Barbara A. Brand
Adams County Master Gardener
Oh, to wander at will in a garden,
One of my grandmother's day;
One that my grandmother tended,
Where old-fashioned flowers held sway!
Snowball and flowering almond,
Zinnias gorgeous in dye;
Lilacs scented and purple
Which regal robes outvie.
Great silky, blood-red poppies,
Phlox and sweet-william galore;
Morning glories and holly hocks lusty
In those happy days of yore.
Blossomed profusely and sweetly
In splendor and showy array,
But most of those old-time beauties
Are not in favor to-day!
Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960)
What a delightful word-picture these words convey! For inspiration in designing a garden, literature provides one of the most evocative sources. This poet, writing in the early to mid-twentieth century, describes a scene from her childhood that helps
us see the vivid colors and smell the luscious fragrance of a late nineteenth century garden.
Do you have fond memories of your grandmother's garden? In your box of family photos, are there snapshots of your mother and father as children, playing among the flower borders? Do you recall visits to your grandparents' house when you were a small
child, where perhaps you helped grandmother pick daisies to adorn the picnic table?
Whether or not you have such vivid memories, there are many reasons for bringing some of the "old-fashioned" plants described in this poem into your own garden. When you add these fragrant and colorful plants to your garden environment, you are
helping to keep our common gardening heritage alive. Some of these plants are native to our soil, and others were introduced to American gardens many decades, or even centuries, ago. Here are some details about the flowers and shrubs that Effie Waller Smith remembered from
her grandmother's garden of long ago:
Snowball (Viburnum opulus 'Roseum') is one of the earliest of this genus that is recorded in American history. According to one published source, V. opulus 'Roseum' was mentioned in American sources as early as the 17th century. It first appeared in
American nursery catalogs about 1771. This shrub, which can grow up to 15 feet high, has large, showy white blossoms in June, but unlike most other Viburnums bears no fruit in the fall (another name for this shrub is V. opulus 'Sterile'). Another species, V. macrocephalum,
or Chinese snowball, was introduced into American gardens about 1844.
Flowering Almond (Prunus glandulosa), a member of the plum family, is a dwarf shrub from Asia that was first introduced in this country in 1835. Its pink and white double blossoms cluster along the stems in April before the leaves form.
Zinnias (Zinnia elegans) has been a favorite flower for the cutting garden since it was introduced from Latin America to North America in the late 18th or early 19th century. Other zinnias that have a long history in this country include Z. peruviana,
and Z. multiflora. Many colors, heights, and bloom types (single, half-double, and double) have appeared in the last two hundred years, and the zinnia is a reliable annual that never disappoints.
Lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) have never lost their popularity in America, ever since they first appeared here sometime in the 17th century. They are native to the Middle East, and were grown in western Europe by the mid-16th century. As the harbinger of
spring, with sweet-smelling lavender or white blossoms, the Lilac is the most endearing plant in any garden. Both Washington and Jefferson eagerly recorded the appearance of their buds in their journals. While all Lilacs are scented to a degree, the original Common Lilac
has the most intense fragrance. There are many colorful cultivars, though not all are successfully grown in this region. Old Lilacs, left unpruned for many years, can grow up to 15 feet high.
Poppies (Papaver sp.) are native to Europe, and were introduced very early in the Colonial period. P. somniferum, Opium or Lettuce Poppy, is a single-flowered annual that has been grown for millennia for its medicinal and culinary use. The
Peony-flowered variety, has double blossoms and large seedheads that make it stand out in the fall and winter garden. Another annual is P. rhoeas, Corn Poppy, the European wildflower so well known for growing in Flanders Fields. Both of these species were grown by Jefferson
at Monticello. The perennial Oriental Poppy (P. orientalis), introduced in the mid-18th century, is the most flamboyant and showy Poppy, with very large blossoms of 6 inches or more. Poppies have a sprawling habit, and the annual species will readily re-seed and crossbreed.
But there is no denying that their presence in any garden is impressive, indeed.
Phlox (Phlox paniculata) is a native perennial that was exported to England in the early 18th century, and the varieties cultivated there appeared in American nurseries about 1800. Phlox's popularity in its native country reached its height by the
middle of the 19th century. There are many Phlox species that are native all over this country, but in the eastern U.S. three are noteworthy: P. paniculata, also called Garden or Border Phlox, P. subulata, known as Moss Phlox, and P. Drummondii, a low-growing annual Phlox
discovered in Texas about 1830..The range of color, height, and bloom is astonishingly large. For this reason, Phlox was, and still is, a staple of American gardens.
Sweet-william (Dianthus barbatum) is a short-lived perennial or biennial that was introduced from Europe in the late 18th century. It is a member of the Pink family, and characterized by a compact mound of clustered Phlox-like single or double
flowers with toothed or fringed petals. Old varieties of Sweet-william were known for their fragrance, but only a few of this type are available today. A wildflower known as Wild Sweet William is actually from the Phlox genus, Phlox maculatum.
Morning-glory (Ipomoea cardiophylla) is an annual native plant, but other, more popular species, such as I. Purpurea were introduced from Latin America very early in our colonial period. A well-behaved species, I. Tricolor, was introduced from Mexico
in the mid-18th century, and is the source for many of the most popular cultivars. 'Heavenly Blue', with it's sky blue, white-throated, 5-inch trumpet blossoms, is perhaps the one variety which best symbolizes the Morning-glory.
Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) are one of the plants most associated with the "old-fashioned" garden. With their stately 6 to 8 foot tall stalks of densely clustered single blossoms, hollyhocks have been a staple of American gardens since their
introduction from China during the Colonial period. Their long bloom time, from early summer through fall, make them particularly desirable in the garden. By the mid-nineteenth century, many new varieties featured striking colors, including "black", which is actually a very
dark purple. Double blossomed varieties became more common over the years, and for while the single varieties were nearly impossible to find. Officially listed as a biennial, hollyhocks can be grown as a tender perennial in ideal conditions.
Grandmother's Garden Redux The benefits of planting these and other "old-fashioned" plants in today's gardens are many. The flowers and shrubs that were so commonly seen several generations ago deserve to be revived in today's gardens, lest they
disappear forever. Some of these plants, no longer found in nursery catalogs, can be discovered by hardy explorers of old farmsteads and settlements. Sharing plants and seeds with friends and family is a splendid way to perpetuate your, and their, favorite flowers.
Gardeners who grow these heirloom plants will quickly appreciate and love their unique qualities of color, scent, and shape. Why not recover the tranquility of your grandmother's garden in your own garden?
Recommended reading: The Heirloom Flower Garden: Rediscovering and Designing with Classic Ornamentals, by JoAnn Gardiner (Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2001).
Read other articles on plants and gardens
Read other articles by Barbara Brand