Wanderlust…from Home!

Memory and discovery intertwine in the arching stems and plump leaves of this plant commonly called burro’s tail. Growing up in Miami Springs, Florida my mother grew this plant in a sunny east window of our “Florida room”–a room built by my father. Florida room is a vintage 1950s term for any enclosed sunny room with good ventilation. Mother cared for only a few plants and no pets saying she had enough to deal with caring for four children.

Fast forward to early 1970 when I was sharing a small apartment with Cathy, another TWA hostess (current term is flight attendant). We were on a tight budget—our take home pay was about $100 a month. Since we lived in Kansas City, our cost-of-living was better than if we had chosen another domicile in one of the big cities. To furnish our apartment we needed to be minimalists. Plants would add their own personalities to our space. We had a sunny balcony where our specimens could live until winter weather threatened the tropicals.

Even as a very junior hostess, I often managed to bid for flights with a eight hour layover in Miami so I could visit with my mom and my sisters and my brother. Our house in Miami Springs was adjacent to the airport—I had grown up with the roar of takeoffs and landings as a natural part of my day. Mother took an interest in my efforts to set up a household in Kansas City. At one point, she gave me a vacuum cleaner she had obtained by saving Green Stamps and redeeming them for a new upright vacuum. As a crew member in those early days of jet travel, I was able to stow it behind the last row of seats on our Boeing 727 airplane with no questions asked.

The burro’s tail start mother gave me in 1970 was much easier than the vacuum to transport from Miami to Kansas City. It was a small plant that need little attention, but craved strong light. This burro’s tail (Sedum morganianum) grew and thrived outside every summer while tolerating the frigid Missouri winter months indoors. I moved twice before I bought my house in Kansas City, always ensuring that I had a spacious outdoor space for all my plants. My collection of potted, growing companions had grown considerably. I liked playing with them. I found caring for them relaxing. I often propagated new starts from my plants adding to the menagerie or to share with friends.

Note the additional windows (on the left) bringing light into the interior rooms by the added windows on the south wall extension. Current photo of 1718 Summit, Kansas City Missouri.

When I bought my dream house in 1978, of course all the plants were carefully transported. The Queen Anne Victorian house was built in 1888 in the area of downtown Kansas City, MO called Quality Hill. The house, located at 1718 Summit is a large house located on a small lot. I called it Crescent House. I fell in love with the high ceilings, multiple fireplaces, pocket doors and well-planned spaces. I discovered it because two women friends were part of the crew working at the house. They were being trained in building rehab, thus my house had all new systems.

The 1888 design included an exterior extension located along the south wall to bring more light into a box of a house and to add more square feet to those rooms. This gave me more options for successfully caring for my assortment of greenery. I carefully considered the light requirements of each plant and most survived the move.

By 1978 burro’s tail from Mother had grown considerably. The cascading stems were visually pleasing. I had come to know how readily the plump, pointy leaves could detach from the stems at the slightest touch. I’d put those leaves back in the pot and sometimes they would grow new plants. We learned to coexist.

This jumble of favorite plants is a small segment of the indoor garden I’m tending for the next six months. Then they will be moved back outside.

At this time, Mother had emphysema and could not travel, so she saw only pictures of my house. She never saw this new home I’d created for myself. So much of how I “feather my nest” is influenced by living my early years with her and her sensibilities. Although she’d probably say my style is rather cluttered. I just see that as part of the Victorian influence since the Victorians enjoyed “layering” their furnishings including many indoor plants. I view it all as a jumble of things I love, from textiles to baskets, pottery, china, wood, metal and glass objects—most of which can become interesting planters too.

With mother’s death came a small inheritance. I wanted to do something special with her bequest beside pay bills. I decide to have the second story back porch rebuilt on Crescent House. The rehab budget had not covered rebuilding what may have once been a sleeping porch.

Located at the rear of the house, the rebuilt porch was a large outdoor space which afforded me and my roommates a private outdoor room. Shaded by mature trees that porch was a welcome summer retreat for all of us—plants, felines, canines and humans. Sometimes we even had a brave bird who nested up high in a hanging plant.

My last move was to northwest Arkansas in 1987. That burro’s tail was now approaching twenty. Today it is fifty years since mother shared starts from her plant. Since living in Arkansas we’ve live with wood heat. This means we cannot travel in winter and keep house plants alive unless we have a house sitter—not easy to come by.

For many years we did travel to Kansas City for the Christmas holiday to spend time with Jeanne’s aging parents. For several years, I farmed out all my house plants to a friend to make this trip possible. This meant finding a winter day that I could load all the plants into my roomy vehicle and drive them to her house. She and I would unload them and arrange them at her place. All the plants stayed there for a week to ten days depending on the temperatures for retrieving them. A few of the smaller, special plants like the burro’s tail traveled to Kansas City with us. This is how my burro’s tail has survived for decades.

