As a gardener, I love plants. All sorts, really, but especially pass along plants – plants given you by a friend or a neighbor, plants that have traveled a ways and that have stories behind them.
I now live in Central Mississippi, but for 13 years lived in Raleigh, NC.
I didn’t know anyone when I moved there. I mean, no one. My parents and brothers and all my friends were 12 hours away by car. This was in the very early days of social media, and to say I was feeling isolated is true, and yet a serious understatement. Eventually, though, I would get married, build friendships, and meet some of the nicest people I have ever known. Some of those people were Karen and Toney.
They took us in: Metaphorically, anyway. They were about 10 years older than my parents, and served a sort of dual role as both parents and grandparents for us while we were there. The holidays we couldn’t afford to go home we spent at Karen and Toney’s. We were invited to all their family celebrations – when their grandkids had birthday parties, or when Toney (who was a musician) would have a local gig, for example, and they threw their lot in with us as well by bringing us food when we were sick or fundraising for the nonprofit I had founded. We were and are, in every sense of the word except biology, family.
Their daughter, Allison is my age, and she too is a gardener. And every spring, she would hold a plant swap at her house. You were encouraged to bring anything you had to share (either plants or food), and she would share anything she had extras of, and everyone went home with plants and with their bellies full.
And one of the things I went home with were these Purple Bearded Iris.
These are the old heirloom Iris germanica, but my grandmother, like all old southern women, would have called them Flags. These Iris were given to Allison by her grandmother (Toney’s mother), and they were given to the grandmother when Toney was a boy by their neighbor who had had them “forever”. As Toney is now in his 80’s, these flowers can be tracked back at least 100 years.
So I got them from Allison, and planted them in my crazy cottage garden in Raleigh. When we sold that house, I dug some (but not all) of the Iris up and put them in a paper bag, where they sat for 7 months in a storage unit until we moved into our new house in Mississippi, and then I stuck then in a corner of our front yard, where they would get lots of sun and I would walk by them every day.
And now they look like the picture at the top of the page when they bloom, which is from the middle of February to the end of March.
This summer I divided mine up and gave some to two neighbors and a friend in the suburbs. They have, under my watch, went from my house in Raleigh (where some still are) to my house in Mississippi, to three other houses here, and the story lives on, as do the plants.
I think one of the things I love most about pass-along plants is that they go against the very concept of our modern economic story: There is no scarcity, no money changes hands, their only currency is joy, and rather than becoming scarcer when they are given away, they become not just more plentiful, but safer as well. Because if I hoarded them and kept them all for myself, one bad freeze or a wetter than average year could kill them and then they are gone. But this way they are spread out in at least two different states and in many different yards, all increasing the odds of their survival.
I think there is a lesson in there for us all.
As an aside, if you like the idea of pass along plants and want to know more, I highly recommend this book by Felder Rushing and Steve Bender. You get a list of plants that “share well”, as well as the story behind them. It’s good for your garden, but also good for your soul,
Do you have any pass-along plants that are meaningful to you? I would love to hear that story in the comments.