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For many living through the war, the blooms of Ukraine impart a feeling of fortitude in frailty. To plant a flower is to seek its particular kind of strength

Volodymyr Pustovalov gathered lilacs from Shevchenko City Garden, a public garden, for his home in Kharkiv, Ukraine.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Volodymyr Pustovalov emerged from Shevchenko City Garden on Friday with a backpack sprouting fragrant purple flowers. They were lilacs, snipped from the far reaches of the public garden, where no one would notice their absence.

Mr. Pustovalov wanted them for his home. In a city still echoing with the blasts of nearby artillery, “they are really to help keep calm while everything is going on,” said the retired turbine engineer, 85, now living through the second invasion of his country.

Russia’s war on Ukraine can be measured in the many thousands of lives lost or the tens of billions of dollars in damage to cities and roads.

But it can also be measured in flowers: the daffodils that dappled street sides in Bucha after Russian soldiers left behind the corpses of tortured civilians; the tulips that flourished as bombs fell across the country; and, in late May, the yellow and blue pansies that surrounded Kharkiv’s monument to Taras Shevchenko, the poet revered as a father of the Ukrainian nation, with the colours of the national flag.

As Russia’s late-winter invasion stretches through the spring, war and gardening have come together in often unexpected ways in Ukraine.

In Chernihiv, municipal workers were tending park planters before electricity or water were restored to much of the city, following the end of a siege that lasted more than a month. In the Sumy region, villagers with gas trimmers have beaten back weeds in the midst of increasingly severe fuel shortages. In Kharkiv, the municipal leaders have maintained a dedicated supply of gas and diesel to ensure its landscaping crews can work uninterrupted. On Friday, a steady stream of mowers and irrigation trucks moves in and out of the city’s public works yard.

Not far away, Natalia Bondarenko snapped off wilted tulip heads from a large plot on the side of a road, clearing out this year’s flowers to prepare the way for a fresh flourish of colour next year. “The city should be beautiful,” she said.

As Ms. Bondarenko worked, explosions boomed in the distance. She paid little attention. It is only “scary at night, when we are trying to sleep,” she said. Her employer, KharkivZelenBud, is the city’s gardening company, responsible for both the sandbags that still protect many monuments and the brilliant displays of tulips, marigolds and begonias that now surround them.

Passersby often thank Ms. Bondarenko for her work.

She also recalls one unhappy critic: “Why are you doing this? It would be better if this money was spent on more ammunition.”

Indeed, groomed flowerbeds in a country at war can make for a jarring image. In Kharkiv’s enormous Maxim Gorky Central Park, mower-striped lawns stand beside craters.

But the blooms of Ukraine, and the people tending them, have accomplished something bullets – and even the basics of life – cannot: They have brought serenity to a time of uncertainty.

“You plant vegetables for practical purposes – for food,” said Kharkiv landscape architect Anna Vedeneieva. “When you plant flowers, it’s for your soul.”

Kharkiv landscape architect Anna Vedeneieva in her garden on May 20. After escaping the city for six weeks, she returned in part because some clients began asking if she and her husband could resume maintenance of their gardens.

Natalia Bondarenko, who works for KharkivZelenBud, the city’s gardening company, cleans a tulip field in Kharkiv. Tulips bloomed as bombs fell across the country.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

She and her husband, Oleksii Goncharenko, came back home Friday after escaping the city for six weeks. The couple returned in part because some clients began asking if maintenance of their gardens could be resumed.

Flowers, the couple said, impart a feeling of fortitude in frailty. Look at a stem penetrating asphalt. To plant a flower is to seek its particular kind of strength.

“I have many photos of flowers sprouting through the ashes of bombing,” said Ivanka Siolkowsky, a Canadian woman who has painted daffodils over bullet and shrapnel holes in Bucha. It is, she said, an image of “rebirth. Flowers die, but they bloom again even through the ugliest of times.”

The war has created an ache for something beyond mere solace from shelling. Protagoniste, a swish Kharkiv bar, on Friday posted to Instagram a video from before the invasion. In it, a woman is dancing in the crowded bar with music blaring. “When everything was beautiful and nothing hurt,” the caption says.

War has made life darker, in sometimes tangible ways. The windows in Vladislav Dolzhko’s apartment have been covered with plywood since mid-March, when two explosions blew apart the glass. No daylight can get in.

Outside, however, the debris from that attack and many others has been carried away. Even under heavy bombardment, city workers have continued picking up garbage, said Mr. Dolzhko, a legal consultant at the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. He sees it as a form of municipal therapy. “We know that horrible things happened here. But you look at this,” he said, pointing to the tidied streets, “and psychologically, you remember Kharkiv the way it was.”

The city, Ukraine’s second largest, remains far from its former self. Shuttered stores line entire blocks. Car dealerships stand empty. Shopping malls and fast-food restaurants are locked tight.

Zoya Leonova, who runs a small flower shop, says she never thought of herself as providing an essential service until her phone rang before International Women’s Day, March 8.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Only a scattered few businesses have reopened: grocery stores, pharmacies, tire repair shops, some gas stations, a smattering of corner stores pouring beer from kegs – and Zoya Leonova’s small flower shop. She never thought of herself as providing an essential service until her phone rang before International Women’s Day, March 8. “We need flowers,” the caller said.

The war has cut off imports of blooms. But Ms. Leonova maintains her own greenhouses and quickly prepared buckets of tulips for sale. A stream of people bought most of them. The only nearby store open at the time was a pharmacy. One of her customers was an elderly man who gave a bouquet to his wife as she stood in line for medicine. “Everyone started to clap,” Ms. Leonova recalled.

She has kept her shop open since mid-April, even after two rockets struck the military hospital across the street, blowing out her windows. Buyers are not abundant in a city where much of the population has fled, but she continues to sell to a few people each day who want to commemorate birthdays and celebrate colleagues.

“When people see that I am open, they are very happy,” she said.

Despite the casualties of the war, she has sold few flowers for commemorations of the dead. People fear that cemeteries have been mined. Instead, her lilies, roses and ornamental onions go to those seeking a floral lift in difficult circumstances.

“Without flowers, life here would be grim,” she said.


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