Gifts from Gardeners Past

By Ellen Arnold

I’ve been receiving showers of gifts for the last few weeks, but I won’t say thank you.

It’s our first spring in our new house, built in the 1970s and formerly home to several gardeners before me. The gifts come from those gardeners past. First it was clumps of daffodils and paperwhite narcissus. Then came the snowdrops (properly called summer snowflake), forsythia and lots of apricot-colored flowering quince. Most surprising were the spireas – bare, twiggy branches one day and covered with dainty, snowy flowers the next. Now the camellias are loaded with old-fashioned single red, huge double white and showy candy-striped blossoms. The crabapple is at its peak. Soon the azaleas will take over and steal the show. Later there are bearded irises and daylilies to look forward to.

But I can’t say thank you. There’s a long-standing Southern tradition that warns “Don’t say thank you when someone gives you a plant.” If you do, the plant will die.

My mother says the plant will hear you and get its feelings hurt because it’s being passed along. Maybe the plant wants us to realize it’s more than just a thing that can be traded between people. From what I know about plants, this seems highly likely. They like to stay put, many of them. They find a place they like, and they get attached. I imagine they might feel the same way about the people that take care of them. Dogs, cats and pet birds bond with their people; why not plants?

Then again, it’s possible the tradition says more about gardeners themselves. The gardeners I know are a modest bunch. Give them a compliment on their bountiful roses or tasty tomatoes and they shrug it off. “We’ve had perfect weather,” they’ll say, or maybe “We got lucky this year.” So it makes sense they don’t want thanks for the gift of a plant. Accepting thanks would mean taking some amount of credit, and gardeners don’t like to do that.

I think gardeners understand that they are caretakers and tenders, not owners. So, to gardeners, a plant isn’t a gift in the same way that jewelry is, or a box of chocolate candy or even a jar of homemade preserves. It’s a living connection between like-minded souls, a hand-off from one plant-lover to another. Most flower gardeners I’ve known can reel off the provenance of every specimen in every bed: this from a great-aunt, that from the old home-place. The plants that they care for are ties that stretch across time and space, spanning generations and state lines. A gift of a plant is a gift to the future from the past, a gesture of both trust and hope. How could a person ever express thanks for that?

Then, what should you say when someone gives you a plant? Bob Polomski, the plant expert at Clemson University, suggests “You’re so thoughtful” or “What a thoughtful gift.” I don’t know. That sounds a lot like “Thank you“ to me. I wouldn’t want my touch-me-nots to overhear that!

I recently gave a rooted morning glory cutting to a friend at work. “Th–,” she started to say, but I shushed her and pointed meaningfully at the plant, as if to say it could hear her. The next day, Elizabeth brought me a cutting with shiny dark green leaves, small pinkish blossoms, and an intense lemony fragrance. “Oh, how lovely,” I said, breathing it in.

“It’s Daphne odora,” she said. ”It might root.”

“I’ll try to take good care of it,” I promised.

So to those gardeners past who have shared with me their riches and responsibilities, I make the same promise. I can’t thank you, but I’ll do my best to care for the gifts you’ve passed along to me.

And when I get the chance, I’ll pass them along to someone else.

About this writer

  • Ellen Arnold Ellen Arnold gardens and teaches English to college students in Conway, South Carolina.

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