Some plants all but beg to be grown and shared. Spreading around the world and across all cultures and languages like a children’s hand-held string game, they easily bring diverse people together with good cheer.
True anecdote: Some years back Eudora Welty told me over dinner that her mother “stopped going to her garden club meetings when they stopped swapping plants.”
But not to worry, the tradition is still alive, at least in tiny Flora, Miss. In April 1990, Janice Watkins, the small town’s librarian, started what is now the longest-running twice-yearly plant swap in the known universe. Along the way it has become so much more than gardening.
Before social media, Janice simply spread the word verbally for folks to bring a plant or two to share with one another. The response was overwhelming, as dozens of men, women and children schlepped pots, buckets, and bags of amateur home-grown shrubs, vines, seedling trees, bulbs, seeds, tropical plants, wildflowers, vegetables, and herbs.
The sheer variety of plants brought in over the decades has been astounding. Though some are quite rare, almost all were at one time commonly grown but are now nearly impossible to find for sale anywhere. To get a start you have to know someone willing to share – which they usually are.
The left-brain horticulturist in me knows their proper Latin appellations, but none are as descriptive as the sweet country names like milk and wine lily, butcher broom, cashmere bouquet, prince’s feather, touch-me-not, bird’s eye pepper, walking iris, Turk’s turban, horse tail, chicken gizzard, snake plant, Moses in the boat, elephant ears…
Not that the names really matter. What people want to know is does it need sun or shade, can it stay outside all winter, and will it “get away from you” (does it spread too quickly)?
After several decades of these informal sharing fests, I’ve noticed that every single pass-along plant has four important characteristics without which it would likely disappear after the first gardener set it out.
First, is it valuable? Being beautiful, edible, family or historic heirloom, or attractive to butterflies are just a few merits; the more ways a plant is desirable, the more different people will want to give it a go.
Second in importance is its ease of cultivation. Will it thrive in nearly any kind of soil, through thick and thin, heat and cold, drought and rain, with little pruning or other care? The fussier a plant is, the fewer people will keep it around for long. Next consideration is pest resistant; not many “garden variety” gardeners will cherish a plant that has to be treated often for bugs or blights.
Last but not least, is how easy is it to share? No matter how valuable, durable or fuss-free, if it can’t be easily propagated from seed, divided, or rooted without special equipment and know-how, it won’t travel to many gardens.
Swap mechanics are simple. Plants are numbered, then people draw numbers to see which plant they get. Like it or not, already grow it or not, the real swapping goes on later in the parking lot. The purpose is to get good people and plants together, and mix ‘em up.
Coolest thing about plant swaps is the sheer diversity of the gardeners themselves. Old, young, black or white or brown, regardless of political, religious or sexual persuasion, education and economic status, heirloom plants ignore social protocol. The plants simply don’t care who “your mama ‘n them” are. They just want to be grown and shared.
These horticultural free-for-alls put plants and people together, and it works out fine.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.