April 29th, 2007
Passalong Plants

Passalong Plants.
Steve Bender and Felder Rushing. Foreward by Allen Lacy.
1993.
ISBN 0-8078-4418-7.

Note: This review is for the Garden Blogger Book Club over at Carol’s May Dreams Gardens.

More than any other book, I can see Passalong Plants as a blog. The book is a collection of short essays (posts) focusing on an individual plant. Each entry has a snappy title and all contain a very personal story about encounters with said plant. Nothing formal or academic about Passalong Plants and yet the information is the best kind…words of experience. Most entries have a photograph. Doesn’t that sound like blog format?

Steve Bender (who gardens in Birmingham, AL) and Felder Rushing (who gardens in Jackson, MI) write in a determinedly folksy style, heavily laced with southern drawl. I can just imagine lounging on the front porch, as water condenses on the tall glasses of iced tea, listening to the pair of them tell one interesting plant story after another.

I don’t have to imagine too hard because I had the good fortune to have lunch with Felder Rushing in 1995, the day after he had a book signing at the local garden club. I’d bought three copies of Passalong Plants, one each for me and my two best friends at work. One of those friends just happens to know the owners of Barton Springs Nursery who just happen to know Felder Rushing and the next thing I knew we were all eating Mexican food at ZuZu’s on Bee Caves Rd. His stories were just as funny in real life. I remember especially his attempts to obtain a cutting of variegated St. Augustine grass from a little old lady who had discovered it in her garden.

Before I bought my own copy of Passalong Plants, I’d read the library copy several times. As a beginning gardener I found the writing style a reassuring antidote to all those stuffy books on English or Connecticut gardens. Most importantly, the plants discussed were plants I had growing in my yard and in my neighborhood. And they celebrated the same wacky aesthetic sensibility (bottle trees, pink flamingoes, tire planters) that my neighborhood is infamous for. In short, they spoke my language.

“Jeff McCormack, who runs the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange…describes the fragrance as reminiscent of strawberry and cantaloupe when the flower first opens, changing to burgundy wine and then spiced apples as it ages…I’ll stick to my description of the scent as similar to that of Juicy-Fruit Gum. Vintage 1979 Juicy-Fruit gum, to be exact. — Steve Bender

Passalong Plants didn’t influence just my plant choices for the next 10 years. It influenced the way I wrote about gardening. When I began Zanthan Gardens in 2001, I was primarily interested in writing up Plant Profiles, my own reports on how plants fared in Austin. My layout is loosely borrowed from Passalong Plants: a sidebar with some plant factoids, a photograph or two, and the story of my own experience with the plant. I’m not as funny or as informative of Messrs. Bender and Rushing–but they had an unmistakable influence, don’t you think? Pure inspiration!

“…a bottle tree, what the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture describes as “the poor person’s stained glass window.” I’m not exactly poor, and I’m not looking for a stained glass window, but I do have a bottle tree in my back yard. It’s a stunning specimen, if I do say so myself, composed of rare, cobalt blue milk of magnesia bottles. Some folks use plastic milk of magnesia bottles, but these are shoddy efforts.” — Felder Rushing

Rereading the book has been such a joy. I’d forgotten how many plants I’d tried on their recommendation. The point of a passalong plant is that it has to be easy, easy to grow and easy to propagate. Unless a plant is kin to a weed, its chances surviving me are pretty much doomed.

I decided that the best way to demonstrate just how important Passalong Plants has been to my garden development was to make several lists of plants described in the book. The first is the list of plants that were already in my 50 year old yard and thriving without any need of a gardener’s intervention. The second is the list of plants that the book encouraged me to seek out and try. The final list is plants passed along to me…not all the plants I’ve received, just the one’s described in the book.

Leafing through the book I see I have a lot more plants to try and these days I know a lot more gardeners that I can beg passalongs from.

Plants Passed Along With My Garden

  • bearded iris
  • chinaberry Melia azedarach (A messy, weak tree hated in my garden.)
  • coral vine Antigonon leptopus
  • crinums (various, rescued from the bulldozer)
  • elephant ears Colocasia
  • Mexican petunia Ruellia
  • oxalis (hot pink) Oxalis crassipes
  • purple heart Setcresea pallida (I also have a green variety.)
  • spiraea (The one I’ve had for years is about to croak).
  • summer snowflakes Leucojum aestivum (Reliable)
  • spiderwort (Almost to weed status)
  • red spider lilies Lycoris radiata (Always leaves, infrequent bloom)
  • rose of Sharon Hibiscus syriacus
  • Turk’s cap Malvaviscus arboreus (Tough.)
  • rainlily, white Zephyranthes (I have two different white ones.)

Plants I Was Inspired to Buy and Try

  • angel trumpet Datura (Ours is inoxia, not arborea.)
  • black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia hirta (Self-sows every year.)
  • butterfly bush Buddleia davidii (Love these, but I’ve never gotten one to grow.)
  • canna
  • chaste tree Vitex agnus-castus
  • cosmos Cosmos bipinnatus
  • coral bean Erythrina herbacea
  • crocosmia (Only one flower before succumbing to shade.)
  • hardy orchid Bletilla striata (Never sprouted.)
  • hollyhock Alcea rosea (Grew once from seed and would like to try them again.)
  • honesty Lunaria annuus (Tried to grow from seeds and failed.)
  • larkspur Consolida ambigua (One of the first wildflowers I planted; it still comes up reliably every year.)
  • lantana (Never dies but my yard has too much shade for it to flower well.)
  • moonflower Ipomoea alba
  • oxalis (purple-leafed) Oxalis triangularis
  • rainlily, large pink Zephyranthes grandiflora
  • sweet pea Lathyrus odoratus (I’m hooked!)
  • trumpet vine Campsis radicans (Steve Bender says I’m going to be drummed out of the League of Gardeners given that I killed this plant.)
  • tuberose Polianthes tuberosa (Not much luck with tuberoses.)
  • yarrow Achillea (Had for several years until it got too shaded.)
  • winter honeysuckle Lonicera fragrantissima (I loved it but it died.)
  • zinnia (I buy the occasional six-pack from time to time.)

