Production Blog

Passalong Philosophies

Pamela Smith
By  Pamela Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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The garden balsam that grows in my garden is the same that grew for decades in my grandmother's garden. It continues to dish out lessons to those who listen. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Each fall, my hands are stained pea green and carry a nostalgic scent that will never be bottled.

It is a side effect of harvesting seed from the flowers my grandmother passed to me decades ago. I gather, dry, sift out the foreign material and package up seed in order to plant them again the following spring.

It is tedious, but satisfying work, and the kind that affords time for reflection and an occasional crop metaphor or an analogy -- such mental meanderings aren't always literally specific.

Hardly a visitor left my Granny's garden without a souvenir. She was the queen of "passalong plants," which means she was constantly digging and dividing and plopping starts into old milk cartons or plastic ice-cream containers. Her earthy explanation of how to care for each botanical heirloom was the ribbon wrapping each hand-grown gift.

More than a few eyes rolled as dirt and foliage were wedged into car trunks after visits to her garden. However, those who understood the real value of the offering still brag all these years later about the honor of tending one of my grandmother's hand-me-downs.

These passalong plants were as rare as the woman herself. Occasionally, the plant species might miraculously show up in a heritage garden catalog, but Granny's blackberry lilies, "pink gingham" yarrow and Missouri primroses seem to unfurl in special hues -- as if she hand-painted them herself.

One of her favorite flowers was balsam or Impatiens balsamina. An old-fashioned version of the impatien that many homeowners purchase each year, it apparently fell out of favor with modern day gardeners over the years.

Perhaps that's why she, and now I, plant balsam front and center in the flower bed each spring. When admirers exclaim at the unique vibrant display, there's satisfaction in passing along the story of not automatically discarding new for tried and true.

Balsam also has a fun secret that has earned it some charming nicknames such as touch-me-not and jumping Betty. When ripe, the balsam's jewel-shaped seed capsules undergo explosive dehiscence.

Growing up, this was our botanical equivalent of bursting bubble wrap. Granny and I couldn't keep our hands off of it -- a mere touch of the finger would set off an explosion of seeds and a fit of giggles.

Some tropical species of the balsam family are considered invasive in other parts of the world, but USDA experts have assured me this version is not considered so in central Illinois. Granny would be pleased that I reached all the way to Washington, D.C. and contacted "real" scientists to research this detail.

But then, she is the one that taught me the trick of harvesting the seed and treating the plant as an annual if I "wanted it to stay home." We might have been in the Corn Belt, but teachings included stories of cotton, also a perennial, that is treated as an annual. She was yesterday's equivalent of Google, World Book encyclopedia and a live webinar wrapped in soil stained pedal pusher trousers and a gooney "women's" seed cap topped by a yarn pompom.

This year I could hear her whisper as I noticed that purple colored balsam filling the bed was more robust than usual. The just-a-hint of pink, coral and nearly red variations that I prefer (of course) were barely in attendance and the jeweled seed packets on those colors were nearly barren.

It is a numbers game. These same population dynamics often play out in weedy farm fields. Palmer amaranth and waterhemp and their gnarly cousins tend to share prolific tendencies whether we want them to or not -- elbowing out other plants until a bigger bully comes along.

When Granny passed away at age 104, I found botanical treasure in the bottom of a discarded box of bric-a-brac in the form of 1930-era journals filled with pressed leaves and meticulous handwritten notes. One can only imagine how she might have embraced learning by computer.

I worked hard this fall to save every seed of the balsam colors I like best. Next spring when I scatter them, I will be reminded anew of the real seed she passed along -- the need to observe nature and to embrace its curious ways.

Pamela Smith can be reached at

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