Plant Orphans

For a while now I’ve been meaning to write something about plant orphans, those lost and abandoned plants that all gardeners take in and nurture back to health. It seemed like a good counterpoint to the flower theft stories (and more here) from earlier in the year.

But ironically, my own plant orphan story is inextricably tied to the flower theft issue. Last year, as I was walking home from lunch, I found a brilliant blue lobelia in the gutter a couple blocks from my house. It wasn’t in a pot, but the roots were wrapped around the soil in precisely the shape of an ordinary clay pot. I looked around and couldn’t see any garden nearby where this plant might belong. It seemed to have been abandoned. It was a rainy day; if I left it where it was, it would wash into the gutter. I picked it up and brought it home, and it’s blooming on my porch right now.

A few months later, the same thing happened. I found a pink and white fleabane in almost the same spot, its roots curved around the soil in the shape of a shallow, round planter. I’d been meaning to plant some fleabane between my lavender plants, so I brought it home and planted it.

Not long after, my neighbor called me over. “Forget flower theft!” she said. “What about flower pot theft?” Turns out she’d had several expensive stone urns stolen from her front porch. “They don’t even want the plants,” she said. “Look. They dumped the flowers and all the dirt out right here in my lawn and just took off with the pot.”

Sure enough, there were a bunch of pansies face-down in her yard. Their roots held the precise shape of the stolen pot. Suddenly I knew where my plant orphans had come from. They were stolen goods—or innocent bystanders to another, perhaps worse, crime.

But most of the plant orphan stories I’ve received from readers did not have such a sinister side to them. Connie Miller wrote to tell me that she gives away orphans, putting her unwanted plants up for adoption at the end of her driveway, where they usually find a new home within an hour. (She gave me her address, but I am not going to share it with you. You’ll have to find your own orphanages.)

I also heard from Jerry Davis, who has collected an astonishing array of orphans, including ornamental yucca and agave from his father’s house, and an Italian Stone Pine that the postal union gave him when his father died. He’s got chasteberry and monkey grass from the zoo where he used to work, and an unknown species of salvia that his father brought him from “somewhere in California.”

Tracy and Janet Sclar of Amity Heritage Roses in Hydesville contacted me to tell me about an orphaned rose that they have propagated and listed in their catalog. Here are the details: “Pure Mystery” (unknown) Hybrid Tea. Our name says it all. When we moved and were inundated with pots of plants either being given away, given to us, or bound for the moving truck, this was one of the 150 roses that got unpacked at our new home. We’ve checked with all the friends/helpers whom it could have come from, but no one claims it. It has fascinating coloration of grey and salmon in the pink blend flowers. There seems to be a hint of myrrh fragrance. 4 x 2 ft.” If you’d like to find out more about that rose or any of the others that Tracy and Janet grow, check them out on the web.

Several people wrote to tell me that they swap plants back and forth between their friends and family. One friend told me the story of a philodendron that has passed from friend to friend and been propagated several times along the way. Another woman told me that she gives plants to her daughter with the expectation that she will show some sign of the family green thumb; when the plants wilt and die, she takes them home, nurses them back to health, and returns them to her, full of hope. She writes, “Sometimes friends move away and give me plants to care for as they always will return at a later date to retrieve them. Most often they do not. I can no longer tell the difference between those and the ones I bought. It’s funny how adoptions lose their meaning over the course of a lifetime and become an integral part of the family, as if they belonged there all along.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.