Reminders of her roots: Garden full of cultural links

Pam Adams

The bright yellow and red marigolds surrounding the happy gold Buddha at the steps of Hien Mach's home hold special meaning.

Like the tall deep red hibiscus bordering one side of the yard, the fish-smelling herb growing on the side of the house and the flowers on the porch that only bloom around Vietnamese New Year, Mach's garden takes her back to her roots.

It's a wonder she has time to garden. When she's not working at the family business, Peking Restaurant in Peoria, Ill., she's dishing up food at the family pushcart downtown.

"I work, work, work," she says.

Her husband tells her to stop gardening. Her daughter tells her the garden has too much color. But she tells her husband that she's sorry, but she enjoys gardening. She tells her daughter that she doesn't care, she loves flowers, especially roses. And she gets up very early to weed and water her vegetables, herbs and flowers, many whose names either she doesn't know or can't remember.

Mach may not know names of many of her plants, but she knows when they bloom and how they make her feel.

"In the morning you go outside, you spray the water, you get all the sweet smells, you feel happy," she says.

Though it's late afternoon, the thought of her morning routine makes her glow.

Mach is Chinese, born and raised in Vietnam, where she spent many days gardening with her late father until, one day in 1980, he put her on a boat bound for anywhere but the war-ravaged country she was leaving. She left home, but she didn't leave her passion for flowers.

Marigolds, she explains, are a traditional plant in Vietnam. "Like for parents' birthdays, you give them marigolds. They mean long life and wealth." She can't remember exactly how marigolds are related to Vietnam's Buddhist culture, but she's always known marigolds to adorn Buddha statues.

She has a story, cultural or practical, to go with most of the plants she grows, whether she knows their name or not.

The hibiscus? The red color brings good luck.

The gold-painted gourd hanging from the arch on the side of the house? The gourd is from last year's garden, she says. "In my country, they say hanging them up brings good luck."

She'll use the rows and rows of fresh basil for cooking at home and in the restaurant. She can't remember the name of the fish-smelling herb next to the basil, but it's wonderful when cooked with noodles and/or fish sauce. (Turns out it's houttuynia, an Asian plant whose name translates as "fishy-smell herb," which she only knows because her daughter wrote the name down on the back of an envelope, along with the names of other plants in her garden: blazing star, balloon flower, beebalm.)

Mach's yard is full of plants, particularly flowers, more conventional to Midwest gardens --- coneflowers, daylilies, black-eyed Susans, daisies. The backyard is an ode to her makeshift style of container gardening for vegetables.

She's turned old buckets, coolers, even an old restaurant steam table into containers for all kinds of vegetables, hoping it would cut down on her weeding time. She planted Vietnamese peppers in colorful plastic milk crates, hoping it would protect them from rabbits.

How much her containers cut down on the need for weeding or protect plants from rabbits is debatable. There's one more reason, she says. "I just like to recycle things. I hate to throw anything away."

In a life filled with stories of growing up, leaving home in a boat, living in refugee camps, resettling in a strange new country and working long hours in a restaurant, her garden is a story about recycling her roots.

Journal Star writer Pam Adams can be reached at padams@pjstar.com.