High Ground 15

Scott Ogden reaps the rewards of good garden karma

DURING THE AGE OF EXPLORATION European nobility became caught up in rabid competition for plant novelties from around the world. Newly discovered species were hoarded in heated “stoves” while their owners did their level best to keep their sources secret. Eventually, though, even the imperious nobles recognized a truth most gardeners learn early: the most certain way to keep a plant is to share it.

As a novice gardener near San Antonio in the early 1980s I sought venerated experts like Margaret Kane. Married to a United States serviceman after World War II, she brought her love of plants from her English homeland and became well known for the floral menagerie of nearly one thousand varieties on her modest city lot. Her plants, and plants she hoped to acquire, were dutifully listed on a sheet for trading. I did my best to bring her a few items she was seeking, but always came away with more than I brought. Among Mrs. Kane’s treasures was a vigorous strain of the coral-toned South African irid, Freesia laxa.

A gardener famed for odd bulbs, Thad Howard, shared invaluable knowledge and, when his friend Marcia Wilson died unexpectedly, leaving a collection of amaryllids, he invited me to help dig them. I acquired a choice rain lily from Horsetail Falls, Zephyranthes huastecana, and rare crinums like Luther Burbank’s ‘White Queen’, wine-striped ‘Carroll Abbott’, and two dark-leaved seedlings that sprouted near a deep purplish clump of tender Crinum procerum. Trips to mountains in northern Mexico with a generous Texas nurseryman, Lynn Lowrey, and explorations with John Fairey and Carl Schoenfeld netted more treasures: a desert mallow with creamy, brown-centered blossoms (Hibiscus acicularis), coral-red firecracker ferns (Russelia coccinea), and a small-leaved, heat-tolerant Parthenocissus.

These irreplaceable treasures went into my garden along with plants gathered in travels around Texas: a pink-flowered Mexican Ruellia and hostalike Hymenocallis discovered at nurseries in the Rio Grande valley; an orange-flowered Bignonia, delicately veined yellow Spuria iris, and dwarf orange Bulbine frutescens shared by gardeners in San Antonio; a variegated chinaberry and bulbs of narrow-leaved Sternbergia rescued from old farmsteads, and an ivory and lemon narcissus salvaged from an abandoned Austin garden.

Then I divorced and moved to a small lake cabin. My new residence offered a garden of sorts, but the site was dry, rocky, and beset with deer. In a sudden diaspora my plants left for more suitable homes. Six years passed before I again gardened on a site with some measure of soil and safety. There, my plants found their way back to me.

The same vacant lots supplied Sternbergia and Narcissus. Importers again offered hostalike Hymenocallis eucharidifolia. I had given J. C. Raulston cuttings of variegated chinaberry (Melia azedarach ‘Jade Snowflake’) and Bignonia capreolata ‘Tangerine Beauty’. He shared these with interested nurseries; both could now be purchased. Other nurseries had taken up pink Ruellia ‘Chi-Chi’, Bulbine frutescens ‘Tiny Tangerine’, and the dwarf Parthenocissus ‘Hacienda Creeper’. I once divided rhizomes of Spuria iris for public television, giving tubers to the producer after; now she generously offered divisions from her garden.

The red-leaved crinum seedlings had flowered and proved to be hybrids with a hardy Crinum bulbispermum. I had shared bulbs, and one of the seedlings, dubbed ‘Sangria’, was now available from tissue culture. Offsets of other varieties were promised by gardening friends. And in the greenhouse of a favorite nursery I found this heartwarming scene: pots of my cream-colored hibiscus, coral-red firecracker ferns, and Horsetail Falls rain lilies, all blooming with flats of Mrs. Kane’s coral-toned freesia. With the generosity of gardeners, the skill of nurserymen, and the abundance of nature, these treasures returned to my garden. If I want them to stay there I had best get busy sharing.

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