There's a kind of plant-hunting that's ideally suited to suburbia. With this hobby, it's possible to experience the excitement of discovery that the early plant-hunters felt -- and to bring home a variety of plants to beautify your property.
I'm not talking about digging up woodland wild flowers, though, or anything that smacks or desecration. It's a nobler hunt I speak of, a kind of rescue mission, to move plants from places where they're about to be destroyed to spots where they might thrive for years.
And the most heart-breaking spots are in the suburbs, the old farms and country homes that are now giving way to new developments and shopping centers, prime locations for this kind of plant-hunting. They're often richly planted with old perennials, bulbs and shrubs. All you have to do to accept the mission is check them out, scout out the plant life, and arrive with spades and containers to move them before the bulldozers do them in.
There was one such farm near where I live. The house has burned down, and the land was sold for development. It was a lovely spot, and nicely landscaped with perennials, which continued to thrive long after those who planted them were gone.
This property was so close to a major highway, though, that it was certain to be destroyed. It took the owners almost three years to get approval to build a condominium complex. In those three years, I visited this spot regularly, got to know the plants, and moved as many as I could.
Because I had time, and a spot that was relatively unvisited, I could mark the flowering plants as they bloomed, and then come back to move them when they'd finished. I dug old-fashioned double daffodils, delicate miniature irises, purple as amethyst; big white irises, lemon-yellow daylilies, peonies, a bleeding heart plant, and a small flowering quince, which has grown handsome, and is now blooming in my mother's front yard.
I've since moved from the house where I planted most of these, but I'm sure they're still thrilling people with their beauty. And I drove by the farm today, where the condos are halfway built and the bulldozers have indiscriminately destroyed the plant life. It made me wish I'd transplanted every plant.
There are places like this everywhere development is on the rise. By getting to know them, it's possible to save at least part of what was there, to do something good, and to beautify your own surroundings without going into debt over it.
Several years ago, the state of New Jersey built a huge reservoir in a place called Round Valley. Because it was such a round valley, it made a perfect site for a reservoir -- just as it had made a perfect spot for fertile valley farms for the previous two hundred years.
One woman I met went to the site almost daily before it was flooded, and carried home bushels of plants each day. She increased her herb garden with rare, old-fashioned herbs, added flowering shrubs and bulbs to her landscape, and saved a lot of native plants and wildflowers that would have been drowned.
Another woman I know enlarges her plantings by taking home volunteer plants whose chances for survival seem slim. The broadest definition of week is, after all, any plant growing "out of place." This might even include the black raspberries that sprung up, mysteriously, on a nearby lawn. This lady's latest find was a forsythia bush, small but blooming in a pile of leavs and brush in her neighborhood. She's making its life a lot easier.
There are countless plants in this situation for every suburban gardener who wants to look. I know a man who found pale pink raspberries growing wild in a vacant lot. He dug some up and brought them under cultivation in his yard, and he's proud as a new father about it.
If you want help, talk to your local planning and zoning officials. They can tell you about farms undergoing radical change -- and, if you explain your intentions, they probably will. Then you can get there before the demolition begins.
There's an old superstition that says that the plants that grow best are those neither bought nor given, but taken, a cuttings or slips. That gives rescued plants a big edge, according to tradition. They may be just overjoyed to live with your company.