Michaela Petit's Beloved Four O'Clocks Proposed As Official Children's State Flower
By Alaine Griffin contact the reporter Michaela Petit William Petit Jennifer Hawke-Petit Yale University
HARTFORD — There was little left to hold on to in the charred ruins of Dr. William Petit Jr.'s burned home in Cheshire.
A fire set there during the deadly 2007 home invasion that killed his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and daughters Hayley and Michaela also destroyed family photographs and other treasured mementos, an added insult to unspeakable injury for the lone survivor of one of Connecticut's most notorious crimes.
But one day, amid the scorched debris, family members looking for items to salvage saw colors — red, pink, yellow and white — and unearthed clumps of fragrant four-o'clocks, a reminder of 11-year-old Michaela that a Cheshire legislator now hopes to make a Connecticut symbol.
State Rep. Al Adinolfi is sponsoring a bill that would designate four-o'clocks the official "children's state flower," a companion to the official state flower, mountain laurel. Michaela used to plant four o'clocks, her favorite flower, also known as Mirabilis jalapa, when she gardened with her father.
Her association with the trumpet-shaped bloom, the story of the resiliency of her plants, their potential as scholarship fundraisers for the Petit Family Foundation and the volunteer work around the project have become widely known in Connecticut. The foundation has received requests for seeds from people worldwide. And often, harvested seeds are mailed back to the foundation.
After the tragedy, Michaela's uncle, Dennis Chapman, replanted a few of Michaela's four-o'clock plants at the Plainville home of Michaela's grandparents. Some told Chapman that the plants, limp, brown and missing blooms, would never grow.
"They were pathetic," said Victoria Scott. "Nobody thought they would make it."
But Chapman didn't give up.
"Dennis knew this was going to be something special," Scott said. "He knew it rang true." Chapman, husband of Johanna Chapman, Petit's sister, died in March 2013.
In the fall after the tragedy, Chapman harvested the seeds from the four-o'clocks and planted them the following year, Scott said.
Each year, the flowers became more plentiful, more fragrant and bright, and friends and neighbors started asking if they, too, could have Michaela's flowers in their yards. In 2010, more than 5,000 plants were made from Michaela's original garden
Today, seeds are harvested from the plants in mass propagation efforts organized by the Petit foundation's Michaela's Garden Project. Now, Michaela's four-o'clocks can be seen in gardens around the state.
There are nearly a dozen "Michaela's Gardens" in Connecticut, including a rooftop garden at the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford and rows of blooms at Walnut Hill Park in New Britain and at the Yale University Marsh Botanical Garden in New Haven. Her four-o'clocks also live on in the memorial garden at the site of the Petits' former Cheshire home.
Scott, executive director of Michaela's Garden Project, said the idea for the state children's flower came up during a recent garden project meeting.
"Everybody loved the idea," she said. People initially wanted the seeds to remember Michaela. But as word spread about the project, the seeds seemed to also symbolize what Michaela was — an 11-year-old girl who loved nature and helped cultivate it, one of the many things she did to try to make the world a better place.
"This little seed works its way into everyone's hearts," Scott said. "Everyone who gets in touch with this seed makes it their own."
Scott said like a four-o'clock, Michaela was unique, beautiful, tender yet tough when she needed to be. Four-o'clocks, she said, bloom in late afternoon and stay open at night.
"This little flower gives comfort throughout the night when everything else is closed up," Scott said. The appearance of its seed signals that its life cycle is complete.
"It never really grows old," Scott said.
Neighbors — including Adinolfi, who lived just a few houses away from the Petits — would see Petit, a prominent physician, and Michaela planting the flowers in the yard together, an indication of a father-daughter bond neighbors said Petit established shortly after her birth.
"When Michaela was a couple of weeks old, he took her into his arms and walked around the neighborhood, introducing her to the neighbors," Adinolfi said.
Michaela and her sister Hayley, 17, were involved in several activities at their schools and in their community. Since their deaths, their father,family members and friends have often recalled the girls' efforts to raise money for various organizations and to put together teams for benefit walks.
Petit has spoken proudly of his daughters' good works. When he has talked about Michaela, his "KK," who was attending Chase Collegiate School in Waterbury at the time of her death, he often mentions her love of plants and flowers.
At about the age of 6 or 7, Michaela was already a fan of four-o'clocks, helping her father collect the seeds in the fall and stuffing them in brown paper bags in the garage until the spring. She didn't like to weed the garden, but she liked to plant because of the fruits of her labor — bursts of color throughout her yard.
Petit recalled how Michaela would carefully drop the seeds in the ground and cover them with just a coating of dirt spread with her little fingers.
"She would say to me, 'I'm making the flower cozy. I'm making the flower cozy,'" Petit said late last week.
Then, she would forget her toiling until the end of July when the colorful annuals would burst onto the scene, especially in the front yard of their home where it was sunniest.
These days, seeds from Michaela's four-o'clocks are still collected in the fall and saved for the spring for sorting by volunteers.
For years, buckets of seeds have arrived at the Plainville Senior Center in late winter and early spring.
There, volunteers — often Plainville residents who know the Petits, a longtime Plainville family — separate seeds and put them in small packages.
"We've had an enormous outpouring of support for it," said Ronda Guberman, assistant director at the senior center.
To get the seeds going for the spring, volunteers will gather at the center at 200 East St. Monday at 9:30 a.m., and again on Feb. 2 and 9 at the same time. Seed packets are available for purchase from the foundation and at farms, nurseries and other businesses around Connecticut.
The Petit Family Foundation uses the Michaela's Garden Project's proceeds to fund scholarships, especially for women in the sciences, to improve the lives of those with chronic illnesses and to support efforts to protect and help those affected by violence.
A recent post on the "Michaela's Garden" Facebook page asking citizens to show their support for House Bill 5174 by contacting legislators, had garnered 31 "likes" as of Saturday afternoon. The bill has been referred to the Joint Committee on Government Administration and Elections.
"My neighbor gave me two plants last year and I gathered the seeds," Annette Yorski commented on the post. "Michaela lives on to people who never knew her!"