In 2001, while I was stationed at Fort Drum in New York, a fellow soldier was getting ready to ship off for a deployment in Germany. She had an ‘Angel Wing’ Begonia (Begonia aconitifolia × Begonia coccinea) planted in a coffee can. She had only two options: throw it out or give it away. This poor little plant only had three little stems with two little leaves on each stem, and it was the most pathetic, pale-green plant I’d ever seen. It hadn’t been watered in weeks. My wife, who has a green thumb and a love for plants, grabbed it and brought it home, where we gave it the attention it required.
Shortly thereafter, I was medically retired from the Army and we packed up to move back to Ohio. It was March in upstate New York, and the begonia got very cold as we traveled for two days in sub-freezing temperatures. It barely survived the trip. But it held on, eventually outgrew its small pot, and continued to grow when we moved to Alabama two years later. The weather there was just what it needed. It doubled, and then tripled in size. It grew out of pot after pot, and one summer day, it surprised us with beautiful clusters of pink blooms.
When “she” reached half her current size, we bestowed her with the name “Bertha.” We gave dozens of clippings to friends and family. She’s been with us now for 17 years and flourishes on our farm. In her current pot, she easily weighs 50 pounds. It takes two people to move her. Bertha is definitely a part of the family, and with any luck will be for many more years to come.
Roughly 55 years ago, my grandparents moved off the farm and bought an acre just outside the city limits. My mom said that Grandpa liked roses and lilacs as ornamentals, but other than that, he preferred to grow what they could eat. They planted lilacs, roses, and fruit trees, as well as a large edible garden. After my grandparents passed away, my mom moved us to that acre of land so we could maintain it all. We even added a few items of our own.
When I was old enough, I moved back into the house we lived in when I was a kid, a mobile home that’s on the same street as my grandparents’ house. Now I live in the house I grew up in and my mom and dad live in the house she grew up in.
Some of the roses in front of my house are favorites dug from my grandparents’ garden. The black walnut tree in what is now my parents’ yard came from one of Mom’s uncles in Kansas. We cut rhubarb from the same plants my grandparents did, pick currants and pie cherries from the same trees and bushes they did, and make jam and jelly from the same apple and peach trees they did. There’s also a large mulberry tree that we still pick from. A lot of people don’t know what mulberries are, so I pick some to share. Recently, we made the garden on my grandparents’ land a bit bigger and transplanted the grape vines my grandma bought not too long before she passed. Those grapes still make great jelly!
Fort Collins, Colorado
When I was young, I spent my summers with my grandmother, Bennie, and one fall she asked me to stay with her for the semester as well. The house was close to my university, so I agreed.
I knew my great-grandmother had loved that time of year; she’d always enjoyed the chill in the air. My grandmother and I spent much of our time cleaning the yard and garden, clearing out dead flowers and leaves, and preserving what we could, right down to my grandmother’s sunflower petals. She always made jams, including apricot, quince, and sunflower. I didn’t even know you could make sunflower jam. That surprised me, but what awed me the most was how bright and cheerful the sunflower jam looked, and how it tasted like lemons.
One day, I noticed a pink sunflower among the rest of the plot. My grandmother told me that her mother, my great-grandmother, had planted it the year before she died. She had liked pink, which explained the pink roses, lilies, hollyhocks, tulips, and tea roses.
The pink sunflower once fell over during a winter storm, so I had to use a stake to support it. The weather was harsh on it, so I replanted it in another part of the garden. Over the following years, the pink sunflower spread until a whole row of sunflowers in the garden were pink, too.
A local magazine once featured my grandmother’s garden, and when the article came out, I put it in my great-grandmother’s book of flowers. I think she would’ve been proud. While I liked and cared for my great-grandmother’s pink sunflower, my grandmother’s yellow sunflower has stayed my favorite heirloom.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
When my step-grandmother Evelyn died, my mother became the keeper of her pass-along plants, one of which displays deep pink blooms akin to shrimp plant flowers (Justicia brandegeeana). I finally discovered that this tender shrub, always kept in a pot on the porch so we could bring it in during the winter, is really an exotic Brazilian-plume (Justicia carnea) from the family Acanthaceae.
The Brazilian-plume is native to the Atlantic Forest, an ecoregion of eastern Brazil. How did it end up on a porch in southern Georgia? I don’t know exactly how it got here or how long it’s been passed down. It may have belonged to my biological grandmother, who died of pellagra in 1926 at the age of 39, leaving behind my mother, 11, and my uncle, 1. Or perhaps it originated with Evelyn, who passed it into my mother’s care when she died at the age of 80. All I know for certain is that when the Brazilian-plume has its brief summer flush of blooms, I’m reminded of them both, as well as my mother, who left it in my care when she was 90 years old. This plant, a tender foreigner from a far-off land, is now a messenger from the amazing women who passed it into my grateful care.
Social Circle, Georgia
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