Heirloom -- the family kind -- plants fill gardens with sweet memories

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Every spring Mike Milton receives a joyful reminder of his grandmother. The bright yellow blooms on the flowering bush transplanted from her yard in southeast Louisiana reawaken memories of the lessons and values she instilled in him.

"I can't look at it without thinking of family members and stories," Milton, a Presbyterian minister in Chattanooga, Tenn., said.

Milton's aunt gave him a cutting of the bush, which the family calls a March rose, 13 years ago when he lived in Kansas. He vividly remembers her snipping a sprig from the plant, wrapping it in a damp newspaper and placing it in a plastic bag.

It's a process he repeated when he moved from Kansas to Georgia and from Georgia to Tennessee. Each time, the plant has thrived in its new location.

"It's never failed me," he said. "It's a piece of home."

Botanical legacies like Milton's grow in gardens around the country, said Charlie Nardozzi, senior horticulturist with the National Gardening Association in South Burlington, Vt. Gardening buffs have been gathering seeds, snipping cuttings and separating plants to pass on to friends and family for centuries. What began as a way to help others fill in their garden has become an enduring reminder of loved ones, he said.

"It's a way of keeping us connected with our past," he said, pointing out memories' strong association with plants.

Charlotte Glen had didn't succeed the first time she tried to plant a handful of columbine seeds she received from her grandmother. Glen, who was about 10 years old at the time, scattered the columbine seeds in her yard but they didn't take. So she started reading books about seeds and plants.

Eventually, Glen was able to grow columbines and other transplants from her grandmother's garden. The experience made a lasting impression on Glen, who went on to study horticulture in college and today works for North Carolina Cooperative Extension.

Glen continues to grow descendants of her grandmother's columbines in her garden in Burgaw, N.C., about 25 miles north of Wilmington. And she credits her grandmother for her career choice. "She was a big influence," Glen said. "I'm sure she was really proud and happy."

Some families have colorful tales about relatives who brought seeds with them when they immigrated to America, said Dave Whitinger, who runs one of the nation's largest garden Web sites, http://www.davesgarden.com.

"Often the seeds were sewn into a hem or something," he said from his office in College Station, Texas. "When they arrived, they opened it up and planted the seeds."

Seeds from descendants of some of those plants are still in use today. Whitinger's Web site and others are forums where gardeners interested in old plant varieties swap growing tips and plants.

Yvonne Pund has lily of the valley growing in her yard that her ancestors brought here from England. Her grandmother planted the delicate white flowers in the late 1880s, and Pund brought some of the plants to her Newburgh, Ind., garden about 10 years ago.

Pund's daughter had a few of the flowers tucked into her wedding bouquet.

"It's just like a continuation of your heritage," said Pund, who will make sure her daughter takes some of the plants when she starts a garden.

In Janet P. Carlson's family, passing on a cutting from their great-grandmother's African violet has become a rite of passage, she said. The family divided up the original plant in the early '70s when her husband's grandmother died. Carlson's mother-in-law gave her a violet in 1979.

"I have no idea what the technical name is," she said. "It's just grandma's."

Dividing the plant is a nerve-racking undertaking. "You don't want to do something that will make it die," said Carlson, who lives outside Minneapolis, Minn. Still, Carlson said, she has done it for various family members.

She has started a plant for her daughter, Marisa, but she hasn't passed it on to her -- yet.

"When you're solid enough and we think you have a nice window, you get one," Carlson joked.


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