One of the first plants I ever had a relationship with was a fig tree. I got this tree from my mom’s friend Billy, though we all knew him as “Billy the Plant Man.” Billy had a plant nursery at his home for as long as I could remember. He was always our source for plants of all kinds. He specialized in herbs and butterfly flowers. In addition to telling you all about the plants, he would sing you a blues song if you stuck around long enough. Many times, he called my mom’s office and got her answering machine. We would know he was the one leaving a message because we could hear him wailing some old tune, sometimes even accompanied by piano.
That fig tree was the first plant I ever took care of and watched grow. It started as a small stalk that could easily be mistaken for a stick in the ground. But then it began to unfurl these soft leaves out of its brown, woody stem. Each day, I would see how another leaf unfurled. I noticed in that early stage that the leaves would be curled up like a loose fist. I called them “baby hands.”
I even remember naming the fig tree Newton (of course). I told Billy this name and he loved it. He would always make jokes about it being a “FIGment of my imagination,” or that I should, “FIGure it out.” It was a sense of humor that I appreciated, being a fellow lover of puns.
That’s the kind of guy Billy was, always joking and singing, and he loved being around plants. There’s something about a man who can be excited by a butterfly garden, who also bought kilos of Lavender essential oil from me because he loved taking Lavender baths so much. (He swore by them for his arthritis, but I suspect he also loved smelling of flowers.)
Now fig trees always remind me of Billy. But the reality is, so many plants do that. The now-huge Orange Jessamine in my backyard is from him, as is my Snow White Peach tree, our Mango tree, and the super-abundant Nectarine tree that we gave our neighbors for their wedding a few years ago.
Billy is the person who gave my mom her first herb plants, including her Rosemary, which is now 20 years old. For years, we’ve joked about how Billy would come over to take cuttings from her plant to make more of his own—despite the fact that it came from him in the first place. “Nobody can grow Rosemary like your mother can,” he would say.
Billy always referred to my mom as “your mother,” but not in the threatening tone that another parent would. ("Wait until your mother gets home!") He said it with the endearing tone of someone who held her in the highest regard. They had a friendship that only two 60-year-old plant lovers could, having known each other for over half of their lifetimes. They took care of each other in different ways throughout the years.
Billy had fallen a few months back, and my mom (and an herbalist named Rose) were his caretakers. He knew he could call my mom for anything, and he did whenever he needed a remedy for bumps, bruises, or the severe cut he got from that fall. Just like a brother or a son, my mom would get ready whatever he needed, and he’d repay her with a blues song, some cuttings, or just his good sense of humor. She never needed anything in return though, and I think he knew that.
The last time I saw Billy, I had called him to get some good-quality soil for our garden at the office. “I’ll trade you [Lavender] oil for soil.” He loved that. Billy loved rhymes.
He came by on a spring afternoon with his truck all loaded up, and he filled up our empty beds. Embarrassingly, there they have sat. I’ve been so distracted with other work responsibilities that I never planted the soil, but I will now.
I hope Billy comes to visit our garden at the office and all the gardens he’s made on this earth. I wish I had spent more time with him. I’ve taken the plant connoisseurs around me for granted, having only recently really started to learn about herbs and plants and how to tend a garden.
It feels like we’ve lost an earth angel here in Tampa. Not only was he a supplier of plants but also of laughter and joy. There was a light within him that you don’t always find, and he had a knowledge and reverence for plants that sometimes seems like a dying art.
But in Billy’s memory, I will keep learning about plants and the elders around me that know about them, too. It’s up to us to keep the wisdom of the past alive.