Extension Educator, Horticulture
Fourth of July is a time to think of how far we have come. 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. Two details of that drab building scream "this is our home" - the magnificent lace panel curtains 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 the people in that picture.
Their day-to-day life was hard work. I imagine one of the women in my picture, as she takes a bit of a breather from cooking and cleaning, gently caring for each of the plants on her porch.
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, peony etc. 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 as a cut flower to decorate gravesides.
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 this about 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.
Some heirlooms, however, are now loathed not loved. Mills Seed Co'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 6 cents a gardener got 15 seeds and a country inherited a major headache that continues to smother everything in its path.
A good sources for heirloom plants is Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, Iowa http://www.seedsavers.com
A big thank you to master gardener volunteers, garden walk co-chairs Heather Miller and Carolyn Purcell and garden owners James and Mary Nicholas, Sarah Redd-Illyes, Leon and Ursula Jeske, Art and Gerri Kaha, Eric and Cathy Kugler, Margie Hinrichs and Connie Lea Porter and all the folks that bought tickets. Proceeds from the garden walk fund Master Gardener projects in Champaign County.