Wildling Arboretum

by Tim Gilmore, 3/13/2020

The sign that once identified Wildling Arboretum has vanished. Most of the markers that identified its trees have disappeared, though some markers, empty signifiers, identify missing trees.

Even the question of whether this place is named “Wilding” or “Wildling” can’t be definitively answered. You’ll find it on no Florida State College of Jacksonville map, no map of the historic district, Riverside Avondale, no map of the city.

I’m going with “Wildling,” because it was Priscilla Bowers who brought this forgotten arboretum into being and Prissy, as her friends knew her, loved the word “wildling.” She started her own Wildling Garden Club and she ends the preface to her 1996 book I Eat Weeds, “I invite you into the world of wildlings.”

drawing by Priscilla Bowers from her 1996 book I Eat Weeds

Thousands of cars pass this one-acre unremembered arboretum daily, thousands of students. It’s a wide open secret, and I treasure secret places, hidden meaning.

I come here in need of dark green shade to count the dead trees, some still standing, 20 feet tall, shorn of limbs, mixed among red-rusted out-of-place field lights from the 1970s. I come to stand over the wooden stump with its marker lost and try to read what’s no longer here. That’s the archaeology much of my writing does anyway.

In 1989, Florida Community College at Jacksonville, as it was then called, celebrated Arborfest here, selling houseplants, vegetable seedlings and small trees, serving beauty berry jam and pine needle tea, and listening to Muscogee Creek Indian Jimmy Sawgrass play drums and pipes.

I remember the sign. I don’t know when it disappeared. I don’t know how many years the college hosted Arborfest. I find articles about it in the February 26, 1992 issue of the now-defunct Campus Voice and the March 1992 issue of the now-defunct FCCJ magazine Outlook.

courtesy Florida State College at Jacksonville Digital Archive

In the Outlook story, student editor Kerry Speckman says, “The Wilding [sic] Arboretum was ‘born’” in 1988, and quotes Prissy Bowers—identical twin, clown, environmentalist, and cancer activist, “Before [Provost Charles] Dassance came to the campus, we had a small wildflower garden behind one of the buildings. But the kind of flowers we had, people just thought it was a patch of weeds.”

I find the marker for the Cherry Laurel, Prunus Caroliniana, though the letters identifying it are fading away. Late afternoon sun shines through the bright spring green of the “Cottonwood (Populus Deltoides) Willow Family.”

Buried in the shade, pink azalea blooms open to the empty road. The wind in cottonwoods and oaks whispers down to me and I respond in dreams of planting an Aeolian Harp here, that stringed instrument with its eerie accidental melodies, built to be played by the wind. I wish the college would plant a sculpture garden here with the work of its artists.

Along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1795 poem “The Eolian Harp,” I wonder, “And what if all of animated nature / Be but organic Harps diversely framed, / That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps / Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze, / At once the Soul of each, and God of all?”

I’d ask Prissy Bowers, were she still here. Jessie Lynn-Kerr wrote her obituary. On January 12, 2002, The Florida Times-Union headlined it, “Cheerful Clown Bowers Dies at 76.” She’d fought cancer for 16 years, one year fewer than she’d worked on her book. Dozens of clowns attended her funeral at Avondale United Methodist Church in full costume.

As her clown persona Buttercup (a plant not indexed in her book), Prissy wore a pigtailed wig, clothes splashed with color, clown makeup and a floppy hat. Buttercup visited cancer patients in the hospital and painted children’s faces at Arborfest.

drawing by Priscilla Bowers, from her 1996 book I Eat Weeds

She identified as an “avid environmentalist,” when that word was like profanity in much of conservative Jacksonville. She raised angora rabbits and spun their wool into yarn that she wove into “decorative hangings.” Decades before hipsters raised bees and chickens in urban Riverside, she wrote and published and illustrated with line drawings her book about native plants and recipes. Somebody thought “Prissy Bowers” was the name of the arboretum.

In her book, Prissy gives recipes for elderberry wine, date palm wine and maypop jelly, for elderberry blossom fritters and date palm gingerbread, for dollarweed slaw and dollarweed dumplings, “weed balls” and betony soup.

recipe by Priscilla Bowers, from her 1996 book I Eat Weeds

About Florida betony, Stachys Floridana, a weed almost every gardener despises, she says, “The raw worm-like tubers remind me of a mild radish. They are very tasty eaten raw in salads, or used in a garnish. Whenever I pickle them, my husband eats them like candy. The tubers are surprisingly good boiled like a potato.”

Rain tree saplings surround the marker for Camellia Japonica of the Tea family. Part of the marker is broken away, though all four corner nails remain. Strange how distinctly Japanese are camellias, and how distinctly Southern. The camellia garden in Riverside Park, exactly the opposite end of Riverside Avondale, planted in 1968, is another secret sacred place.

The “Native American theme” of Arborfest ’92 included Indian songs and dances performed by the Order of the Arrow, the “Indian themed” national honor society of the Boy Scouts of America, formed in 1915. Indian groups have long criticized and protested “the OA,” for perpetuating racist stereotypes and appropriating culture.

Jimmy Sawgrass headlined the Creek Indian Show at Arborfest. In his nose ring, face paint, feathers of barred owls perched in his hair, he played woodwinds, conch shells and drums. He shot arrows up into the pines.

courtesy Florida State College at Jacksonville Digital Archive

At the marker for “Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) Honeysuckle Family,” no tree remains. All up and down Big and Little Fishweir Creeks and Azalea Drive and its hundred year old footbridge connecting Hollingsworth and Anderson Streets, elderberries thrive. Known for so many folk cures in centuries past that people called this shrub “the country medicine cabinet,” the elderberry grows everywhere in Riverside Avondale but beside its official marker in Wildling Arboretum.

In I Eat Weeds, Prissy says, “Most people cut [Elderberry] down if it appears in their yards, because it’s a ‘weed.’ I think it’s beautiful, with its big showy fragrant flower heads growing in flat-topped cymes. The leaves are opposite, and pinnately-compound. Berry-eating birds love the little round black fruits. It likes to grow in fairly moist soil on low roadsides, ditches, and on the edges of ponds and rivers. I saw miles and miles of mostly Elderberry bushes when I made a trip to Louisiana.”

Hollingsworth heads south of that footbridge, crosses Pine Grove Avenue, makes a corner with the end of one-block-long Concord Street, then reaches for Park Street, the backbone of Riverside, but ends in a parking circle and a chain-link fence, the other side of which is Wildling Arboretum. Hollingsworth originally connected to Park, but when the former World War II military base became Cumberland Campus of Florida Junior College in 1966, Hollingsworth became a dead end.

Even Prissy’s obituary fails to name Wildling Arboretum, but it does say, “She was a member of the Nature Conservancy and the Garden Club of Jacksonville. A pet project was the planting of trees on the Kent Campus of Florida Community College at Jacksonville.”

“Coordinating the events at Arborfest,” Campus Voice staff writer Stephanie Crosier wrote in 1992, “Bowers was also a hostess to anyone who sampled her wild edibles garden which she donated to Kent Campus Student Activities.”

The story ends with Prissy’s Johnny Appleseed advice to anyone who wants to do the earth good. I’m going to think of these words and Prissy Bowers whenever I come here. I’m going to think of them when I tend to the satsuma, the papaya and the pomegranate trees in my garden. Her directive is simple, so I’ll honor her by ending this story with it: “Plant trees everywhere.”