A riot of colors peeking through a white-washed picket fence, a creaky screen door, a gravel path, and random scents both pungent and sweet… Images, sounds, touch, and smells evoke gardens of our childhood, or pictures in crumbling albums of smiling men and women in linen suits, voile dresses, and straw hats seated in a summer garden.
Why is it that our 21st century gardens so little resemble those gardens of our childhood and our predecessors? What happened to the flowers and shrubs of the last century? Could it be that plants, like clothing, go in and out of fashion? Whether we call them “vintage” or “heirloom” or “classic” blooms, there are flowers we associate with days gone by; sweet peas and phlox, tea roses and lilacs. Perhaps it’s time to dust off those vintage gardening hats, sharpen those old tools, and set ourselves the task of reintroducing some “old beauties” to our modern gardens and flowerbeds.
Old-fashioned flowers have a few things in common. First, they’re hardy, not easily done in by an early cold snap, drought, or rainy summer. Second, they’re easy to propagate. Some simply need to be left alone; they’ll drop their seeds into the soil, and the spring will deliver fresh flowering plants. Or, they die back, looking like sculptures under the blanket of snow. Then, in the spring, new growth surges up from the seemingly dead plant and before long, fresh, lush flowers emerge. Third, they invite picking. Perhaps for wedding bouquets, flowers for the sickroom, nosegays for the Saturday night dance, or the prom. Families relied on their own “cutting gardens” for the flowers that brightened tables and dresses for every important occasion.
Bridal veil spirea, a shrub with long, flowing branches laden with tiny, white flowers like pearls on a necklace, was named for its use. The supple branches could be woven into a crown to secure a bride’s veil. Sometimes daisies and Baby’s breath were added to the circlet. Gladiolas were mainstays for church altar flowers, tall and stately, with lots of colors from which to fashion a funeral or baptismal arrangement. And Tea Roses were perfect, in all their blousy splendor; bowls of fragrant beauties graced dining room tables all summer long.
When summer drew to a close, baskets and shears were taken out to the garden, where the last roses of summer, the Cockscomb and Hydrangea, Baby’s Breath and Silver Dollars, Lavender and Bee Balm, were gathered. Bunches of these last blooms of summer would be tied with ribbon or twine and hung upside down in the pantry or under the stairs. Before long, these dried flowers and herbs could be taken down and arranged in vases and baskets to decorate the house or give as gifts.
So, let’s consider how to introduce some old-fashioned beauties into our 21st century gardens easily.
Hollyhocks are a personal favorite. Among the most ancient flowers, remnants of Hollyhocks have been discovered in Neanderthal graves dating back 50,000 years. These stately flowers were prized by Colonists as well. The English settlers brought Hollyhock seeds to the New World and gave them as gifts to the Cherokee. Growing up to eight or nine feet tall, Hollyhock flowers begin halfway up the stalk, just above the green foliage; the profuse blooms cover the stalk with crape-like, fluted blooms in a variety of colors—wine, red, yellow, purple, peach, and white, to name a few. Hollyhocks are easy to plant from seeds, but the plants won’t flower until the second summer, unless you buy hybrid varieties. They like lots of sun, and plan to stake the stalks unless they can lean against a wall or fence for support. While each plant only lasts two to three years, they’ll self-seed and keep your garden well supplied with new generations of Hollyhocks.
Other tall, old favorites are Delphinium, also called Larkspur, and Foxglove. Both plants are three to four feet tall with masses of individual flowers erupting from the sturdy stalk. Both Delphinium and Foxglove bloom from late spring throughout the summer. If blooms are left on the plant, they will reseed the garden, and new plants will fill-in the flowerbed. Like Hollyhocks, these beauties will not flower until the second summer, but once your bed of plants begin to self-seed, you’ll enjoy beautiful blooms every summer. Another benefit: Deer and rabbits don’t care to munch on them.
