By Jan Pipher, Freelance Writer
Hand-me-down plants are those old time survivors that root easily, grow fast and usually have some sideline use besides just being a landscaping plant. Hand-me-downs are with us today because they could take the “handling.” It did not necessarily take a green thumb for your mother to get castiron plant started around the base of her shady live oak. The tropical looking, tongue shaped leaves of castiron (Aspidistra elatioror) spring up from a creeping rootstock that likes watering but has the great Texas virtue of being able to survive without it as well. Bearded iris are another rugged family heirloom. Remember that pile of culled rhizomes you left next to the compost bin that rooted and bloomed the next spring? Hand-me-downs have been passed from neighbor to neighbor, mother to daughter, old homestead to new homeplace and even today we bestow them, swaddled in soggy newspaper, upon new brides, coworkers, plantloving friends and visiting relatives.
Madeira vine or sweet mignonette (Anredera cordifolia) is a fast growing, sweet scented climber that has provided shade in the South since it was introduced over 100 years ago from the tropics. One tuber was enough to start a shady bower for Grandma, Grandma’s cousin, and the cousin’s cousins and all it took to grow it was dumping a pan of dishwater on it a couple of times a week. Besides the summer shade its lush coverage provided, the fleshy leaves of Madeira were mashed into a poultice for drawing out “rizens” (or boils as they are nowadays called). In Madeira vine’s heyday, medicines came from the garden, not the corner pharmacy.
Hand-me-down plants are so ubiquitous that most of them do not have just one proper name, being called a bachelor button in Texas, for instance, and cornflower in Missouri. Purple, succulentleafed Setcreasea pallida has filled many a hardtogrow spot under names such as purple heart, wandering Jew, creeping Jenny, ivy and more. Setcreasea is just right for bare spots under trees, shaded corners of the house, or as a nice understory plant for shrubs, but people so often associate it (due to its hardiness) with rundown houses and cracked sidewalks that we do not use it in our landscapes like our parents and grandparents once did. Let someone give you a start of their purple heart and see what a difference a touch of purple and pink makes for your shady greenery.
A friend of mine asked me if I would come over and help her set out some plants she had brought home from her sister’s home in Louisiana. When I got there, I found that what she meant by plants were sticks! Cuttings of rose of Sharon, English dogwood (Philadelpus coronarius), crapemyrtle and figs. It was late June, in the middle of a threeyear drought – there was no time or place for rooting hormone, green house mist systems or special potting soil. So we stuck them in the ground, kept them watered and, to my surprise, they all grew just like her sister said they would. Since then I have gained the confidence to dispense with nursery techniques when rooting these and other hardy shrubs like Confederate rose (Hibiscus mutabilis), chaste tree (Vitex agnuscastus), flowering quince and dwarf flowering almond, just as Hand-me-down gardeners have done for generations.
Roses are among the South’s most prized horticultural heirlooms. As settlers moved west toward Texas, the first to come was the hunterexplorer in his coonskin cap, and right behind him came his wife, mother and daughters bringing the family Bible and the family roses. Of all the Hand-me-down roses, pink Seven Sisters is the one most remembered today. A hardy, healthy spring blooming climber, Seven Sisters was named for the differing shades – from purple to the faintest blushpink – found in each cluster of flowers. This pink rose was so common that it was not long before every pink climber was referred to as Seven Sisters. Such was the fate of even a bush rose or two, one in particular being Cecile Brunner, another popular, easy to root and pass along pink rose. Even today, some people mistakenly identify their lovely bush form Cecile Brunner (there is also a climbing Cecile Brunner) as Seven Sisters because “that’s what mother called it.” Lady Banks, Old Blush, Archduke Charles, Cramoisi Superieur, Mutabilis and the Chestnut Rose are a few of the many other excellent roses that have been passed down to us from the homes of the Old South.
Another old time/new time favorite is hen and chicks. Just about every rosetteleaved succulent that spreads by putting out offsets (the chicks) from its base gets called hen and chicks. These clusters can grow in a minimal amount of soil but cannot stand in water, so you most often find them doing well in planters (from terracotta to coffee cans) or welldrained rock gardens. One of the most heat tolerant and frost tolerant hen and chicks for Texas is a gray succulent commonly known as ghost plant (Graptopetalum paraguayense). Another plant that conjures up memories of dishpan planters and dimly lit living room windowsills overflowing with a tangle of Hand-me-downs is motherofmany, also known as alligator tears or shark teeth. This kalanchoe multiplies rapidly from the miniature plants (the tears or teeth) that sprout out of each cactusy leaf pad or when a broken off branch or leaf finds a speck of soil to root in. Plants like these must be the prototypes for the expression, “the gift that keeps on giving.” May you never run out of friends to give it to!
Have you ever been walking deep in the woods and come upon a trifoliate orange (Poncirus trifoliata)? This native of China which was brought to the South long ago, fell out of favor as a landscaping shrub but continued to be passed on down and further west by birds and animals rather than human hands. While the smooth green branches hung with tangerine size oranges make an exotic site among the oaks and pecans of the forest, its 1inch thorns might nix your decision to bring trifoliate orange back into captivity. If you should find a suspicious citruslooking plant coming up in your flower beds one day, however, some squirrel may have tipped the balance of the scales for you.
The toughness of mondo grass borders, everclimbing English ivy and grape hyacinths (Muscari spp.) in abandoned yards speaks of an older time and other generations. Garden beds filled with spider lilies from a great aunt and a unnamed yellow rose from your grandfather’s farm, old-fashioned tall zinnias from seeds shared by the secretary at the elementary school and an arbor of Sweet Autumn clematis from the garden club plant exchange make a landscape full of memories, with an integrity that a professionally landscaped yard can never match. What stories do your Hand-me-downs have to tell and where will they go from here?