Live and learn, and in doing so, find cool new plants that have been lurking under our noses for generations.
Last week I did a landscape / garden consultation around an 1840s log cabin in rural north central Mississippi. I have an eye for this kind of garden, having been bred by a keen gardener who was born in the 1800s and cared for many plants from centuries past, and many of my friends maintain historic gardens in the South.
This mainly involved walking around, noting the north / south exposure of the garden, existing trees and shrubs, soil type, etc., and the architecture of the house itself. Plus, looking at faded photos from a century ago, and chatting with the homeowner about what she wants and is ready to do when it comes to upkeep.
She cherishes plants that remind her of her grandmother and mother, with something that blooms every season, as well as scents and edible fruits. No problem on all of that, as this isn’t Colonial Williamsburg stuck in time – we allow the garden to grow.
But I go with real heirlooms. Unlike antiques, which in garden history circles mean more than half a century, inheritance applies to anything inherited or passed on to others, ancient or not. While one person at a time may own a garden tool or accessory in their hand, plants can be shared and propagated by countless gardeners, keeping plants that are not part of the general gardening circuit so that generations can benefit from it.
What makes a shrub, perennial, bulb, annual, or potted plant a worthy heirloom of a garden? It must have values ââ(large foliage, seasonal flowers, fragrance, fruits, etc.), tolerate our summers, winters and precipitation, grow mainly in ordinary soil without too much pampering, be resistant to insects and pests. serious diseases, and very easy to share by dividing, rooting cuttings or saving seeds. Plants that have all of these characteristics tend to spread widely among gardeners; you can see a lot of them in the cottage gardens of small towns and often in old cemeteries.
Classic examples include orange double daylilies, elephant garlic, figs, cannas, mum Clara Curtis, shrub roses, cast iron plants (Aspidistra), daffodils, irises … an email, I will send you a free copy right away.
Anyway, despite my thoughts, I’ve seen it over the decades, digging through the flower beds of the old hut for clues, I’ve come across a treasure that’s new to me. It’s apparently all over this rural county, shared between garden club members and their families, home and garden helpers, and beyond. It is a surprisingly forgotten heirloom plant, difficult to find in stores but hidden from the world in the gardens at the back.
Many of you are familiar with the common white âbutterflyâ ginger, a cold hardy perennial to the waist with highly fragrant white flowers in the fall; its latin name is Hedychium coronarium if you want to check it out. Although rarely sold in garden centers, it is widely cultivated, shared from gardener to gardener over the decades.
But this one, which I’ve never heard of let alone seen, has brilliant orange-red flowers. And it thrives in the ordinary dirt around an old cabin, with no protection from water or cold or anything. It turns out that this is a product introduced a little over a century ago, and simply called “red ginger butterfly” (Hedychium greenii if you want to consult it).
I traded enough clumps of my mum Clara Curtis’ red ginger lily to share with gardeners who I know will spread them far and wide.
This is how the history of the garden is made.