Ground rents were a twist on English practices credited toColonial-era landholder Thomas Harrison of Baltimore and were in short order adopted by other landholders. But the practice from which they derive--the feudal custom of being obligated to one's "land-lord" for the use of land, has resulted in other similar, albeit more peculiar, debts.

The Red Rose Inn in West Grove, Pa., was named for William Penn's stipulation that his grandsons present to him one red rose for the land that he gave them, according to the inn's current owner, Lee Cavatta. In fact, up until about 15 years ago, a rose company used to stage a ritual every September at the inn, in which a representative would present a rose to one of Penn's descendants. And at the U.S. Embassy in London's Grosvenor Square, the ambassador's ground rent is one peppercorn--sometimes in gold.

The custom's hold on the imagination was not limited to landholders of yore. Consider a witty article titled "You Own the Hole," from the July 1951 "Gardens, Houses and People," in which the reader is asked to imagine owning the ground beneath the house of a man named "Lackaday."

Lackaday heads down to the cellar and has discovered it has disappeared, and there's nothing but a hole. Does Lackaday owe you ground rent for land that no longer exists over which his house is perched? Yes, is the legal consensus, barring some even more outlandish developments. The advice in that less-litigious time? "Get together with Lackaday in a friendly fashion and see if the two of you can't come to terms."