Saturday, April 09, 2011

Passalong plants can bring others joy

Neeli Reamer is The Roanoke Times' gardening columnist. Her column appears twice monthly in Extra.

Neeli Reamer

Recent columns

About Neeli

Neeli Reamer is a Master Gardener who has a bachelor's degree in journalism and mass communication and a master's degree in counseling, where she focused heavily on horticultural therapy techniques.

She believes gardening isn't about being perfect, it's about having fun.

Grandmother Ellen Reamer has a philosophy about gardens: "When you plant a garden it is not only for you, but for the others who will enjoy it after you move on."

My grandparents met at Duke University and married during World War II. Granddaddy enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps after graduation.

Over the next few years they lived in Connecticut, Ohio, then North Carolina ... and whether they rented or owned, my grandmother always tried to leave their yards a little prettier than she found them.

My husband and I are relocating, so I have to say goodbye to the garden I created here in Blacksburg. I hope that, like my grandmother, I have improved the scenery for somebody else; and that he or she will love watching my river birches, wildflowers, ornamental grasses and Knock Out roses grow.

But there are certain plants that I just cannot part with, and I plan to take divisions, cuttings or seeds from these with me when I go. They are my "passalong plants."

Heirlooms in the garden

In their book "Passalong Plants," Steve Bender and Felder Rushing (1993) explain passalong plants are botanical treasures that have been handed down by friends, neighbors and relatives for decades.

Passalong plants are extremely easy to propagate, occasionally hard to find for sale, and they often have interesting stories to tell.

Each passalong plant in my garden generates memories of the gardener who gave it to me. Some are living links to my family tree.

Grandmother Reamer shared her lily of the valley with me when I moved to Virginia. She says its fragrant, white, bell-shaped flowers originally bloomed in her grandmother's mountaintop garden.

My old-fashioned lemon yellow daylily is also from her parents' yard; and my daffodils, ajuga and hardy begonias used to grow around her house in Salisbury, N.C.

Aunt Betsy Webster rooted Great-Grandmother Rankin's English boxwoods, a family favorite, for me.

I recall the hazy, summer day Great-Aunt Betsy Anthony dug shovelfuls of bright, orange flowered crocosmia and pink, autumn-blooming Japanese anemones from her garden on the shores of North Carolina's Lake James. She wrapped the plants in wet newspaper and placed them in plastic bags for my drive home.

Those anemones are popping up everywhere now, just like the sweet woodruff my Aunt Ann presented to me at a Fourth of July party.

Some passalongs, such as mint and periwinkle (Vinca minor), should include a warning because they are very invasive. It is usually a good idea to ask for gardening tips when a person offers you a free plant.

Many of my prized passalong plants come from volunteering at the Hahn Horticulture Garden at Virginia Tech, and the generous people there. For example, Forrest and Linda Fiedler brought me a "Frances Williams" hosta, Jane O'Keeffe gave me a Shasta daisy, Allen Bame shared his dahlias and the Hahn Garden staff let me have butterfly bushes and ostrich ferns.

In the South, there is a superstition that you are never supposed to thank anyone for a passalong plant, or it will die. I don't believe that's true.

Propagating passalong plants

The simplest ways to propagate passalong plants are through division, cuttings or seeds.

Division: If you want to divide a mature, perennial passalong plant like lamb's ears, liriope or yarrow this spring, water it the day before. Then, the next morning, carefully dig and lift the plant and gently shake off a bit of the soil. Use a spade or knife to separate it into smaller, individual clumps. Replant or pot the clumps, water immediately, and start giving them away.

Cuttings: Take 4- to 5-inch-long cuttings from classic shrubs like azaleas, boxwoods or camellias. Strip the lower leaves. Dip the stems in a rooting hormone (Rootone) and insert them in a potting mix. Keep the cuttings moist and in medium shade for several weeks until roots form. A number of tropical plants, herbs, and shrubs such as aucuba can be rooted in water.

Seeds: Collect and save seeds from heirloom plants like cosmos, four o'clocks, hyacinth beans, zinnias or black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) in the fall. Gather seeds, seedpods or flowerheads and put them in separate paper bags. Store your seeds in a cool, dry spot. Hybrids may produce seedlings that are inferior to the parent plant.

As time goes by, dig up any volunteer plants or extra flower bulbs you may have and pass them on.

I won't ever forget the special gardeners connected to my passalong plants. And if you share yours with others, they'll remember you, too.

Save the dates

April 28, 29, 30

Horticulture Club and Hahn Horticulture Garden at Virginia Tech Plant Sale

8 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day at the Garden/Greenhouse complex on Washington Street.

June 11

The 7th Annual Garden Gala

5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Hahn Horticulture Garden. The theme is "Lucky Seven." For more information, visit

This is Neeli Reamer's last column for The Roanoke Times. We hope to announce a new gardening columnist soon.

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