The Enduring Allure of Passalong Plants

A reader shares her story about the Southern custom of sharing plants.

Peggy Martin rose
Photo: Steve Bender

Time flies indeed. More than 25 years ago, Felder Rushing and I wrote a little book called Passalong Plants about weird and wonderful plants we grew up with that you couldn't get at garden centers. They survived only by being shared friend to friend, neighbor to neighbor, and generation to generation – stuff like green rose, pregnant onion, hardy ageratum, and milk-and-wine lily.

With all due humility, the book was a smash hit. I still get a royalty check every year that I blow treating Judy to breakfast at the Waffle House.

Recently, reader Stacy Reece sent me her own remembrance of passalong plants. Inside a little red barn in Clarkston, Georgia, Stacey and others make and sell all sorts of products for "Southern women who would fight to the death for their grandmother's cast iron collection" – things like really cool socks, tea towels, cotton coasters, and cotton napkins (no beer koozies, sadly, but I may have missed them) – for Down South House & Home. Her essay for "The Barn Blog" is so well-written and spot on about the tradition of sharing plants that I asked if I could share it with you. She said yes. Here it is.

Never Say Thank You for Passalong Plants

By Stacy Reece

My grandmother was a teller of tall tales and an inventor of facts. She only needed to hear the structural elements of a story to create color, context, and a backstory before she repeated to someone else, in more detail, what you had told her offhandedly. She was also a very successful gardener who never bought a plant if she didn't have to.

My grandmother built her yard from plants that she had gotten from someone else — most of the time with their permission. When my mother married into her family, she already had a love of gardening from her own mother, so my mother and my grandmother were often partners-in-crime, digging up flowers off the side of some backcountry road where property rights don't really matter so much. The official Southern term for plants that someone gives you from her yard is "passalong" plants. These plants are given in a spirit of hospitality and kinship with fellow gardeners, and they strengthen the bonds of friendship between them for years to come. I don't know the official term for snatching plants on someone else's back 40 without their knowledge. Stolen? Pilfered? Felony on public lands? The statute of limitations has run out on their crimes, so I can share these things with you. When I was growing up, I thought everybody kept a shovel and plastic pots in the trunk. I don't know how many hours I have spent sitting in a car waiting for my mother to dig up a plant to carry home. The worst was when she actually knew the plant owners and she talked to them for what seemed like hours. Old, old ladies with names like Edna and Mabel and Inez who had yards teeming with irises and jonquils. They were just overjoyed to share their wealth of bulbs and rhizomes and even a few cuttings from their gardenias and hydrangeas stuck in a Mason jar so they would last until we got home. As I got older, I discovered these old ladies were just fascinating to talk to, but when you are 10 years old and sitting in a car under the hot Georgia sun with nothing more than a book you've already read twice for entertainment, these visits were interminable.

Milk-and-wine lily
Steve Bender

The worst of the worst was when my mother, grandmother, and one of my aunts were traveling together. I melted into the hot and sticky vinyl seats of our Ford station wagon countless times, sitting and waiting in a little caravan of cars parked halfway into the ditch of some red-dirt road while they looked for plants to appropriate. These women garnered strength from their numbers. Bolstered by the fact that there was more than one adult present, they became courageous enough to venture deeper into the snake- and tick-infested woods to look behind masses of scuppernong vines for even more plants to take home. My grandmother would stand on the side of the ditch smoking a cigarette, waving her arm expansively toward the tree line while she explained how it was perfectly fine for us to be here doing this because this was Elrod McSomething-or-other's property, and our families had known each other for generations.

'Barrett Browning' daffodils
Steve Bender

It was so hot and so quiet out there. When my aunt wasn't rooting my mother on to venture deeper into the woods — or my grandmother wasn't explaining how Mr. Elrod's great-grandfather was double first cousins with her third cousin's great-grandmother — the deep and humid silence was broken only by the regular coos of a mourning dove or the faint whirr of a car passing on the paved road. These impromptu forest-filching adventures inevitably occurred en route to the yard of somebody named Miss Hilda who lived in the middle of nowhere and shared a common 19th-century ancestor with my grandmother. Needless to say, these visits took a while.

As I got older and discovered my own love of gardening, I came to appreciate the value of passalong plants and the occasional roadside pilfering. When I look at these plants in my own yard, I remember friendships and adventures. I think on fond memories and remind myself to put a trowel and some black pots in my own car for future plant emergencies.

White American beautyberry
Steve Bender

My grandmother always had a saying that you should never thank a person who gave you plants from her yard or the plants would wither and die. You should just promise to take good care of the plants given to you. Given my grandmother's fractious relationship with facts, I always thought this was something she invented in her fervid imagination to increase the drama of the conversation. It turns out that was actually a real thing that people used to say.

My grandmother passed away 15 years ago, but she can come alive for me in the blink of an eye or the turn of a spade. I'd give anything to be out on a dirt road with her again, smelling the mineral hardness of wet red clay and her menthol cigarettes, while she stood by the ditch and told me her tall tales and which plants to dig up and put in her trunk.

What is your favorite passalong plant?

Stacy Reece
Down South House & Home
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