Pass-along Perennials: Tough Plants You'll TreasureBy Jill M. Nicolaus (critterologist)
July 25, 2013
After years of sharing a house with her in-laws, my grandmother finally had a home of her own. She loved flowers, but her mother-in-law's vegetable garden hadn't allowed much room for "foolishness." Her new farm yard was pretty stark, but it was hers. Just as she was unpacking a few things for her kitchen, she heard a car coming down the dirt road.
The farmwife from the next place over pulled up to the house and didn't even come to the front door, simply pulled my grandma around to the back of the car. She opened the trunk to reveal a treasure trove - divisions of bee balm and irises, hostas with huge leaves and tall lavender blooms, all the textures and colors and fragrances my grandmother had longed for.
Over the years, Grandma added lilies of the valley and peonies, clematis and climbing roses, but none were more treasured than that housewarming gift. I'm sure she thought of it every time she urged a visitor to accept a little "start" of some admired plant. I wonder how many central Wisconsin gardens still have an "Esther's Red Peony" or "Aunt Erna's Lilac."
Pass-along plants are treasured for the memories they carry. They bring with them a legacy of generosity and shared love for their beauty. They're also worth treasuring for their tried and true vigor. Fancy new colors or variegated foliage may catch my eye, but pass-along perennials form the backbone of my cottage garden.
Three of my favorites make an easy combination of heights and textures: Tall Garden Phlox, Coneflowers, and Hardy Geraniums.
Tall Garden Phlox, Phlox panniculata
"Felicia's Phlox" is my name for the beautiful blue-violet garden phlox that comes from my mother-in-law's garden, who brought it with her from her mother's home. It carries fond memories of my husband's mom and grandmother, both of whom shared the name Felicia. Volunteer seedlings are always welcome in Mom's garden, and she usually just lets them grow in whatever spot they've chosen. In spite of the shade from the enormous oak trees, it blooms on and off all summer for her.
In my sunnier yard, a small start became a huge clump in just a few years. I've taken divisions of it several times now, sometimes roughly carving off a chunk of stems and roots with a shovel and other times carefully potting up smaller "starts" so they'd grow good roots before being planted out. Recently, I brought a big pot of it back to North Carolina and installed it in Mom's new semi-formal garden bed.
Hardy Geranium, Geranium
‘Biokovo' is an old fashioned favorite whose white blooms brighten half-shady or sunny borders. A newer variety, ‘Rozanne', is a pass-along plant for future generations, judging by the way it blooms all summer under pretty much any conditions. I've got some pink-flowering "Big Root Geranium" (G. macrorhizum) that SallyG shared with me; they've doubled in size since I planted them last fall!
Geraniums are easy to propagate. New little crowns of foliage grow out on stolons from the original plant, in much the same way that a strawberry plant sends out runners. Sometimes they'll root where they've touched the ground, and all you have to do is snip their connection to the mother plant and move them to their new location. Unrooted pieces can also be removed and potted up. If some of the stolon (the connecting "stem") is still attached to the crown, use it to anchor the little plant while roots develop.
Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea
They've boomed in popularity with the introduction of many new varieties with double blooms or sunset colors. Still, the old reliable purple coneflower beats these new kids on the block hands down for vigor, shrugging off wet winters and blooming through dry summers. Readily grown from seed or division, these butterfly magnets are a must-have in any sunny garden.
Like many clump-forming perennials, division is easy with a closer look at how the plants are growing. Within the big clump, smaller clumps can be seen, distinct rosettes of stems and foliage. Each individual rosette can potentially be divided off as a separate plant. For fuller divisions, include several individuals in each section as you cut, dig, twist, or break it away from the original big clump. Wiggling and jiggling and tickling the roots apart helps each division keep as much of its root system as possible.
Where can you find these plants? Keep an eye out. A neighbor, a friend, your Uncle Fred... somebody will have them growing abundantly in their garden, and hopefully they'll be willing to share. DG subscribers can use the Plant Trading forum to arrange swaps by mail. Notices of regional "garden round-ups" or "RU's" and plant swap events can be found in the Round-Up forum or in Regional Gardening forums
Whether you get them as a gift, in a trade, or even if you have to resort to purchasing some at your local garden center, I hope some of my favorite pass-along perennials will find a place in your garden.
As they grow, pass them on!
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Thanks to my youngest niece, Jessica L Nicolaus for the perfect macro shot of Geranium 'Rozanne'. All other images by Jill M Nicolaus.