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 is alive and well at plant swaps around the world. I’m featuring just three here.
For some ten years or so, a strange and beautiful thing happened between two men who had practically nothing in common other than a love in growing and joy in sharing simple garden plants.
This is saying a lot, but “Dirt” was without a doubt one of the most overflowing humans I have ever encountered. Bigger-than-life he was – tall, colorful, thoughtful, bawdy, humorous, and, yes, easily outraged and loudly opinionated (usually spot-on).
First met him by accident, while cruising backstreets of small-towns looking for interesting cottage gardens and the pass-along plants usually found in them – one of the best ways to uncover hardy, garden-variety plants.
His unmissable garden, nestled beside a railroad crossing in a small town in rural Mississippi, stopped me in my tracks. The outstanding “total yard show” was overstuffed and overflowing with kaleidoscopic combinations of plants and home-made yard art made from found objects. Its care-taker – a tall, lanky man with a do-rag on his head and a Kaiser blade in hand – met me at the gate. He wouldn’t invite me in, much less tell me his name, instructing me to just call him Dirt.
What’s the difference? In a word, nothing. Narcissus is the Latin name for all daffodils; all daffodils are Narcissus.
Though few do well along the Gulf Coast (Tete a Tete, jonquillas, and paperwhites are best to start with), most are perfectly hardy in the ground as perennials. I have over two dozen different varieties that have been blooming for years in my garden that came from my great-grandmother’s garden, planted the back in the 1930s.
They are best planted in the fall, or soon after their foliage dies down in the spring. Because they form flower buds for the following year after they finish flowering in the spring, it’s important to let them finish flowering and give them at least five or six weeks, or for their leaves to turn yellow, before cutting and neatening old foliage; otherwise they may skip a year or more before flowering again.
Here are some of my great-grandmother’s bulbs blooming in my garden:
Bulbs, tubers, corms, whatever – they are solid, fleshy little things that you plant in the ground and they sprout roots, leaves, and often flowers. Most come and go throughout the year; some are hardy outside in the ground, some are tender and have to be replanted every year.
Classic passalong bulbs for the Southeast include daffodils, painted Arum, huge Crinum lilies, low-growing star flower (Ipheion), red Amaryllis, Lycoris (both the red “spider lily” and pink “naked ladies”), Spanish bluebells, summer snowflake (Leucojum, with little white bells with green dots, often confused with snowbells which grow better farther north), magenta hardy Gladiolus (G. byzantinus), tall summer-flowering Philippine lily, hidden ginger (Curcuma), elephant ears, garlic, and tiger lily. There are others of course!
They’re plants that everyone grows, but hardly anyone buys…
Each has a strong value or combination of values -pretty, fragrant, extra productive, long-flowering, family heirloom, fascinating history, whatever – making it desirable by a lot of different kinds of gardeners.
Each is easy to grow without special soil preparation, extra watering or other horticultural finesse, and grows well in a wide range of conditions.
Each is relatively insect and disease free – I mean, who wants a plant that is always boogered up?
And, most importantly, each is easy to propagate by seed, division, or cutting, else it won’t be easy to share.