In Greg's Garden: Friends that Keep Growing

By Greg Grant, SFA Pineywoods Native Plant Center, Nacogdoches

I've always been a bit of a solitude-seeking loner. I can’t help it. I was born that way.

Once my momma tried to send me to a party I didn’t want to attend with this counsel, “You just might meet some new friends.” Without hesitation I replied, “I don’t like the ones I have, why would I want more?” I was just kidding, of course.

After all, what would life be like without friends? True friends are like good dogs, offering unconditional love and perpetual support.

As a lifelong horticulturist, naturally most of my friends have been gardeners. And what genuine gardening friends don’t share their plants?

As you know, my garden is full of plants that share my past, but the ones that speak to me the most are the ones gifted by friends. How comforting it is that even when they have gone, their friendship still grows in my garden? These plants are literally part of my life.

The author's friend Felder Rushing is the King of Yard Art, traveling with a garden growing in the back of his truck.

The gifted plant I’ve had the longest is an Aloe vera from my Grandmother Emanis. She always kept one around for treating burns. It literally saved my backside one year when I sat on a scorching hot bathroom space heater! I keep one inside during the winter and then divide it into three plants for the porch during the summer. The extras generally go into our SFA (Stephen F. Austin State University) Garden plant sales. My granny was a nurse, so it’s a little piece of her healing touch that stays with me.

When I was in school at Texas A&M, my new friend and mentor Dr. William C. Welch shared an old heirloom Turkish iris (Iris orientalis) from his College Station garden with me. I look forward to its cheerful white-and-yellow blooms each spring as a reminder of how he changed my cultural and horticultural life.

I also look forward to my deep red peony poppies (Papaver paeoniflorum) each spring. They are cool-season annuals that don’t bloom for all that long, but they remind me how old ornamental gardening is, as flower lovers like me selected these double forms hundreds of years ago. My other mentor and dear friend, Dr. Jerry Parsons, collected the seed for me in Johnson City, Texas, while I was seeking permission at the front door from the owner.

Dr. Welch introduced me to many interesting and wonderful gardeners and by far the most interesting of all was Navasota’s late Pam Puryear. She shared many plants with me during our friendship, including her grandmother’s heirloom honeysuckle (Lonicera x americana “Pam’s Pink”).

Another wonderful gardener Dr. Welch introduced me to was Shreveport’s late Cleo Barnwell.

She was a smart, gracious woman who shared her fascinating Lycoris collection with me along with her vigorous reseeding purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).

Speaking of smart and gracious, Dr. Welch also introduced me to the late Flora Ann Bynum of Old Salem, North Carolina. She was one of the founders of the Southern Garden History Society and was the living definition of a Southern lady. She was as good a friend as was ever created and, like myself, dearly loved learning about plants. She and her tall, reseeding cockscomb (Celosia argentea var. cristata) from a little Winston garden come stay with me every summer.

One of my favorite people on the planet is my cousin Celia (CC) from Louisiana. She and I were born in love with spring bulbs, and one of the first that she shared with me was Narcissus x tazetta ‘Laurens Koster.’ Every spring I divide it to make more so that one day, everlasting cheerful memories of my cousin Celia will greet me by the thousands.

Heirloom narcissus "Lauren's Koster," shared with Greg from Celia Jones

Lilacs certainly aren’t common in Texas, so one of my favorite plants is a Syringa oblata var. dilatata seedling shared by the late internationally famous horticulturist, J. C. Raulston, of Raleigh, North Carolina.

Like the lilac, he was a rare treasure. His amazing life was tragically cut short due to an auto accident. Early spring wouldn’t be the same for me without his lilac’s intoxicating fragrance and the arrival of the first tiger swallowtails nectaring on it.

The only canna that I grow was a gift from College Station gardener extraordinaire and friend Cynthia Mueller. She was visiting Costa Rica a number of years ago, so I asked her to be on the lookout for native Canna iridiflora. Thankfully she found me the old sterile, French hybrid Canna x iridiflora ‘Ehemanii’ to replace the virused version that I was growing.

I carefully dig and divide next year’s start to keep in the greenhouse each winter. It reminds me of a cross between a banana and a fuchsia, both plants I always longed to grow.

Ehemanii from the author's good friend Cynthia Mueller, brought in this French hybrid canna from Costa Rica

Garden writer, radio show host, and philosopher doesn’t even begin to describe my good friend Felder Rushing. He’s a firm believer that everybody should garden and share pass-along plants. He even gardens in the back of his old truck and once shared a little, cold-hardy Agave with me that I recently divided and put into pots at the base of my cistern. I thought it would be ironic to have a plant next to 500 gallons of water that never needs it!

One of the most recent additions to my “friendship collection” is the “Beauty Operator” bearded iris (Iris germanica) from friend and fellow rose rustler Becky Smith.

Texas Rose Hustler Becky Smith shared a repeat-blooming pass-along bearded iris named "Beauty Operator"

Becky got it from her friend in Glen Flora, who got it from her neighbor, who got it from her hairdresser! Bearded irises generally don’t do well in humid climates, so the only one I had grown up until now is the ancient white cemetery iris (Iris x albicans). Becky’s “Beauty Operator” not only lives but repeats blooms during the growing season with a unique combination of mauve and butter cream. I’m sure it has a real name, but Dr. Welch gave it the name “Beauty Operator” because we had to call it something. He gets upset when I shorten it to the “BO” iris!

So don’t feel sorry for me thinking I’m alone in my garden. I can assure you I’m surrounded by dear friends. 

Leave a comment