A marketing email from K. Van Bourgondien with the subject line "Do you know how old YOUR plants are" caught my eye the other day. The email continued with a discussion of antique or heritage flowers available from this large mail order source, but my mind had already tripped down another garden path before I read the body of the email. I was immediately thinking "how old is this or that individual plant in my garden?"
At this point, after thinking about it for awhile, I'm not sure how I would, or should, answer that question. My garden, from when I began to think of it as a garden, began with the construction of the house and is now 14 years old, give or take a month or two. But because I've been adding a bed or two each year to the "garden", some plants are much younger than others. The house landscaping was first, and so there are hollies on the north side of the house that will be 14 years old come this May. The back patio came a year later, and thus 'Madame Hardy' and 'Marie Bugnet' are 13 years old. There are 'New Hampshire Gold' forsythia to the West that are also 13 years old and who are unlikely to get much older because I've tired of them and they are not the showiest varieties available. Farther down the garden, there are plants of every age, right down to the one week old 'Madame Hardy' sucker that I just detached from the original and replanted down into another bed. And there are some garden plants on this land that I planted before it "was" a garden. Several years before building, I planted, and lost, and planted again a few fruit trees down on the western hillside. In a similar fashion, there are asparagus roots in the vegetable garden that date back to 1996.
There are, of course, other ways of looking at plant age. I would argue that an open-pollinated heirloom Sweet Pea, 'Painted Lady', for instance, is only as old as the seed that I saved from last year. Identical as the flowers look, there is still variation in the genetic makeup from vine to vine. But in our current "Era Of The Garden Clones," how old should I really consider my week-old sucker of 'Madame Hardy'? Barely rooted, it is a "division" of my 13 year old, purchased original plant. It is also the same exact living continuation of the rose first introduced in 1832 by Monsieur Hardy himself. That 'Maiden's Blush' in my garden dates back before 1400, before the North American Continent that I live on was known to my forefathers. Many plants, if not most, don't slip into senescence as animals do. Pando, a clonal colony of Quaking Aspen in south-central Utah, is believed to be the oldest living thing on earth at an estimated age of 80,000 years. When the same genes continue year after year, century after century, how old do we say our cloned cultivars are?
And I'm leaving out the plants of the prairie that surround my garden. The Big Bluestem that populates the Flint Hills prairie, and the False Indigo that brighten it, I know that each clump started from individual wind-blown seeds, but how long ago? How long does a clump of drought-resistant Little Bluestem live? Are there grasses on my land that have survived climate changes and prairie fires and tornadoes for thousands of years? Were some of those same grasses grazed by Mammoths? How would I know? How long will my pampered 'Northwind' Panicum clumps survive after me?
I don't know the answers to these questions, and metaphysical subjects are too exhausting right now for this winter-weakened gardener. I'm just going to pretend that my one week old sucker from Madame Hardy is a baby, and I'm going to baby it until it blooms true and strong. And I think that those 'New Hampshire Gold' forsythia are far too old and need to go quietly into that gentle night, helped along by my gardening Dr. Kevorkian look-alike. I'm also going to believe that somewhere out there in the Flint Hills, there is a healthy clump of Big Bluestem which is secure and happy that it no longer gets regularly squashed under the hoof of a Mastodon. Just because it makes me happy to think about it.