Six on Saturday: Plants With a History

Yellow flag Iris psuedacorus is one of the earliest Iris species recorded in our history.  Native in parts of Europe and North Africa, it was grown in palace and  temple gardens in ancient Egypt .  Considered invasive in North America, it produces very high quantities of nectar when in bloom.


Why does May hold such nostalgia?  All seems right with the world when early summer settles over the neighborhood; the air is sweetened by blooming hollies, roses, and honeysuckle, and something is blooming in nearly every yard.

May is a month for Mother’s Day, college graduations, weddings and family trips.  We allow ourselves a mental break from the news of the day as we reconnect with loved ones and simply enjoy the pleasures of May.


Peonies remain some of the most popular garden plants and cut flowers. They bloom for only a few weeks each spring, but remain a favorite artistic motif in temperate climates around the world.


Many of the shrubs and perennials that bloom each May carry with them an air of nostalgia, too.  They may remind us of our mother’s or our grandmother’s gardens.

My great grandmother had an old craftsman style house in an established Richmond neighborhood.  Her back garden was filled with luxurious climbing roses, blue spiderwort, peonies and a giant old mulberry tree.

I have vivid memories of wandering around her yard when I was a very young child, enjoying the flowers while the grown-ups talked inside.  The grass grew long and lush as she could no longer mow it herself.   I’d pick the mulberries in season and she would serve them over heaping bowls of ice cream.  She was elderly when I knew her, already an invalid.  But her garden told me all I needed to know about her loving spirit and her joie de vivre.


Native mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, grows wild across much of Virginia on large shrubs, sometimes growing into small trees.  It grows best in the mountains, and follows the Appalachians from New England to the Gulf Coast.  Native Americans used this poisonous shrub for many purposes, including medicinally.  The wood is extremely hard and was carved into many useful household items.


The beauty of antique, heritage flowers is their persistence.   Most are so easy to grow that once planted, they largely care for themselves.  A gardener’s skilled hand can certainly help bring out their full potential, but they generally outlive their gardeners and can fend for themselves decade after decade.

Heritage plants bring us comfort, through their beauty and fragrance, as they return us to people and places and times long passed.  They have a long and rich history themselves, even as they help us follow the threads of memory to recall our own personal history.  Yet they bloom fresh and beautiful each year, insinuating themselves into our hearts anew each time we encounter them.


We always had Azaleas in our yard to admire each spring,  These Southern Indica hybrid Azaleas, dating back to the 1830’s, have especially large flowers and will grow to 10′ tall.  We enjoyed viewing them at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens and Richmond’s Bryan Park when I was a child.  Here, ‘Formosa’ and ‘Delaware White’ were planted by a previous gardener on our property. 


Plants carry our history more surely than any diary or text.  They form a living archive of our lives:  the flowers we grow, the foods that recall childhood pleasures.  The trees we played under and in when young, and trees planted at our homes along the way.

All are a part of our story, and we a part of theirs.  And when better to remember the joy they brought us than when the world is renewed each May.


Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus, ‘ the poet’s or pheasant’s eye daffodil, is native to the mountains of Europe.  One of the earliest cultivated species daffodils from the ancient Mediterranean world,  it is one of the latest daffodils to bloom each spring.  Here, it greets visitors at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.


Woodland Gnome 2019


“If you don’t know history,

then you don’t know anything.

You are a leaf that doesn’t know

it is part of a tree. ”

Michael Crichton


Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator.




About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

One response to “Six on Saturday: Plants With a History

  1. Mountain laurel is so excellent! When we started growing it on the farm, no one here knew about it. We discontinued growing it because no one bought it. We still have some in the arboretum with the rest of the stock plants. I can not understand how something so pretty that adapts so well to the woodsy landscapes here is nor more popular.
    Peonies are the opposite. People try to grow them, but only a few can. I do not know why they do well in some gardens, but not the majority of them. They are something of a mystery.

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