Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: The Gift That Keeps On Living

By Ron Sullivan
Friday December 14, 2007

Some of the best gifts I’ve ever received have been from people’s gardens.  

I got my first lemongrass from Beulah Stringer, when I lived just down the block from her. She was splitting her cluster, and handed me a nice hunk when I stopped to exclaim that Gee, that smelled and looked just like lemongrass. She used it for tea; I used it in Thai recipes. Over the years, we swapped seeds and starts and stories and I think the stories were the best things I got, along with her friendship.  

One thing she taught me was not to say “Thank you” for a plant. As she explained it, plants thrive better when they’re stolen, and by not quite acknowledging that you’ve received it as a gift you’re improving its chances. Beulah hails from Arkansas, on the other side of the state from my in-laws’ hometowns. When I checked her folk story out with my mother-in-law, she confirmed it, though I don’t remember her ever insisting on that bit of etiquette herself.  

I still have, if it hasn’t disappeared since the last time I looked, a walking onion left from the set that sweet innocent white-haired Auntie Ev smuggled here from Fostoria, Ohio. It’s also called “Egyptian onion,” and it “walks” because it bears a cluster of new bulbs on top of its stalk, which eventually bends with their weight so they come to rest and can take root on the ground at a strategic distance from the mother plant.  

Auntie Ev was someone else’s auntie officially, but we adopted her as ours too. Smuggling live plants rather shocked my sensibilities but I had to recognize the inherent heroism in the gift, as Auntie Ev had a serious allergy to onions, garlic, and their relatives. She couldn’t consume it herself and probably shouldn’t have been carrying it tucked into her bag, but she thought it was a plant of interesting habits. She was right, and it’s tasty too. 

I used to have a pine in a pot—not really a bonsai, because it was too tall. Too long. Too big in some dimension or other, maybe measured on the diagonal like a TV, anyway more than three feet from base to top and more like a bottle brush than a tree. I thought maybe I could make a bunjin bonsai out of it, as that form allows for eccentricities. 

Didn’t have the heart to part with it, even aside from the sentiment attached to it because I got it from a good friend and colleague. It was like that homely puppy in the litter who somehow just belongs in the household. I confess to keeping it more out of sight than on display, but that was mostly because it needed support on both ends. 

Time and happenstance have done for rather a lot of the living gifts I’ve received over the years. Still, though they’re mortal, a living gift grows and changes and develops and surprises long after the occasion’s over.