International Intrigue
Imagine my surprise when I spotted several burro’s tail plants in Greece in 2017! During the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in fall 2017, we were invited to visit a woman at her home. She served us tea in her shaded courtyard filled with plants. She invited us to see the more public rooms of home. The space in the courtyard was larger than the interior of the house. It was obvious that the family spent many hours enjoying the shelter of the large fig tree in the center of the spacious outdoor room.

At her house we were encouraged to look around and take photos if we wished. I hurried to photograph the three different burro’s tail plants which you can see above. Her courtyard felt like a second home for me. Much of the hot, sunny landscape of Crete brought vivid memories of my girlhood. I marveled at all the potted plants seen everywhere—some growing happily in brightly colored five gallon tins that once stored olive oil.

The attention-grabbing bougainvillea will always be central to my girlhood infatuation with plants because they are spectacular when in bloom. Bougainvillea may have originated in South America but it thrives in Crete and most other hot, tropical climes. (The French first classified the plant found in Brazil in 1768 naming it after the admiral of the expedition sent around the world to find new territories for France.) The exuberance of the bougainvillea vine as it climbs where it will, is matched by the brilliant, extravagant blossoms. However, without enough strong sunlight my bougainvillea only occasionally blooms for me. I admire the magenta color when it does.

The burro’s tail doesn’t bloom for me either, but the gray-green color of the cascading stems pleases my senses. In this blog I’ve related my long-term efforts to nurture this plant gift from my mother. I’ve pruned and groomed my plant in previous years, but never found myself wondering about its original habitat–until now!

Perhaps you’ve guessed that the opening photo I used above might be a clue to the introduction of the burro’s tail to the general public. The adventure story begins in 1935 with botanist, Eric Walther from Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, who was traveling through Mexico’s state of Veracruz seeking new succulent plants. Walther was waiting for a local guide, when he was encouraged by a persuasive woman to visit her father’s small nursery, Jardin Flotante. He was greeted by what you see in this black & white photo–the sight of the pale green succulents nearly concealing the house was amazing. Each plant displayed numerous cascading stems growing from crowded tin cans attached to the walls-some were several feet long!

The story continues that after buying several of the plants from that original nursery, he encountered other examples. “Walther was unable to find any information about the plant’s natural habitat or its flowering characteristics. Indeed, he had no idea to which genus it belonged. Some three years later, Dr Meredith Morgan Sr, a hobbyist and expert grower from Richmond, California, flowered the plants in his garden. It has pink flowers that appear from the tips of the long branches.” With an accurate description of the flower, Walther was able to complete a description of the new species, which he named ‘Sedum morganianumin’ in honour of Dr Morgan. source: http://www.plantgrower.org/uploads/6/5/5/4/65545169/sedum_morganianum.pdf

Perhaps if we lived in a tropical area, we could emulate that 1935 photo and grow burro’s tail plants that would flaunt trailing stems four feet long! Discovering the origins of this intriguing plant, and roaming through memories of my long association with burro’s tail has helped sooth my own “wanderlust”! While sheltering at home during this pandemic, we each are looking for ways to cope with all the limitations. Hope you’ve enjoyed this journey. I have. I’ll close with a contemporary Internet photo with some similarities to the 1935 picture taken in Mexico. Enjoy….

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6 Responses to Wanderlust…from Home!

  1. Megan says:

    Wonderful!!! Thanks for the story and the memories.

    • Paula says:

      Megan, thanks for responding to the story of all my memories woven around that burro’s tail succulent from my mother. Next week I’ll write about propagation and show the progress in photos. Are you a plant lover and/or plant grower? I believe I will have new plants come spring!

  2. Susan Elizabeth Wiseheart says:

    Love this story and the travels to KC, Greece, Mexico and Cedar Hill to view burro’s tail. Love sedums, love burros, love you!

    • Paula says:

      Wandering in our minds can be a fine coping strategy–so glad to share it with you! It reminds me of our real life adventures together exploring the “Banana Belt” of central Colorado in the fall of 2011. For readers not acquainted with that area, the nickname has been claimed by these two towns, Buena Vista and Salida. Located high in the Rocky Mountains at the end of the Upper Arkansas Valley of central Colorado the winters are mild, dry, windy and sunny. Buena Vista itself boasts an average of 264 sunny days a year! We did not see any burros, but were enthralled by watching the Bighorn sheep scramble up a steep hillside. Thank you for your enthusiastic response to this post!

  3. Lila says:

    My mother and I shared a burro tail plant.
    I had it growing in a hanging clay chicken planter. When she moved to a house nearby, I gave it to her and it hung in front of a window above her kitchen sink!
    Ours didn’t last 50 years, !, but we enjoyed it!

    • Paula says:

      We have parallel stories! In yours, you nurtured the burro’s tail plant and then passed it to your mother! I can almost picture it hanging in the terra cotta chicken planter! If I am successful in propagating new plants from my pruning efforts, I’d share another plant with you. Thanks for telling your story.

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