Plants Passed Along to Me

  • cypress vine Ipomoea quamoclit
  • four o’clocks Mirabilis jalapa (Val gave me the aggressive pink ones; I got some smaller red ones fromm the RHS seed exchange)
  • naked ladies Amaryllis belladona (This book calls them Lycoris squamigera)
  • rainlily ‘Labuffarosea’ Zephyranthes
  • Spanish bayonet yucca (Indestructible!)

by M Sinclair Stevens in Austin, Texas

10 Responses to post “Passalong Plants”

  1. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    I remember that Rushing quote about bottle trees. It still makes me laugh—imagine using plastic bottles!—but that’s exactly what they do, you know, on the 37th Street Christmas light displays. One homeowner packs plastic milk jugs, pill bottles, tic-tac containers, and probably Milk of Magnesia bottles with colored Christmas lights, and it makes for quite a nice, funky display. So watch out, Felder, plastic might be the next big thing in South Austin or funky Central Austin gardens. Meanwhile, I’m adoring my Zanthan-facilitated glass-bottle tree. Thanks again for all the bottle swag.

  2. From bill:

    I had not thought about reading this book, but now I want to.

    I think that Lycoris squamigera and Amaryllis belladonna may be different plants, although they look similar. Scott Ogden describes them differently in his book Garden Bulbs for the South.

  3. From Carol (Indiana):

    What a wonderful review. Thank you for participating in the book club. Yours is the first review, and I list them on the “club post” in the order I find them so you’ll be at the top of the list. Like Bill commented, if someone wasn’t thinking about reading this book, they surely would after what you wrote about it. And I’ll add that it is still a good read for a northern gardener!

    Oooh, I love being first! I’m glad Passalong Plants has something in it to appeal to northern gardeners, too. Someone (Elizabeth Lawrence?) said that if you wrote about gardening in New York or Connecticut it was a gardening book, but if you wrote about gardening below the Mason-Dixon line it was always a SOUTHERN gardening book. All gardening is regional but some garden writing transcends region and speaks to the universal truths known to all gardeners. — mss

  4. From paul:

    That’s a pretty interesting blog. I have quite a ways to go!

    Beginnings are fun, too. — mss

  5. From Nan:

    What a wonderful, wonderful review. I didn’t read the book, but I sure enjoyed reading what you wrote. A simply lovely entry. Thanks so much. I’d like to know more about bottle trees. I read about them in the children’s book, Because Of Winn-Dixie (and saw it in the movie) but in that case it was in the garden of a former alcoholic and I thought they were just symbols of her drinking days. I was amazed to read people do this. I wonder how they are hung. Anyhow, great writeup.

  6. From Kris at Blithewold:

    My library card hasn’t seen the light of day all spring and your review has me searching my wallet for it. (I cheated and joined the club with a story) Regarding bottle trees. I’ve been trying to figure out if I can get away with having one in New England… (for my own garden if not at Blithewold!) It feels sort of carpetbagger-ish to adopt something so Southern… Thanks for the review!

    I think the best part of living in this modern age is that we can comb the world for inspiration and choose to include whatever touches us in our lives. — mss

  7. From Annie in Austin:

    This was wonderful to read, and I love your lists! It’s interesting that we both found the book in the mid-90′s and felt that it changed the way we gardened. You liked the format and the way it celebrated familiar plants and spoke your language.

    Although I’d been passing along plants before this book came out, it expanded my knowledge of plants while widening the field of plant lust, and was just so much fun! Now I ask myself just how much influence Felder and Steve had in my life… was my reading and rereading of Passalong Plants a factor in agreeing to move to zone 8 Austin from zone 5 Illinois?

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    PS. We could make that “Plants Passed Along to Me” portion of your article just a little longer MSS, once you have the construction under control. You’ve been so generous to me, and I’d love to passalong back.

    Thanks. I already have some Zephyranthes labuffarosea from you. And I’ve had many more things passed along to me than I listed. For this list I only included plants I’. received that were also in the book. — mss

  8. From Bonnie (Austin):

    Great review. I like your idea of the list of what you had, got and have been given.

    Hi, Bonnie. You’re the latest Austin garden blogger, aren’t you? Nice to finally meet you. — mss

  9. From entangled:

    Lunch with Felder Rushing?!. That sounds like a blast. I plan to seek out some of his other books, espcially Tough Plants for Southern Gardens, and its northern counterpart. Virginia falls somewhere between north and south, in gardening anyway.

    I wonder if one of your white rain lilies is Z. candida. I’ve had that growing here for a couple of years and it seems to be thriving, even in the hard-baked clay in front of the house. Labuffarosea is hanging on, but clearly not as happily as the other one.

  10. From Robert Fogel:

    After this great review I ordered the book. I think the bottle tree comments were interesting and wonder how many other regional garden “arts” there are? “Bath tub Madonnas” are common around Lake Superior. The objects in the upright bath tub creche are various and reflect the maker. I have seen the expected Madonna but also gnomes, plastic flowers, garden frogs, etc.