I sometimes go catatonic while standing over an appealing plant I haven’t seen before. Looking like Mr. Pitiful, shoulders slumped, my eyes are fixed on the prize in front of me. I am silently pleading mercy. Gardeners will often rescue me if they’ve got enough time and plants to spare, especially if there is an interesting story to go along with the plant.

“Would you like a piece? You’ve got to try it.”

‘”This now-iconic photograph of Elizabeth Lawrence welcoming visitors into her back garden at 348 Ridgeway Avenue in Charlotte accompanied her first column for the Charlotte Observer on August 11, 1957. “The Garden Gate is Open: Enter a World of Beauty.”‘ From Emily Herring’s book: Becoming Elizabeth Lawrence: Discovered Letters of a Southern Gardener.

Passalong plants don’t come with warnings

These heirlooms can be found in gardens, old homesites, cemeteries and rarely in nurseries. They are often ignored in plain sight. But passalongs—plants or seeds— are most memorable when they are gifts, even if the origins are murky.

On the contrary, over the last 30 years, there has been a surge in breeding patented plants. “Would you like a piece?” may be punishable by law. Illegal propagation, whether by cuttings or divisions, may be met with the long arm of the patent police. Does anyone know of CCTV cameras in gardens keeping an eye on gardening scofflaws?

I grow patented plants, mostly trees and shrubs. Not only are they hit or miss, but I don’t have the same warm, fuzzy feeling toward them as I do with passalong plants that are proven durable and have a story. 

In a 2012 story on the Human Flower Project, I wrote: “Nursery folks – God bless ‘em – stoke the dreams of plants that can’t-go-wrong. Gardening requires eternal hope. Fortunately, there are ornamental garden plants that approach being bullet-proof. These are passalong plants—beloved gifts from the plant kingdom shared from one gardener to another.

 I’ve been the beneficiary of this unrestrained enthusiasm more times than I deserve.”

Gardeners are a kind lot

You might dismiss the two plants below as boring, and arguably so. It’s their stories that add sizzle. I beg someone to come up with an engaging dinner party story about a short-lived, 20-dollar, patented Echinacea.

“Passalong Plants is a hoot and a holler. Pardon me, it’s a worthy and imminently enjoyable contribution to American horticultural literature.” From the Foreward by Allen Lacy.

The Oxford Orphanage plant

The author Elizabeth Lawrence gave me an obscure but rugged composite she called Oxford Orphanage plant (Asteromoea mongolica) on my one visit to her Charlotte, North Carolina, garden in 1982.

Elizabeth Lawrence, Labor Day weekend, 1982.

I wrote Miss Lawrence afterwards about the Latin name, and she wrote back. The biographer Emily Herring described her correspondence as “microscopic.” It was hard to make out most of the cryptic handwriting or her justification for the name: Asteromoea mongolica. Pam Harper, author, photographer and friend of Miss Lawrence, went down the darkened taxonomic trail and deciphered the code. The plant found (by whom?) at the Oxford Orphanage in Oxford, North Carolina, was Kalimeris pinnatifida ‘Hortensis.’

Oxford Orphanage plant is still growing in my garden. Flower buds are thickening now. I should have blooms this weekend.

Oxford Orphanage plant

The dainty, pinky-sized double white daisies are not like blowsy, puffed-up-pom-pom chrysanthemums. Indeed, the plant could be easily overlooked, but it flowers intermittently over the entire summer, regularly catching my attention. It grows 30 inches high and wide, is sturdy, and handles full sun, but seems happiest in part-shade in the South. Elizabeth’s gift comes back every year and proves cold hardy as far north as Minnesota. “If plants are miffy, let them go,” Elizabeth wrote. This was not a “miffy” plant.

Tony Avent wrote glowingly of the not-so miffy daisy in his Plant Delights Nursery catalog: “A favorite of the late garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence, Kalimeris ‘Hortensis’ is a wonderful, slowly spreading deciduous perennial which arises in spring to form a dense patch of 20″ tall, interwoven stems, clothed with apple-green, serrated foliage, then topped with creamy white, fully double, 1″ chrysanthemum-esque flowers throughout the summer…whew! If you look closely enough, you will notice a light lavender blush to the lower ring of petals…that’s for you designer types.” 

The white cemetery iris

My friend Gene Ham, an admirer of Elizabeth Lawrence, wrote me a letter dated April 2, 2017, about a bearded Iris he remembered while growing up in Greenville, Mississippi.

