum, is the most prominent example. Ukrainians believe planting one outside a home brings health and good fortune. Its red berries also serve as a metaphor for Ukrainian nationhood and independence. The plant prominently features in Ukrainian music, literature, and art. Its red berries adorn the bright embroidery of the vyshyvanka (Ukraine’s national costume) as well as the modern-day insignia of Ukraine’s armed forces.
Plants play important roles in many other aspects of the culture. Wheat, the nation’s economic lifeblood, is famously referenced in Ukraine’s flag, golden under a bright blue summer sky. European aspen, found at the Arboretum on Peters Hill, features widely in Ukrainian poetry and literature, especially in the work of Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko. In Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, horse chestnuts adorn the various squares; at one point in its history, horse-chestnut leaves even graced this green city’s official seal.
Botanically inclined readers might even be envious of Ukraine’s calendar, in which the names of months reference coinciding natural phenomena. For example, Berezen’ (March) means “birch,” and indicates the time to tap the birches for their sweet sap. Kviten’ (April) is “flower,” when the earliest blooms appear. Lypen’ (July) is “linden,” marking the long summer evenings when this tree’s sweet aroma bathes Ukrainian towns. My personal favorites mark the fall. Zhovten’ (October) means “yellowing,” referring of course to changing leaves, while Lystopad (November) translates literally as “leaf fall.” Examples such as these abound in Ukrainian culture.
In addition to sharing a general love for plants, the Arnold Arboretum also shares connections with Ukrainian botanical gardens and their staff. During the first year of the pandemic, our virtual lectures and educational presentations provided an opportunity for a truly global audience to attend and participate. Staff from Ukraine’s M. M. Hyrshko National Botanic Garden in Kyiv were among them. After communicating first over social media, then directly, they sought advice from Arboretum staff on plant curation and exchanges.
Of course, everything changed for our Ukrainian horticultural counterparts when Russia invaded on February 24, 2022. As the Russians advanced towards Kyiv, the M. M. Hryshko National Botanic Garden closed to all visitors. While many Kyivites fled the city in the face of bombardment, Arnold Arboretum staff kept in touch with our garden connections who remained.
Throughout the months of fighting, horticulturist Olga Pokhlychenko updated us on the situation in city and garden alike. As many a gardener can surely relate, she feared for her plants as well as her colleagues, friends, and family. Of course, she was not alone; a select group of staff were allowed into the garden to keep their treasured greenhouses functioning during the bitter February cold.
When the garden closed, Olga joined multitudes of other citizens volunteering in defense of their city and for each other. She spent much of her time gathering and dispersing medical supplies, and later served as a volunteer coordinator. At one point, she darkly joked that she had so many medical supplies in her house that she had retired as a horticulturist and become a pharmacist instead.
When the Russians retreated from Kyiv in late March, Olga and others went to assist civilians living in the formerly occupied suburban towns and villages. Several towns, including Bucha and Irpin, were off limits as a result of mines and booby traps left behind. However, in the numerous surrounding villages, they delivered aid to the disproportionate number of elderly who remained during the fighting. Some volunteer aid deliveries included seeds for vegetable gardening, a popular pastime and food source for both urban and rural Ukrainians even before the war.
Even after the Russian withdrawal, the danger of attack remained so high within Kyiv that the M. M. Hyrshko National Botanic Garden stayed closed for several months. As winter turned to spring, many loyal visitors mourned the inability to see their beloved plants. They inquired about the status of their favorite magnolias, cornelian cherries, and forsythia. Unfortunately, even the garden’s renowned lilac festival was canceled for security concerns.
Finally, after being closed for over ninety days, the M. M. Hyrshko National Botanic Garden reopened for staff and visitors on May 28. The opening day aligned with the weekend-long celebration of Kyiv’s city day, marking its 1,540th anniversary. Olga, and those of her colleagues who remained in Kyiv, finally returned to their plants.
At the Arnold Arboretum, our own Lilac Sunday returned in full after two years of muted festivities. In tribute to our Ukrainian colleagues, we highlighted a rare lilac cultivar in our collection, Syringa vulgaris ‘Ukraina’ (pronounced oo-kray-EE-na), named in honor of Ukraine. Although still a small plant, our Syringa vulgaris “Ukraina” bloomed beautifully this year.
The cultivar was discovered in 1974 by Ukrainian horticulturist Valentina Zhogoleva. She worked at what is today Ukraine’s National Botanic Garden, where Olga and her colleagues continue her care for the lilac collection. A woman in a field largely dominated by men, Valentina is also credited as a collaborator on many lilac cultivars. All of her credited lilacs are named after Ukrainian heroes, cities, and literary icons. The Arboretum plans to introduce several of these now rare Ukrainian cultivars into our collections over the coming years. We also hope to share acquired specimens with Ukrainian institutions, such as Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute, which may not already have them. Our hope is to provide plants for memorial plantings, remembering Ukrainians who have died in the ongoing war, while also preserving unique cultivars of Ukraine’s botanical heritage.
In early spring, I connected again with my friend Natalia. She provided updates on the town, my colleagues, and both the strain and unusual rhythm of war. As a teacher, she described the difficulties of conducting lessons with periodic intermissions in the bomb cellar. Like many of us, she found solace working outside. “(L)ife finds its balance even during war,” she wrote in her message. “We also have spring here—it is still cold, but tulips have already blossomed, we have a lot of fruit trees, so I have enough work to do.… And a rose flower garden of 52 rose bushes. My hands are all in thorns—but it’s not so bad. The beauty of flowers is worth it.”
I am sure that many readers would sympathize with Natalia’s words. Perhaps peace is like Natalia’s roses, painfully, and painstakingly, cultivated. Until it is achieved, I hope the shared love of plants, such as the beautiful snowdrops in spring, the flowers of our Ukrainian lilac in May, and the red berries of the kalyna each fall, remain symbols of personal and institutional connection with the Ukrainian people.
Brendan Keegan is a horticulturist at the Arnold Arboretum. His article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Arnoldia. This article is being republished in Jamaica Plain News with permission from the Arnold Arboretum.