Our Southern manners take a back seat when we see a hot pink crinum lily growing in a field.

By Patricia S York
French Hydrangeas
Credit: Ralph Lee Anderson

Southerners pride themselves on behaving with good manners and decorum, practicing proper etiquette in all social situations, whether at family dinners, funerals, and yes, even football games. Our politeness is severely tested, however, when we covet a plant that is growing in a garden – and that garden is on someone else's property. What if that plant is in a public park, or growing on the sidewalk outside a restaurant? How do you, and should you, ask for a cutting?

Public and Prviate Parks

Many of our parks, gardens, and nature walks across the South are full of beautiful plants, carefully cultivated and cared for by private or civil employees for our benefit and enjoyment. In many places it is simply illegal to take a cutting; that should be enough to persuade you to put your clippers up. In Texas, for example, it is illegal to pick bluebonnets along the freeway. But, you ask, if we pay to enter the park, or our taxes go towards maintaining the parks, roadways, etc., aren't we entitled to cuttings from whatever plants we want? You may think the one little cutting you sneak will surely not harm anything, but what if a hundred people walk by that plant and think the same thing? Before long that poor plant would be a scraggly mess. Also remember that while a flower grows beautifully in its natural habitat it may not do well at all back home in your soil. The polite (and legal) thing to do is to identify the plant (check out these plant apps for your smartphone) and then purchase one, if that plant is adaptable to your environment.

Restaurants and Other Businesses

This one is a bit tricky, because oftentimes the property is owned by an absent developer or landlord. The employees want to be helpful, but they really can't give you permission to pull up some of the irises in the front of the restaurant. A privately-owned establishment is different because the owners are on site, so definitely pop in and ask if they mind if you take a piece of their gorgeous clematis to plant in your own garden. And remember this, readers: just because a nursery sells plants doesn't mean you can take clippings; that is almost insulting. Whether a big-box or local nursery, selling plants is how these folks make a living. Don't think you are being coy by snipping cuttings as you meander through the aisles. That is stealing.

Private Property

How do you feel about driving up to an abandoned farmyard and digging up daffodils? It is, technically, someone's property. What about an old church yard or cemetery in the country? You can reason that since nobody appears to be around to enjoy the beauty of the flowers, it is alright for you to dig them up. Is it…really?

While very few of us would actually sneak into our neighbor's yard at midnight to steal a cutting, here are a few suggestions on politely obtaining a piece of that desired plant:

When visiting a fellow gardener, take seeds only if you ask permission first and always accept if they are offered to you. If you don't care to have the seeds or think you won't be able to grow them, accept them graciously and explain you will pass them on to another gardener who may be interested in them.

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Most gardeners really are flattered if you ask for a cutting or bulb; they take pride in their plants and are happy to share them with others. Don't take offense, however, if a gardener refuses to share. Curmudgeons can be found in all walks of life, even in the garden.

Remember this old gardening tradition: Never say "thank you" when given cuttings or plants. If you do, according to superstition, the plant will not grow well and may even die. Instead, just politely say something like "I will take good care of this and can't wait to put it in my garden." You can always say "thank you" with a cutting from your own garden.