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Putting Down Roots
Pass-along plants spread joy, friendship and legacies among gardeners

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    IMAGE: Chiara Vercesi
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    IMAGE: CHIARA VERCESI

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Sheryl Smith-Rodgers shares how passing along plants spreads joy and binds friendships.

Paige Eaton faced a bare yard when she and her family moved into their rural home in Wood County in 2006. After hand-prepping her first garden bed, she planted several varieties of daylilies dug up from her sister-in-law’s yard down the road. Today those daylilies and many other pass-along plants are the foundation of Eaton’s diversified gardens that support pollinators and other wildlife. Now she passes along plants from her yard, too.

“I love to give daylilies to friends and co-workers,” says Eaton, an employee and member of Wood County Electric Cooperative. “I’ve even mailed them to Mississippi and Georgia. I feel good about sharing daylilies because they’re hardy and can make anyone a successful gardener.”

Sharing plants also saves lives—of the green kind, that is. In a yard or garden, plants multiply, often where they’re not wanted. Instead of tossing extras, most gardeners prefer to give away what they’ve thinned out. Are those pass-along plants? Maybe. Maybe not. Definitions vary, depending on the gardener you ask. Traditionally, the term refers to plants that are easy to grow, propagate and pass on as seeds, transplants, divisions, bulbs or cuttings. They’re often fragrant and rarely sold in commercial nurseries. They may also bring back fond memories of the giver or places tied to the past.

“Without pass-along plants, most of us would have lost touch with our childhoods,” says Neil Sperry, a Texas gardening expert and Grayson-Collin EC member. “There’s something special about being given a cutting, division or seed from your grandmother’s favorite plant and then sharing it with a young person who’s important to you. Some of my favorite pass-alongs are tulips, oxblood lilies, autumn daffodils, resurrection lilies and hardy amaryllis.”

Sharing Cactuses, Succulents and Natives

Years ago, a friend gave my husband, James, and me a variegated agave with green and gold leaves. I planted it in our adjoining vacant lot that we call the Meadow and it produced dozens of pups. Along the way many other pass-alongs, including Texas natives, have found homes in our gardens.

 

Because they’re easy to grow and share, succulents, cactuses and most native plants make ideal pass-alongs. Sedums, succulents also called stonecrops, flourish and spread in gardens. Just break off a stem and stick it in a pot or in the ground. Voilà! You’ve got a new plant. Aloe veras also make good pass-alongs.

 

Through the years we’ve received a Texas buckeye, Lindheimer’s crownbeard, heartleaf hibiscus, pink mint and bracted passionflower, to name only a few pass-along natives. In turn we’ve gifted Gregg’s mistflower, fragrant mistflower, flame acanthus, Turk’s cap and pearl milkweed vine. I’ve also shared seeds with friends.

 

As for that agave and its many pups, those aggressive spreaders are gone. Lesson learned: Always read up on your pass-along’s growing habits. 

—SSR

According to many sources, the phrase “pass-along plants” was coined by the late Allen Lacy, a gardening columnist and author. However, Lacy, who grew up around Dallas, declined the credit when he wrote in a foreword to Passalong Plants that the expression “is not by any means my creation. I have heard it most of my life, possibly at my grandmother’s knee.”

Another custom among some Southern gardeners also goes back for generations. “When you receive a pass-along, you’re not supposed to say thank you or it won’t grow,” says Marcia Coffman, president of the Mountain Laurel Garden Club in Bracketville and a Rio Grande EC member. “I’ve actually found the custom to be true. Instead, you should tell the giver, ‘Oh, this makes me so happy.’ ”

If one pass-along can bring happiness, imagine being surrounded by them. Tables covered with pass-alongs can be found at plant sales and swaps, such as seasonal fundraisers jointly hosted by the Denton County Master Gardener Association and the Native Plant Society of Texas in Denton. “We pot up extra plants from our gardens, like white avens, mealy blue sage and fall asters, and label them,” says Liz Moyer, a member of both organizations. “When I go to plant sales, I always look for pass-alongs because I know they’ll do well in our climate and soils.”

In the Rio Grande Valley, members of the Driftwood Garden Club in Port Isabel give away small potted plants in exchange for donations at a monthly market. Their pass-alongs usually include palms, plumerias and succulents.

