Pssst! I got jewels of Opar and a string of pearls… wanna make a deal?
My garden is stuffed with hard-to-find plants that came to me with sweet folk names and back stories.Their charms have been spread over and under fences around the world, cutting across cultures and languages.
But worthy as they are, many are not easily found for sale – to get a start, you gotta have informal connections.
They are passed around like the simple string game which has no written instructions yet is known by children worldwide.
For decades, as the co-author of the Passalong Plants book, I’ve been overseeing small and large-scale plant swaps. Often there is little in common between participants except a love of plants.
True anecdote: Some years back the Pulitzer Prize winning author Eudora Welty told me over dinner that her mother “stopped going to her garden club meetings when they stopped swapping plants.”
But not to worry, thanks to folks with generous spirits, the tradition comes back to life twice a year in tiny Flora, Mississippi. In April, 1990 Janice Watkins, the small town’s librarian, started what’s now the longest-running twice-yearly plant swap in the known universe. Men, women and children schlep pots, buckets, and bags of amateur home-grown shrubs, vines, seedling trees, bulbs, seeds, tropical plants, cacti and succulents, wildflowers, rare vegetables, and herbs this “sharing of the largesse.”
And generous gardeners along America’s Gulf Coast gather twice a year in Mobile, Alabama, to swap plants and be entertained by tales shared by horticulturist Bill Nicolas as he discusses each entry before the actual swap. The stories are often as interesting as the plants themselves!
Janice Watkins and Bill Nicolas
LORE, NOT LABELS
The sheer variety of plants brought in over the decades has been astounding. There are the usual begonias, peppers, and crape myrtles, but the best are the lovably weird ones, some rarely ever seen for sale anywhere.
The left-brain horticulturist in me knows proper Latin appellations, but none are as descriptive as their sweet country names like milk and wine lily, butcher broom, cashmere bouquet, prince’s feather, hen and chicks, touch-me-not, bird’s eye pepper, walking iris, Turk’s turban, horse tail, chicken gizzard, string of pearls, snake plant, moon and stars melon, beautyberry, lady fingers, Moses in the boat, elephant ears, devil’s backbone, hidden ginger, everlasting, rose of Sharon, Jacobs ladder, jewels of Opar, soapwort, rice paper, dipper Jew, roselle, country girls…
Wish I had space to share the stories of each one, but truth is this short list only scratches the surface of what typically shows up at a plant swap. (*see below)
Edible and ornamental cousins “roselle” and burgundy okra are hard to find commercially.
CAN I GROW IT?
Not that the names really matter – what garden variety gardeners want to know is does it need sun or shade, can it stay outside all winter, and will it “get away from you” (does it spread too quickly)?
After several decades of these informal sharing fests, I’ve noticed that every single pass-along plant has three important characteristics without which it would likely disappear after the first gardener set it out.
- Is it valuable? Being beautiful, edible, family or historic heirloom, or attractive to butterflies are just a few merits; the more ways a plant is desirable, the more different people will want to give it a go.
- Is it easy to grow nearly anywhere by nearly anyone? Will it thrive in nearly any kind of soil, through thick and thin, heat and cold, drought and rain, with little pruning or other care? is it pest and disease resistant? The fussier a plant is, the fewer people will keep it around for long.
- How easy is it to share? No matter how valuable, durable or fuss-free, if it can’t be easily propagated from seed, divided, or rooted without special equipment and know-how, it won’t travel to many gardens.
PLANT SWAP MECHANICS
When organizing a plant swap, keep it simple. Limit the number of plants anyone can enter to one or two (others can be traded later). Stick a number on each one (Sharpie pen and popsicle sticks, plastic knives, sticky notes, whatever); the name of the plant is also helpful but not necessary. Put a corresponding number on a folded piece of paper in a hat or box. If possible, have someone describe some of the plants, give people opportunities to tell a little about the more unusual ones.
Then pass the hat around for folks to draw numbers. Whatever number is drawn is the plant they get – like it or not, already grow it or not; the real swapping goes on later in the parking lot.
Coolest thing about plant swaps is the sheer diversity of the gardeners themselves. Old, young, black or white or brown, regardless of political, religious or sexual persuasion, education and economic status, heirloom plants ignore social protocol. The plants simply don’t care who “your mama ‘n them” are. They just want to be grown and shared.
A plant swap is a horticultural free-for-all that mixes interesting plants and interested people together – where they all get along just fine.
*Okay, I’ll share one story. A small, heavily-reseeding annual called “jewels of Opar” (Talinum paniculatum) that grows literally all over the US and is spread deliberately between gardeners or accidentally if some of its seeds hitchhike into gardeners in the potting soil of other passalong plants. Its smooth, perfectly edible foliage is nice enough, plus there are some cool varieties, including variegated and golden or chartreause. The non-stop airy sprays of tiny pink flowers turn to orange and red seed balls. Though a bit on the weedy side, the Southeastern and Caribbean native is easy to control with a pulling or two of the excess plants.
But its popular common name comes from a book published in 1918 by Edgar Rice Burrows named Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. In the book, the ape-man was dazed by an earthquake and fell into a pit where he discovered the hidden treasures of the Oparians – the descendents of the lost continent of Atlantis. He put some of the jewels into his loin cloth, and when he came to his senses he took them back to civilization to fund the lifestyle he enjoyed as Lord John Greystoke with his Lady Jane.
How’s THAT for the back story for an otherwise ordinary little passalong plant?