Confessions of a plant rustler


I have a confession to make: I’m a sucker for bulbs. I am also a sucker for free plants, a.k.a. rustled plants. I had the opportunity to satisfy both of these desires this fall after receiving a call from my cousin. My late great-great aunt’s farm was going up for sale; was I interested in any of the bulbs coming up in her yard?  Uh…yea! Did you even have to ask?

We arrived at the farm on a glorious Tuesday in October, and I was immediately in heaven.  The pretty garden around my ancient relative’s 100-year-old farmhouse was crowded with oxblood lilies (schoolhouse lilies), bearded irises, daylilies and even a smattering of amaryllis.

In the middle of the yard, to my great joy, rose a beautiful yellow cluster of autumn crocus bulbs, blooming their heads off due to the little bit of rain we’d received. Of course, those were the first to make it into the truck, and have now found a lovely new home in my front flowerbed.

I filled up my car with what we could that day and then returned the next week to finish up.

You can think of ‘rustling’ as gathering plants or starts from outdoor spaces or other people’s gardens…. with permission of course. The wonderful thing about being a rustler is that it gives you the chance to collect plants that may not be available on the retail market. It also saves you money. (The bulbs I collected from the farmhouse garden are quite expensive.)

Many times these are heirloom plants that have been growing in an area for many years and therefore should be able to take anything our climate can throw at them with relative ease.

My prize find, over 1,000 oxblood lily bulbs, have been grown in Texas since the mid-1800s when German immigrants brought them over to their new homeland.  Now naturalized on old homesteads, these bulbs (Rhodophiala bifida) bring dramatic red blooms to any neglected site each fall with the first good rain.

An interesting side note to these lilies: they know what rainwater is and will not bloom if you just try to water them.  There will be no tricking these lilies!

Bearded irises are another “bulb” (actually a rhizome, but I digress) that can be found on neglected home sites and in old cemeteries all over the state of Texas. These large, colorful flowers bloom in the early to late spring depending on variety.  Although there are many on the market, it is the old white and purple ones that are so dependable. And I guess because I grew up with these older irises they are also still my favorite.

What I find the most interesting about plant rustling is the great sense of discovery. Also there seems to be some sort of a rule for these plants. They are both quite expensive and hard to get started in your yard, but once you have them, you will always have too many.

I have run out of places to plant irises and lilies (and most other bulbs because of course I have a sickness and can’t control myself – bought more today – somebody help me!).  But I’m rambling again.

If you can find a source either from a family member or neighbor, and sometimes even on Craigslist, it is possible to build up a collection of amazing pass-along plants with very little money and just a little elbow grease. You might even collect enough to share yourself!

If you have a question for Amanda, or Chris Winslow, send it via email to Or mail a postcard to It’s About Thyme,11726 Manchaca Road, Austin, TX 78748

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