The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

A Quick Look at the History of Plants and People

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

I have a picture hanging in my office. Five people stand stoically in front of a drab building amidst an even drabber landscape in what appears to be the late 1800's. Nowadays we would surely think that drab building was for livestock. However two details scream "this is our home" - the magnificent lace panels on the windows and the tin cans overflowing with plants on the porch. Whenever I think I am having a hard life, i.e. my computer isn't reading my mind correctly, or the Japanese beetles ate all my roses, I reflect on the lives of those people in that picture.

Just day-to-day life was hard work. I imagine one of the women taking a bit of a breather from cooking and cleaning to gently pour a little water in each can of plants.

Just like the lace that gracefully covered the windows but also kept out flies, early on plants were multi-purpose. Utility may have been first on the list of purposes but I am sure each gardener took a moment to breathe in the smell of roses as the hips were collected for tea.

The majority of plants listed in old garden catalogs would be very familiar to us today. Petunia, begonia, canna, and peony would all be listed.

Peonies are long-lived plants surviving a hundred years or more. I often hear people say they rescued some of their grandma's peonies from the family farm. Peonies most recently were known as the Memorial Day flower used in decorating gravesides at Memorial Day.

Peonies have a long history with people. We think of them for their flowers but they were used for centuries as a medicinal and magical plant. Pliny in his Natural History written about 77 AD gives a detailed description and about twenty ills peonies would cure. Peony seeds were given to pregnant women. The roots or seedpods were hung around the neck to cure insanity or epilepsy. Peonies were thought to protect against storms, demons and nightmares.

As cultures changed the medicinal and magical powers of peonies ended but not the love affair. There are hundreds of cultivars. One white cultivar, 'Festiva Maxima,' has been around since 1851 and is still listed in catalogs.

Almost every early 1900 landscape would have a spirea shrub or two. A 1936 book entitled, Garden Flowers in Color, states that Anthony Waterer spirea "has been planted by the million all over the country. So many have been planted in fact that nobody needs to plant any more for the next hundred years." Interestingly in a book written 62 years later, Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Michael Dirr comments about Anthony Waterer spirea, "Like most other spireas has been overused." We certainly have not lost our love affair with spireas.

However, not all heirlooms are loved. Mills Seed Company's 1910 Farm Annual of Washington Iowa lists "The famous Japanese Kudzu vine (Jack and beanstalk vine) ….. With ordinary treatment it will grow seventy feet in one season filling the air with fragrance of its large clusters of wisteria like blossoms. …everyone should plant it." For six cents a gardener got 15 seeds and a country got a major headache that still threatens native areas.

Some sources of heirloom plants:

Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, Iowa www.seedsavers.com
Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants PO Box 316 Charlottesville, VA 22902 www.monticello.org/shop

The Good, the Bad and Bugly workshop Saturday July 13 from 10-11 a.m. Come walk with U of I entomologist Phil Nixon through the Idea Garden in Urbana looking at insect pests and beneficials. No registration or fee required.

Plant Doctor is in. Stop by the Idea Garden on Sundays 1-3 to ask the Master Gardeners your gardening questions.

View Article Archive >>