Over the years, I've gotten to know Frances Mallett pretty well. I've salivated over her ruby red heirloom tomatoes; cheered her milestone anniversaries; worried sick when illness landed her in the hospital.
But I had never met her. Until last month.
"If you're good, maybe we'll show you the butterfly orchids in bloom on our oak trees," my 94-year-old Port Richey pen pal emailed before our visit.
"I can't promise to be good; it's not in my nature," I replied. "And I'll be with (mutual friend) Doreen Damm, who's pretty darned sassy. Come to think of it, Frances, you're no shrinking violet either. Bad influences all around! I want to see the butterfly orchids anyway!"
Doreen and I did get to see those amazing native Encyclia tampensis. We would've missed them if Frances hadn't directed our eyes up. What a treat! Huge clusters of tiny tangerine petals encircling pouty lavender lips decorate her live oaks like flamboyant Victorian brooches.
"I saw a special on PBS where they were going through the swamps in South Florida looking for just a little bunch of these," Frances says.
Gardeners like her and her husband, Walter, remind me how much more surprising and rewarding our landscapes can be when we shop history for plants. It's not hard to garden like it's 1934.
"I plant native plants that will withstand the heat and the dryness, the periwinkles and salvias and bromeliads — I don't have a sprinkler system," Frances says. "Plant the things you can use. I have parsley and chives at my back door, and I love to cook with bell peppers."
Frances is a seventh-generation Floridian; her ancestors settled in St. Augustine in 1762. Walter's family came to Florida in 1916. A framed "Heritage Trails" sign hangs in their living room.
"That's my moniker," she says. "My family is history here in Port Richey. My grandfather was the first permanent resident of Port Richey. My father (Victor Clark) was the first mayor.
"History is important," she adds. "You have to look at the past to know how we should face the future."
I became pen pals with Frances and her daughter, Susan Eckstein, who sends the emails and photos for her mom, in 2008.
"It's been about five years since we sent you the first photo of our sanseveria in full bloom," Frances reminds me. "You said it's called mother-in-law's tongue because it's sharp and I told you, it is not. It's sansevieria; I try to be a good mother-in-law!"
She and Walter have lived in their current home for 34 years. They have seven children, loads of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and a 65-year marriage.
"Last year, Frances proposed again and I accepted," says Walter who, at 91, is arguably a cradle rob. "We got married on Jan. 7."
He's a gardener, too, but Frances doesn't like him messing with the big tubs she uses. They're juice barrels cut in half with holes drilled in the bottom for drainage. The tubs conserve water and fertilizer, Frances says, and prevent fertilizer from polluting the saltwater canal that borders her back yard. They also protect the plants inside when salt water surges into the yard.
"Usually, I sneak some okra in," Walter says when Frances leads Doreen to another corner of the garden. "Look, here's a tomato plant — I got it from the compost pile!"
Frances enjoys her edibles but it's the flowering natives she cherishes: wild coffee, zephyr lilies, wild poinsettias. A petite woman in an elegantly long floral dress, she and her walker guide us from one treasure to the next.
We circle around again to the back yard, where we spot a bulbous gray head breaking the water's surface in the canal. A manatee! We count five, all lazily lolling and bobbing just beyond the seawall.
"Walter!" Frances calls, excited. "There's manatees in the canal!"
She turns to me: "I've never seen manatees in the canal!"
We watch them, delighted, for a long time — Frances and me, Doreen, Walter and Susan. Somehow, the July sun doesn't seem so hot anymore. I savor the realization that, at 94, I might still get such a thrill from nature.
I knew Frances before I met her. But an LOL isn't the same as sharing a real belly laugh, and XOXO doesn't feel near as good as a heartfelt hug. And you can't share a cutting via email.
Some things really don't change — and I'm grateful for that.
Contact Penny Carnathan at [email protected]; visit her blog, digginfloridadirt.com; join in the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt; follow @Diggin Penny.