“When I see one of the old English flowers grown of those days, blooming now in my garden, from an unbroken chain of blossom to seed of nearly three centuries, I thank the flower for all that its forebears did to comfort my forebears, and I cherish it with added tenderness.”Alice Morse Earle, American historian and author, 1901
Alice has got it exactly right – there’s a heart connection to plants from days gone by. And isn’t a heart connection to the food that nourishes our bodies and the gardens that sustain our souls exactly what we need these days?
I get attached to plants the way most people form attachments to children, pets, favourite books, or treasured keepsakes (I love all those things too!). I baby my favourite plants, coax them along with encouraging words, tell them how beautiful they are, and grieve if they die.
In a way, plants with a past are keepsakes or heirlooms too. I don’t usually form these attachments to plants I bring home from the nursery. I’m talking about plants and seeds that come with connections. The lilac bush planted to commemorate the birth of a baby; the seeds shared by a family member who has grown and saved them all their life; the irises obtained from a neighbour no longer alive.
Heirloom keepsakes can make us all mushy and emotional. Just as I get sentimental about the antique tea set that was passed down to me through family generations, so I am also fond of the heritage varieties of plants in my garden. That century-old tea set, those seeds your grandmother used to plant – they’re both heirlooms.
“Passalongs are plants that have survived in gardens for decades by being handed from one person to another.”Steve Bender & Felder Rushing, Passalong Plants
One term for these garden keepsakes, if you’ve received them from someone else, is passalong plants. I can picture the handing over of plants or seeds across the fence from one gardener to another, along with words of advice on how to settle the newcomer into its new site. There’s a person-to-person link that remains unbroken as long as the plant remains alive or the seed continues to be viable. It’s the perfect definition of an heirloom – something treasured that is passed from one person to another.
I’m reminded of a lovely old dianthus that had been in my grandparents’ Sunshine Coast rockery forever. Its single pink blooms with spiky grey-blue foliage and that heady, spicy fragrance were one of the only things that could lure me close to that rock wall as a child (there were known garter snakes in that wall!).
Decades later, after first my grandmother then grandfather passed away, we gathered at their home to ready it for sale. As I took a final stroll through the garden, I spied those pinks blooming among the rocks. Next thing you know I had a shovel in my hand and a plastic bag to put a piece of the plant in.
I tenderly planted it in a section of my garden, and nursed it along. But it was too damp there and the pinks struggled. One spring, it seemed to be gone, until one small sprout pushed its way above ground. I guarded and urged it on, then one day got over-zealous with my nearby digging and decapitated the tiny shoot. I still mourn it, and pinks are still one of my favourite spring flowers.
When I moved from the Vancouver area to the Okanagan I brought many plants with me that I thought would do well in this semi-arid region. But I couldn’t bring my star magnolia tree, which my husband had given me for our anniversary (he knows the way to my heart!) or my ‘Buff Beauty’ rose. I still get sad when I think of leaving them behind. I watch closely over my transplanted babies, and though some haven’t made it, I delight in the hardy old friends that are thriving.
Surely I can’t be the only one who gets so sentimental about my plants! Do you have treasured plants or seeds that hold a special place in your heart and garden? Tell us about them in the comments.