Readers share stories of treasured heirloom plants.
The sight of morning dew glistening on dark purple grapes at late-summer sunrise, the smell of grape juice simmering on the stove, and little round glass jars reminiscent of amethyst jewels on the counter are all memories of my childhood home. Each year, my dad would harvest ‘Concord’ grapes from his backyard vines, and meticulously (like the former food scientist that he is) make grape jelly for all of his family and friends to enjoy.
When my husband and I bought our first home shortly after my mother passed away, my father offered the decades-old heirloom grapevines to us. We of course accepted, and he and my husband spent an afternoon digging up the vines and carefully wrapping them in burlap. Along with the vines, my dad gifted us an arbor, which we placed at the entrance to our vegetable garden. We planted the grapes and waited with anticipation that first year, wondering if they would take. Take they did, growing from small buds with a few vines to the lush vines and dozens of grape bunches that now welcome us to the garden.
Our children and their friends enjoy looking for little green “baby grapes,” joyfully picking and eating the purple grapes when they ripen, and even occasionally finding a young tree frog or two clinging to the leaves. They watch the buds sprout up each year and learn a bit about where their food comes from and how it grows. Watching the sun rise beyond the grapevines that once grew in my parents’ yard, I hope to pass the joy and lessons of gardening down to my own children. Maybe decades from now one of them will grow these family heirloom grapes in one of their own backyards.
Stockton, New Jersey
My earliest memories are of playing in a shady row of apple trees behind my grandma’s house. The ‘Yellow Transparent,’ the first in the row, was the first tree that I ever climbed. It was at the top of that tree where I sought solace after an errant whiffle-ball bat gave me a black eye during a school picnic in third grade. From this tree came my grandma’s first pies of summer. Pies would continue long into fall, thanks to her ‘Northern Spy’ trees, and later into winter with cold-cellar bins brimming with apples.
Every year, one Sunday was designated as “Cider Sunday.” At my great-grandfather’s farmstead, we’d gather apples from the heirloom apple trees. Grandma would fry cider donuts, served with crisp, hot edges and dusted with cinnamon and sugar, while we picked, washed, and pressed our apples into cider.
My great-grandfather, who died before I was born, had a dozen or so trees of an uncertain type. I was blissfully ignorant to the notion that apples should be uniform and glossy red. My favorite apple was a knobby, green apple with rusty patches from his tree. The flesh was as crisp and dry as champagne. Years passed, and I now live on the other end of the state. In the city, russet apples are a rare find. All of my great-grandfather’s heirloom apple trees, or what remains of them, are now 100 years old. His russet tree only produces an apple or two a year. On a crisp fall day, while eating one of the only apples from that aging tree, I contemplated the loss of the apples and the original family trees with regret and nostalgia. Throughout winter, I researched grafting and took a class. In spring, I cut scions and whip grafted them in hopes of preserving the fruit of my family’s trees for another generation.
Rue. That’s such a loaded word. It means so much. I suppose that’s fitting, as we get ready to sell our family home after 60 years, and I contemplate the rue that grows there.
Ruta is the emblematic plant of Lithuania, the place my ancestors have called home off-and-on for generations. Even though my grandmother was born here in the United States, she grew up in a small town in the Old Country. When the Soviets came for the policemen, my grandmother and her officer-husband fled with what they could carry, before they were finally sent to Siberia. My mother was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after the second world war.
And when, at last, they all arrived back in the U.S. in 1949, with all of $2 and a hole in my grandfather’s shoe covered by newsprint (having walked across war-torn Europe), and no knowledge of English, and with only a scant memory of Coney Island (the hot dog place in Worcester, not the amusement park in New York), they finally made their way back to central Massachusetts and began their new life.
When my grandparents bought our house in 1956, they began planting it in the image of German homes they’d seen while living there after the war. Needless to say, rue was one of the plants they chose. It found its home close to the foundation of the newly-built house. The orchard trees and berry bushes and vegetable garden found places elsewhere in the postage-stamp lawn, but the rue plant needed a place where it could be more sheltered. So did my family, after all the turmoil.
I took cuttings of that rue plant not too long ago, knowing that my mother and I would be selling the house soon. Now it will grow on my little farmstead near Cape Cod, with memories in its roots and sprigs, no matter what comes next.
West Wareham, Massachusetts
About 20 years ago, my mother received a miniature wax plant as a gift. The plant (Hoya lanceolata ssp. bella) is native to Asia, especially India. It thrived in my mother’s loving care, and before long, it surprised her with several clusters of beautiful flowers — white and star-shaped with a waxy, almost unreal look that’s appealing to nearly everyone who sees this lovely plant.
She started several more wax plants from clippings, and I was thrilled when she gave me one of my own. I’ve had it now for about 15 years, and I’ve started several for my own children and friends. When my father passed away, my mother moved from Colorado to Ohio. Her Hoya plant didn’t survive the winter move. Thankfully, they’re easy to start, requiring only a few clippings of about 8 to 10 inches. (You simply place the cuttings in a glass of water in a window until roots form, and then you plant the little starts in soil.) I started her a new plant, which she knew had come from her original.
Easy keepers, they’ve survived cross-country moves (in warmer months) and vacations during which they were neglected by well-meaning housesitters.
A few weeks ago, my dear mother passed away, making my Hoya plant even more of a beloved family heirloom.
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