If only I had more willpower, I’d identify and commit to memory the correct common names of my favorite plants. Then whenever I’m asked, “What is that?” I could answer in a heartbeat, rather than hesitating and sheepishly grinning because I don’t have a clue. 

What I can remember is each plant’s story. 

Wilbur’s Bush

About 15 years ago, my husband, Emil, and I admired the pretty shrub growing in the yard of our friends, Wilbur and Dora Hoehne. We really weren’t hinting, but Wilbur picked up on our interest. He dug up a piece of its root and proudly presented it to us. The plant’s pretty bright red flowers would never open, he warned us, and it would freeze back in the winter.

“I don’t remember who we got it from,” Dora says. “It could be 20 or 30 years ago. Back then, people never spent much money on perennials. We’d all pass plants along to one another.” 

Wilbur passed away in 2013. However, his Sleeping Hibiscus that’s also called a Turk’s Cap continues to thrive. It is a member of the mallow family, which also includes okra and cotton.

When I dropped by to see Dora at Christmas, I assured her that Wilbur’s Bush had survived for yet another year.   

Grandma Stolley’s Jade

Emil’s maternal grandmother, Anna Marie Stolley, once lived in a little white farmhouse on Rangerville Road south of Harlingen, Texas. For at least 70 years, a huge jade plant sat on a bench in her screened porch. It was beside the daybed where Emil slept when he visited his grandparents. 

Occasionally, a crop-dusting airplane spraying the neighbor’s field across the highway would cause Grandma Stolley great anxiety. 

I’m told that when she heard the light plane zoom over that cotton field dropping a fog of defoliant, Grandma Stolley would rush out of her kitchen. Hands on her hips, she would look up at the by-then vacant sky and utter a growl of displeasure that started deep in her throat. Then she and Grandpa Stolley would get to work washing off the defoliant quickly before it damaged their plants.

Thankfully, Grandma Stolley’s jade survived the aerial assaults and, no doubt, other perils, too. Emil’s cousin, Doris, who inherited her grandmother’s green thumb, brought us a piece from that jade about 10 years ago. It has flourished on our porch. 

Since I always feel deep remorse when a pass-along-plant dies, I could certainly commiserate with Doris when she told me recently that her jade had died. 

Not to worry! The next time we get together, we’ll take Doris a cutting and she can grow another pot of this family heirloom. 

Junette’s Hawaiian Plant 

Our friends, Junette Rodecap and her late husband, Bobby, were stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, from May 1980 to December 1983, where he was serving in the U.S. Navy. Some worrisome occurrences, such as unexplained noises and feeling the presence of something in the house, took place at their home in a military housing development. 

Someone suggested the site on the rim of a crater might once have been a burial ground. Someone else said the Filipino people believed a Ti plant placed outside both the front and back of a house would drive away unwanted spirits. Respectful of another culture’s beliefs, Junette dutifully planted two. 

“After time went by, I realized those unexplained incidents were no longer happening,” she says. 

When Bobby was transferred stateside, Junette purchased several small Ti plant cuttings, each with some new growth. Junette shared the cuttings with her immediate family and later with us. All the plants have thrived.

“I only have one Ti plant,” she says. “It’s in a pot on the pole barn porch. It loves the morning sun and is good outside to about 45 degrees, but then I put it in the greenhouse. 

“When you have enough leaves off several plants, you can use them to wrap fish or meats for the grill or oven. I’ve done that a couple of times,” Junette adds.

In 37 years, not one of Junette’s Ti plants have died. I sincerely hope I don’t break that chain! 

Cleve’s Cactus

I was formally introduced to the late Grover Cleveland (Cleve) Friddell after I expressed an interest in interviewing him about his experiences in the Pacific Theater during World War II. 

I was amazed at Cleve’s memory and found his wry sense of humor amusing. He was an articulate, entertaining storyteller. 

First, Cleve shared his Navy service with the Black Cat Squadron, where he served as a captain on a Consolidated PBY Catalina, an amphibious aircraft that could set down on land or water. Next, he meticulously handprinted page after page of notes that are still in my files to help me better understand key events in the war in the Pacific. 

My phone would ring and, when I answered, I heard, “Hello, Elaine, this is Cleve. Say …” Then he told me about another photo he had unearthed, a clipping I hadn’t seen or a map he’d found that was better than the one I had.

“Just drop by when you’re over this way,” he always said at the end of the call. Therefore, I made a number of trips to his very old, well-maintained little white house in Fayetteville, Texas. 

Cleve’s help was invaluable. We became good friends through working on the newspaper story and later on a chapter in my book, “Veterans’ Voices and Home Front Memories.”

As I was leaving his tidy home one day, I admired a shallow container bursting with cactus on Cleve’s front porch. He had bought it at the Fayetteville Store just around the corner. 

“Let me put these in a plastic bag for you,” he said, reaching over and breaking off some pieces. 

“I’m going to call it Cleve’s Cactus,” I told him, very pleased with his thoughtful gesture. 

His smile told me that he appreciated the idea. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough to see his cactus win a blue ribbon at the Fayette County Fair a couple of years later. Earlier this spring, Cleve’s cactus had grown so large that I had to repot it. When we drink coffee on the porch in the morning, it shares a table with my coffee mug. 

Geri’s Gems

My dear, sweet mother-in-law, Geri Thomas Gross, never met a plant she didn’t yearn to take home. She was the rare kind of gardener who can tell a stick to grow and it would ask how tall. Her pockets constantly were filled with seed pods and she never returned from a trip without an assortment of cuttings wrapped in damp paper towels. 

When Geri closed her home in East Houston in 1996, Emil and I were a tad intimidated at becoming the caregivers of many beautiful plants from her yard. 

“I know you’ll do your best to look after them,” Geri told us. “Remember, though, don’t ever say thank you for a plant. If you do, it won’t grow.” 

The responsibility lay heavily on our shoulders, especially after Geri died in 1997. Over the years, we have waged countless battles with grasshoppers and other bugs, mold, mildew, wind, cold and heat, plus boisterous pets and kids.

Fast forward to 2020, and some, but not all, of Geri’s plants have survived. Truthfully, we’ve enjoyed them almost as much as she did. 

We nearly overlooked one last plant that Geri left in our care. A few days before her death, she had scooped up an oak sprout no thicker than a matchstick from a flowerbed and placed it in a plastic water bottle on her bedside table. Emil brought the tiny sapling home and planted it in our yard.

Now tall and strong, Geri’s Oak is a constant, reassuring reminder that a mother’s love is forever. 

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