Spider flowers and Sunflowers are, perhaps, more familiar to most of us. Unlike the multi-blossom Hollyhocks or Delphinium, Spider Flowers have large, single blooms made up of tiny flowerets and long stamen in shades of pink or white. The plant stalks wave in the breeze with the weight of the blooms at their tips. Spider flowers remind me of those gently swaying sculptures of David Smith or Alexander Calder, gracefully nodding and bobbing in the breezes. Sunflowers are rather more stiff-necked, but equally lovely. Since you can get sunflowers that grow to only two to three inches, or as tall as eight to 10 inches, they can serve as garden landmarks or charming members of a flowerbed. Their blooms, too, move, but not with the breezes. Rather the sunflower turns its face to the sun, following the great, golden disk across the sky.
Other familiar, old friends are Lily of the Valley, blossoming in early spring, and lovely additions to your shady, woodland areas. Forget-me-nots (Myosotis) are another pretty addition to the early spring garden. The small, open-faced blooms are usually blue, but you can find pink and white varieties, too. References to these sweet flowers can be found as early as the 14th century. Violets, too, deserve a second glance. We’ve banned them from our gardens because of their pesky proliferation, but if you don’t mind keeping an eye on the wandering ones, violets are perfect greenery and flowers for low borders and as fillers where nothing seems to want to grow.
Summer vining flowers need not be feared. Old favorites like Sweet peas and Morning glories are lovely, delicate vines laden with pink or blue flowers all summer long. Sweet peas also have a lovely fragrance, and snipping lengths of the vine, you can create a pretty arrangement of curling tendrils dotted with small, pink flowers. The delicate scent adds to the charm of the arrangement on your table.
If you’re looking for some late summer pop in your garden, again, there are old friends ready to volunteer. Zinnias are almost foolproof flowers you can plant from seed. They come in bright colors, and produce lots of flowers that are just tall enough to cut for bouquets. Marigolds will bloom most of the summer and into the autumn if you remember to pinch off the dead flowers. They have the added advantage of repelling mosquitoes, and other pests, or at least they’re purported to do so. Chrysanthemum are lifesavers in the fall garden. They fill the garden with medium-size flowers, gold being the most popular color. A single bloom can become a vaseful of color.
Finally, I dare not end without mentioning some vintage shrubs. I’ve discussed Bridal Veil Spirea, but didn’t mention Hydrangea. There are more than 70 varieties, and they’ve remained popular in our gardens over the centuries. Their large flowers vary in colors from pale pink to deep blue and violet, depending on the acidity of the soil in which the bush is planted. The lovely flowers, composed of tiny blossoms, are easy to dry, and make stunning winter arrangements. Forsythia is an almost indestructible beauty in the early spring garden, with branches lined with bright yellow flowers shooting like fireworks out into the late winter desolation. Forsythia are easy to control with some carefree pruning, and easy to propagate by simply sticking a few pruned branches in water for a week or so—voila! The branches will root, and you’ll stick the bunch into the ground. No fuss, no muss. Witch hazel, with its very early, yellow blossoms also offers your garden an easy, reliable old favorite; and who knows, you might even try making your own lotion or medicinal tea from your shrub.
I’m going to mention our familiar friends the Lilacs and Wisteria, even though they’ve never fallen out of favor in our gardens. They always deserve recognition for the multi-sensual joy they bring to our eyes, noses, and hearts each spring. Dripping with grape-like flowers, the Wisteria vines and trees leave us in awe. And our old faithful Lilacs encourage us to pluck those lilacs and pile them in vases and baskets to fill our homes with that delightful, familiar fragrance.
I’m sure you could add some sweet, old friends to this list, and, of course, I didn’t even touch upon the bulbs we plant each fall, and which delight us as harbingers of spring. But we’ll save them for another time. Whether you choose to go retro in your garden, or just enjoy harkening back to those dear gardens of bygone days, we who have access to flowers and gardens are among the luckiest of people.