My grandmama in Greenville, Mississippi, was especially partial to a white bearded iris. Our old house was set back from the street a ways, and the driveway to the side curved through the port cochere. The broad walk from the street to the front steps and the drive were lined white iris about 2 feet across.  When they “fired” it was an impressive enough spectacle that many Greenvillians of yore expected the display and deliberately drove slowly up or down Main Street to gawk and enjoy the view.

I know that hot August is the time to dig, separate, trim foliage into fans et al with bearded iris.  However, I had to strike whilst the iron was hot to “gather” these rhizomes of the old pure white strain. Here they are.

Spring appears to have “blown her azure clarion” with positive intent this week. Good wishes, sir.

Iris florentina, Motohiro Sunouch photo, WikiCommons.

Foolishly, I planted Mrs. E.G Ham’s passalong Iris, in poorly drained soil with too much shade. It sputtered for six years. I dug up a few miserable pieces and put them in the gravel garden in full sun. Curiosity didn’t kill the cat this time, but longing for satisfaction brought it back. They rewarded me last month with renewed vigor and two blooms stalks.

Gene and I talked two weeks ago. He was happy his grandmother’s Iris had finally succeeded.

I received a postcard from Gene last week. He doesn’t like email and is one of my last friends to write letters in longhand.

Oris root was used in perfumes of yore. I found a reference in “Mr. Will” Percy’s Lanterns of the Levee. His great aunt “smelled fainty of orris root” and “nibbled a bit with obvious no cud-motion.” I think my female relatives put it in sachets.

The white iris doesn’t compare to a blue poppy on anyone’s hit parade

Seven years after the first planting, Gene Ham’s simple, gifted Iris produced a meager few blooms. You might think: “What’s the big deal?” I’ll admit, it’s not like flowering the heavenly Himalayan blue poppy for the first time in an inhospitable climate. Meconopsis x sheldonii ‘Lingholm’ is a plant for northern latitudes, and all but impossible in the hot and humid Ohio Valley. Longwood Gardens grows and flowers the blue poppy in their conservatory. They cheat, but I forgive them. They buy dormant Alaskan-grown plants in October and keep them in a cold greenhouse for the winter. I’d like to see the “rock-star of the Conservatory” someday.

In the meantime

Kelly Norris, plantsman, curator and artist, weighed in on the white Iris from Mississippi in an email. He’s been growing Iris species and cultivars since he was a teenager.

“These old white bearded irises were always the trickiest to ID. I have two guesses, neither of which I’d bet the farm on without seeing it in person: I. albicans or ‘Florentina’ would have been the more common of the two and is native to the Mediterranean, so it was common in southern gardens, from what I remember. It’s the principal iris used in orris root production.”

Does it matter what it is?

Maybe Iris albicans and ‘Florentina,’ at least those of southern gardens, are one and the same.

Differentiating the two is tricky. This is the scientific realm of Carolus Linnaeus or Kentucky’s Constantine Rafinesque. I grow bored with the tedium of keying out (closely identifying) plants from botanic floras. Maybe I hold a grudge. (I bet and lost on the second-choice Botanical in last year’s prestigious Kentucky Oaks horse race for three-year old fillies.)

Elizbeth Lawrence corresponded with many gardeners. The Mississippi writer and gardener Eudora Welty as well as Caroline Dorman, a writer and well-known Louisiana gardener, were two favorites. All three subscribed to individual state “Market Bulletins.” In a 1969 Charlotte Observer  article, featured in a collection of her newspaper columns from 1957-1971, entitled Through the Garden Gate, Miss Lawrence wrote: “There are give-away plants in the market bulletins: jewels-of-opar, sultana (in seven colors) and false dragonheads, sometimes advertised as fake dragonhead; and some such as kudzu (free for the digging) to be severely let alone; but delightful old-fashioned flowers are always turning up…I’ve just ordered some ‘shirt buttons.’ I’ll have to tell later what they are. Or perhaps someone can tell me.”

Into my dotage, I will stick with my simple way of remembering a few names. The white cemetery Iris is Gene Ham’s. And the Oxford Orphanage plant is Elizabeth Lawrence’s. Neither one introduced these plants, but they happily passed these passalongs to anyone who liked a good story.

I wander through my garden every day and think of these passers-along.

It’s a packed house.