“We have a lot of winter Texans who like to take home something unique from Texas that they can show their friends,” says Mary Gorbell, club president and an NEC Co-op Energy member. “One Iowa couple had a Washingtonia palm they got from us. Every summer after they arrived here, they’d set it under their motor home’s awning. Then they’d take it back home and keep it in their garage over winter.”

Roses also rank among beloved pass-along plants. Becky Smith of Hungerford and fellow members of the Texas Rose Rustlers preserve and share old garden roses that were planted by Anglo settlers at their homesteads and cemeteries. “We host a cutting exchange three times a year,” says Smith, the group’s chairperson. “Our mission is to encourage others to grow these old roses, which have been time-tested to survive and require no spraying or fertilizers.”

Unlike old garden roses, not all plants make suitable pass-alongs. “Years ago someone gave me a Chinese tallow,” recalls Greg Grant, a Smith County extension agent with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension in Tyler. “It had lovely fall color, but then I learned how invasive it is. Fortunately, the tree later froze and died. So be careful when people pass along something to you. Check it out before you plant it. Mexican petunias can choke out other plants, but they don’t take over an ecosystem and spread ad nauseam like Chinese privets do.”

Web Extra: Connected by a Spider

Common first names connected us. Both writers, we met online back when Netscape was the only browser and modems dialed up at a snail’s pace. Sheryl lived in Philadelphia, so we never met in person, but we exchanged emails and talked on the phone a few times. One December, she tucked a baby spider plant inside her Christmas card to me. It had come from a parent plant that grew in her apartment. I stuck my new green friend in a pot of dirt with no high hopes. But the long-leafed plant survived. And thrived.

 

Years passed, and Sheryl and I lost touch. I must have mailed her a card because her sister, Wilma, soon contacted me with the news. Sheryl had died in December 2011. I mailed Wilma a sympathy card. We became friends on Facebook. When my spider plant sent out a long stem with babies in 2013, I clipped one off and mailed it in a padded envelope to Wilma. She was so excited to have a piece of her sister. “Sheryl always had a spider plant growing at her place,” she told me.

 

For two years Wilma kept me updated on her pass-along, which she named Baby. She messaged me photos through Facebook and once told me how she’d had Baby blessed at a Feast of St. Francis of Assisi service at her church. Sadly, Baby turned brown and died. All these years later, mine thrives on a tabletop in my office, although it hasn’t produced little ones since Baby. But I keep hoping. Another pass-along from the both of us Sheryls to Wilma would mean so much.

—SSR

Grant, a Deep East Texas EC member, also cautions against scooping up plants from public parks and private property. “If you don’t own the land, then you shouldn’t dig up a plant unless you have the owner’s permission,” he says. “In my hunts for plants, I’ve been known to knock on doors and offer cash.”

When is the best time to plant pass-alongs? “Most are forgiving about being dug up or divided,” Grant says. “So even if you do it at the wrong time of year, they don’t mind because pass-alongs are tough.”

Occasional losses in her gardens motivate Lin Grado, a Wood County master gardener and Wood County EC member, to share some of her plants. “For instance, if something destroys my fall obedient plant, I know I can go to a friend that I gave some to and get more,” she explains. “I know that’s a little selfish, but it’s nice to know I’ve got backups.”

Mention pass-alongs, and potted plants may come up.

“I treasure my peperomia, a tropical houseplant that was given to me by the late Ralph Pinkus,” Sperry says. “He’s one of my heroes and was the founder of North Haven Gardens in Dallas. I’ve had that plant for 35 years.”

Though small, a potted cactus matters greatly to Moyer, a member of CoServ, an electric cooperative in Corinth. “Before my grandfather’s farm sold near East Sweden, I dug up some barrel cacti,” she recalls. “Later I divided the cacti into 15 pots and passed them along to my children and my sister’s children. It was all we had left of the land that our family had owned since 1889.

“Sometimes,” she adds, “a pass-along plant is the only thing you have left of someone or something that you held dear.”


Sheryl Smith-Rodgers, a member of Pedernales EC, lives in Blanco.

TAGS: Gardening, Nature


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