A Living Legacy of Plants

July 1, 2024

by Marya Pennington | Photos by Nathan Satran 

“If plants could talk, the stories they would tell.”

- Scott Wetzel

In 1998, I moved to Central Oregon after having lived most of my life in Montana, and my grandmother gifted me with a small cutting from her Philodendron to take for my new home. I remember being grateful to have a little piece of her going with me at the time. Fast forward 16 years, and the plant became a living memorial of the vibrant life of my grandmother after she passed away. Over the years, we also gathered many cuttings and gifted plants from my husband’s grandmother - from a jade plant to an angel wing plant and more - they delightfully dwell in our kitchen window, a constant reminder of new growth and yet offering a nod to the past.

Plants, in their quiet way, are community builders. They are the threads that connect us, weaving a tapestry of shared memories and experiences. Passed down from family, neighbors, and friends, they bring us together, lift our spirits, and become living memories of those who share them. In recent times, there has been a resurgence of interest in heirloom plants – historical seeds with cherished flavors and stories that enriched cottage gardens for centuries. These plants were nurtured and handed down over the years, preserving a heritage and allowing us to partake of their unique variety and fruit.

The Wetzel Oleander tree is such a legacy, gracing the front entry of the downtown store for over 60 years. A family-owned business, Wetzels Quality Cleaners has served the community since 1915, and their Oleander has made a lasting impression on many customers. “My grandmother, Mary Wetzel, was gifted the Oleander cutting in the early 1960s, and over the years, it grew up to the ceiling,” said 3rd-generation owner Scott Wetzel. “It was brought home each summer to the patio where we enjoyed its light pink blossoms, and then each fall, it was brought back to the shop for the winter.” Over the years, the Wetzels shared hundreds of cuttings from the Oleander tree with the community.

A long-time customer of Wetzels, Greg Cross watched the Oleander grow over the years and remembers the cuttings that were given to so many across Billings. No stranger to the legacy of plants handed down through generations, he recalls a Christmas cactus gifted to his grandmother when she moved west to homestead in North Dakota. “She lived in a dugout in the side of a hill, and her family was worried about her not having anything green to lift her spirits. In her second year, they brought her a Christmas cactus sprout and an Oleander cutting,” shares Greg. “I still have that same Christmas cactus today.” 

Over the past year, as Greg stopped by Wetzels, he noticed the Oleander tree looking smaller and a bit forlorn. “I kept teasing Scott that something needed to be done to help bring the tree back to its former glory,” Greg said. So, he enlisted the help of his horticulturist friend Jerry Anderberg and his daughter Karen Switzer of Roots Garden Center, and a plan began to take shape to repot and tend to the tree. Concerned that the transfer would be devastating for the tree, Karen began to root some cuttings to preserve the historical plant in case it didn’t survive the move. The cuttings indeed took, so Karen, along with a few Roots employees and the watchful expertise of Jerry Anderberg, began to painstakingly cut away the previous pot from around the bound roots of the tree. At last, the tree was free and moved to a much larger home with good drainage, new soil, and the dead branches cut away and pruned, ready to thrive for another 60 years.

These living antiques are a testament to an earlier time when seeds were saved, shared, and replanted year after year, preserving a way of life that celebrated community and a love of diverse and unique flavors. Plants have a long history, passed down through generations, carrying with them a narrative of human culture that surpasses words. They are not merely flora; they are storytellers, narrating tales of human connection, resilience, and heritage.

As we continue to embrace the legacy of heirloom plants, we are preserving biodiversity and ensuring that future generations have a tangible link to their past. Whether it’s the philodendron from my grandmother or the Oleander tree from Wetzels Quality Cleaners, these plants remind us that our connections to each other and nature are enduring. They invite us to cherish the old and nurture the new, fostering a sense of continuity and community that is as vital today as it was for our ancestors. SLM

Originally printed in the July 2024 issue of Simply Local Magazine

Check this article out in the digital issue of Simply Local here!

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