Sunday, February 28, 2016

Book Review: Passalong Plants

Passalong Plants
by Steve Bender and Felder Rushing

Publisher's Blurb:
Passalongs are plants that have survived in gardens for decades by being handed from one person to another.  These botanical heirlooms, such as flowering almond, blackberry lily, and night-blooming cereus, usually can't be found in neighborhood garden centers; about the only way to obtain a passalong plant is to beg a piece from the fortunate gardener who has one. 
In this lively and sometimes irreverent book (don't miss the chapter on yard art), Steve Bender and Felder Rushing describe 117 such plants, giving particulars on hardiness, size, uses in the garden, and horticultural requirements.  They present this information in the informal, chatty, and sometimes humorous manner that your next-door neighbor might use when giving you a cutting of her treasured Confederate rose.  And, of course, because they are discussing passalong plants, they note the best method of sharing each plant with other gardeners.

My Reaction:
This book was a Christmas gift from my parents-- something I'd added to a wishlist because the description sounded promising.  I don't often read non-fiction cover-to-cover, but if you're a Southern gardener with a soft spot for old-fashioned, traditional, "hand-me-down" plants, this book is well worth a look.  It's only within the past few years that I've only gotten more seriously interested in gardening, and I'm in the process of building my garden from scratch, so the subject-- plants that have historically done very well in this part of the world-- holds a lot of personal interest for me.

The book was published in 1993, and though (I think) the edition I have (paperback) was printed in the early 2000s, it doesn't seem that the text has been updated from the original '93 version.  Difficult as it is to believe, it's been over 20 years since 1993, and as I read, there were a few times when I wondered if the authors would change anything, given a chance at a rewrite.  One or two plants that they thought rare or underused in '93 strike me (in early 2016) as being fairly commonplace-- certainly not that unusual, based on what I've seen and read in the blogs of fellow gardeners around the world.  However, the book has aged very well, over all-- not surprising, considering that the subject is heirloom plants, some of which have been passed along for hundreds of years!

When it comes to recommending plants, you can only be so objective, so there are occasional plants that the authors treat favorably, but which I find to be undesirable weeds-- and on the other hand, there are plants that they seem a bit less excited about that I really enjoy.  But that's only to be expected, since no two people ever agree on everything (in a garden or out of it).  Possibly it's a reflection of the fact that I live further south than either of them (and some plants might go a little crazier along the Gulf Coast than they do where the authors live, in more central Alabama and Mississippi).  Maybe, too, some things have changed in the last twenty years...

Perhaps the biggest change to come along in the past 20 years is the explosion of the Internet.  When this book was published, it was difficult to locate sources for many of these old-fashioned passalongs.  Therefore, the carefully cultivated list of nurseries that sold each one was probably an invaluable tool for someone set on growing an impossible-to-find-locally plant.  These days, it's so much easier to search out rare plants and order them online-- not to mention the possibility of doing plant swaps with people you've met online.  (Personally, I'm still a little scared of ordering plants online-- but if there's no other option and you're desperate for a particular plant...)

I heartily recommend the book to Southern gardeners with an interest in plants that have proven to do well in the South-- plants with a sense of history and place, including many that you'll probably remember from the gardens you grew up in.  It's written in a casual, conversational style that makes for easy, enjoyable reading, but there's also plenty of information, including helpful hints about propagation methods and where each plant performs best.

Many of the plant descriptions are accompanied by color photographs, but some are not, so one of these days, I intend to page through the book again, look up the ones I didn't recognize by name, and make a wish list of the most exciting candidates for my own garden.  And I'll be keeping the book for a handy reference (the index makes it simple to locate a particular plant's entry).