Family Heirlooms: Apples, Palms, Ferns, and More

Readers share stories of treasured family plants passed down for generations.

Red Astrakan

This tree is likely a strain of 'Red Astrachan,' a Russian apple dating to the 1800s that was included in the farm's orchard but has since died off.

Photo by Elizabeth Janoski

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The Mystery of Grandmother’s Apple Jelly

My grandmother’s apple jelly was a thick, amber-colored syrup that slid off a spoon onto toast like honey. For years, I tried to imitate her recipe with apples that she might have used from the old trees at the farm. An early ripening scrub tree I discovered on the slope made sweet, pure- pink jelly, but it wasn’t like grandmother’s. The ‘Wealthy’ tree’s sweet apples made a great pie, wonderful sauce, and good jelly — but that special flavor just wasn’t there. I rejected the ‘King David’ ( too sour), pondered the ‘Redstreak’ apples lining the lane, and then sampled the crisp ‘Rhode Island Greening’ further down the hill, which my cousin used, along with all the other apples, for his cider.

Then I realized: Grandmother must have made her jelly from a cider that blended all those sweet and crisp flavors into a beautiful bouquet. My apple cider jelly, though not quite the same texture, is close enough to keep the memory of her wonderful jelly alive.

Elizabeth Janoski
Montrose, Pennsylvania


Paternal Pothos

When my dad opened his law office in 1990, my great-grandmother gave him a potted pothos (Epipremnum aureum) plant for his office. Years later, when a family member passed away unexpectedly, my dad gifted all of his children potted pothos plants that he’d established from my great-grandmother’s original gift. He mixed some of the family member’s ashes into the soil and staked the plant with a portion of a barbed-wire fence post from my great-grandparents’ dairy farm. I keep my special plant in a prominent part of my kitchen, where it reminds me of my great-grandmother’s green thumb, my dad’s loving support, and my beloved family member who passed away too soon.

Hannah Kincaid
Meriden, Kansas


A Thriving Sago Palm

We moved from Michigan to Texas when I was in junior high school in the early 1970s. My mom always had vegetable gardens, but her plants didn’t do well in the tropical climate of Texas. After that first year, she went to a garden store to find something that would grow in that climate and planted a sago palm (Cycas revoluta) at our house. It was special for her to finally find something that thrived in Texas.

These plants produce “pups” that look like little pineapples. If you slice them off and put them in dirt, they’ll quickly begin to grow. I took a cutting when I moved to my first house, and over the years, I’ve taken one to every place I’ve lived, including three different houses in the Houston area, and to our new house just this past summer. I’ve given them to friends and neighbors over the years, so they’re now growing in four or five front yards on different streets where we’ve lived. My son and daughter-in-law have one in their yard, and there’s still one at my husband’s parents’ house. A few years ago, we visited my mom’s old house where, coincidentally, one of my husband’s students was living. The original sago palm my mom had planted was still there.

She loved gardening, and she inspired my love of gardening. I have many memories of helping her with her tomatoes out in the garden. It’s amazing to me that there are now so many sagos growing from her original small plant. I hadn’t thought about it all those years when I planted and gave away the cuttings, but I feel like I’m bringing my mom’s spirit with me wherever I go. 

Sue Warwick
Houston, Texas


The Meaning in a Shamrock

My great-aunt passed away very unexpectedly the first semester of my senior year of college. She was a nun for about 60 years, and she was very dear to me. Her sister was a biology teacher, and they were always collecting and caring for plants — even difficult plants flourished under their care.

When it was time to sort through her things, we knew almost everything would be going to the church, but the mother superior let my mother and I have some time at the house to take whatever household items we wanted and to take time to grieve. That side of the family is Irish, so I brought a shamrock plant (Oxalis sp.), which had lived with me in the dorms, to my first house outside of college, and now to my little apartment.

I always think of my aunt when I see the shamrock plant, and even though its pot isn’t the most suitable, it’s a happy little plant. It has seemingly died a few times, but each time it surprises me with its resurgence. I feel like it’s my way of staying connected to her and carrying on her love of caring for living things.

Sherrie Lemons
Memphis, Tennessee


Nurturing Grandmother’s Fern

When my grandmother passed away in 1985, I inherited a Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata) that she had cared for and nurtured for a number of years. My family knew that with my love of plants, this would be a gift from my grandmother that I would treasure and care for. Over the years, I’ve felt a strong, loving connection with my grandmother through this lovely plant. Having moved my residence a number of times, I watched the fern shift with each new environment, almost losing it once many years ago, when it struggled in a temporary home with minimum sunlight.

Through the years, with the help of love and gratitude, the fern has survived. I can honestly say it has taken very little effort on my part other than these simple ingredients to nurture this lovely life and keep it going. My friends and family are amazed to see it thriving after 30 years and can’t imagine how it continues to grow and survive. To me, this plant is a symbol of hope, of connection with my grandmother, and of the ancestral memories that live in my heart.

Diane Anderson
Rochester, Minnesota


Send Us Your Stories

We’re looking for readers’ stories about special plants passed down and shared for generations. We pay $25 for each story we publish and $25 for each photo we use. Please send your story and high-resolution photos, if available, to Letters@HeirloomGardener.com for a chance to be included in a future issue.