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Fifty Easy Old-Fashioned Flowers
By Anne M. Zeman
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1995 Irving Place, Inc.
All rights reserved.
New York Aster, Aster novi-belgii
New England Aster, Aster novae angliae
The aster has delighted generations at least as far back as Virgil, who, in mellifluous verse, described its beauty and recounted how aster wreaths were used by the gods and goddesses on temple altars. Perhaps antedating Virgil's poetry is the ancient Greek legend of Virgo weeping. As he gazed down from heaven, his tears mixed with stardust and asters were created. The name Aster is the same as the Greek word meaning "star," and refers to the flower's star-like appearance. The ancient Greeks are also said to have used asters to drive away snakes and as an antidote for snake bites and poisons.
In the late 1600s, asters were mixed into ointments thought to cure the bite of mad dogs. The Shakers used the plant to clear their complexions. In Germany, the aster is plucked petal by petal to decide if a love is returned or not.
The New York aster was identified by the Belgian botanist Hermann in 1786 and named after the area of origin, New Amsterdam. The English call these asters Michaelmas daisies (Michaelmas Day is September 29).
One of the most spectacular perennials in the garden from late August until November, asters have a many-petaled, daisy-like flower that comes in pink, pale blue, purple, or white, all growing from a yellow central disk. Reaching heights from 4 to 6 feet with dark green, lance-shaped leaves, these hardy perennials offer massive numbers of large, clustered blooms on branching stems. Asters are excellent for forming bold masses of color in the garden and they are good for cutting.
An easy plant to grow, asters adapt to any kind of soil with good drainage, but will be more vigorous when grown in rich soil and fertilized regularly in the spring. It's best to put out newly purchased or divided plants in the spring or early summer. Seeds planted in the spring will bloom the following year.
Pinch the tips early in the season for bushier plants. Water regularly. Old-fashioned asters usually need staking, which should be done in the spring before they fall and continued as they grow. Divide the plants every three or four years.
Comments: There are numerous hybrids available in various heights and spreads. For the hot, humid summers of the South, try the long-blooming Aster x frikartii. The old-fashioned annual asters are called China asters and are botanically known as Callistephus.
Position: Sun or part shade.
Propagation: Seed, division, or cuttings.CHAPTER 2
The genus name Centaurea is taken from the myth of the Greek centaurs, who were half man and half horse. The centaur Chiron — known for his wisdom in medicine and prophecy, as well as his skills in the arts and hunting — was shot in the foot by a poison arrow from Hercules's bow. Chiron administered cornflower to his wound, and he was healed. In mythology, Chiron is credited for having taught mankind the use of medicinal plants, although we now know that cornflowers have no great medicinal value.
Cornflowers were among the jewelry and gold discovered in the tomb of King Tutankhamen. A small wreath of cornflowers and olive leaves, still the deepest blue after thousands of years, was among the cache of riches left to aid the pharaoh in the afterlife.
Cornflowers were brought to America from Europe in the seventeenth century and were among the flowers cultivated by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Often called the "cultivated weed" or "weed of the cornfield," cornflower got its name because it was the flowering weed that grew among the corn plants. The moniker bachelor's button became popular when men began wearing cornflowers as boutonnieres.
Prized for their intense blue color, cornflowers have been featured in gardens for more than a hundred years. Most varieties are blue, but others come in pink, maroon, and white blooms, set apart by pale, gray-green leaves. Bachelor's buttons grow 1 to 3 feet and bloom in early summer. Leave some seedheads after these annuals flower and goldfinches will visit your garden to eat the seeds. Bachelor's buttons last for up to two weeks as a cut flower and they are also nice dried.
Bachelor's buttons grow in almost any soil. They can withstand mild frosts but do not transplant well. Sow seeds directly in the garden in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked; start seeds indoors about 4 weeks before setting out. Thin seedlings to 8 to 10 inches apart. Make successive plantings every two weeks to extend bloom time in the garden. Water only moderately, being careful not to overwater, to help prevent disease. Cut faded blooms to prolong flowering. Sun and cool temperatures produce the best results. In warmer climates, seeds can be sown in autumn. Bachelor's buttons often self-seed.
Comments: C. montana, commonly called mountain bluet, is a perennial similar to the annual bachelor's button. It produces masses of blooms up to 18 inches high in late spring and early summer.
Propagation: Seed for annuals; seed, division, or cuttings for perennials.CHAPTER 3
Touch-Me-Not, Lady Slipper
Balsam, native to tropical Asia, is believed to have been introduced to Europe about 1540, where it was first grown as a single flower. It was a popular summer bedding plant among gardeners of early Tudor England. In the early 1800s, the first camellia-flowered types were developed and the popularity of balsam soared to make it a particular favorite in Victorian gardens.
Both the genus and the common name Impatiens refer to a characteristic of the seed capsule. When the ripe pods are touched, they burst suddenly and seeds scatter, as if impatient. The impatient burst of seeds also inspired the name Touch-Me-Not.
Double balsam, a two-flowered variety, was planted at Shadwell, Thomas Jefferson's boyhood home, as early as 1767, and later at Monticello. The plants were started in hot beds (cold frames heated by decomposing manure).
Balsam plants have long been used to make dye. In India, the dyes are favored for fabrics. Silks and wools of yellow and red traditionally have been created with balsam dyes. In Japan, a red dye extracted from balsam was used as a paint for finger nails.
Balsam is also used as a curative. To this day, herbalists apply balsam to insect bites and use it to relieve the itch of poison ivy.
An old-time favorite, balsam has been cultivated for generations. A distinct and unusual plant, it looks quite different for the impatiens so widely grown today.
Pyramid-shaped plants, 12 to 36 inches high, produce a single main stem bearing brilliant double flowers shaped like small camellias. The double flowers grow along the stalk and come in white, pink, red, purple, and yellow, some spotted or striped. The leaves are a medium green, about 6 inches long, and pointed. At one time a very popular garden annual, balsam lostfavor over the years but is now being revived be gardeners in new forms and hybrids.
Annual balsams are easy and satisfying to grow. The plants are free-flowering, resistant to heat and heavy rain, and adaptable to sun or shade. They do well in not summers. Balsams do not require removal of spent blooms, and they will naturalize easily, reappearing the following year from self-sown seeds. Balsams can also be transplanted in full bloom. Sow balsam seeds outdoors in place or start them indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost. Cover the seeds lightly — light is needed to germinate — and keep the soil warm. Plant in light, sandy soil, somewhat rich and moist, and space 10 to 18 inches apart, fertilizing and watering regularly. Some of the taller balsam specimens benefit from topping, or pinching back, the leaves to make bushier plants.
Comment: Balsam does not do as well in full shade as Impatiens wallerana, the impatiens so abundant at today's nurseries.
Position: Sun or light shade.CHAPTER 4
Scarlet Bergamot, Oswego Tea
Native to eastern North America, bee balm is also known as Indian plume, fragrant balm, and mountain mint. Another name developed when the residents of Oswego, New York, on Lake Ontario, used bee balm leaves to make a tea. The tea became popular, especially during the Revolutionary War, in the neighboring New England states, where it was dubbed Oswego Tea. Documents of the late eighteenth century recommended planting bee balm plentifully in the kitchen garden for the purpose of brewing Oswego Tea.
During the 1700s on a plant-collecting trip around the country, the American botanist John Bartram collected seeds from Oswego and sent them to England. The tea seems to have been less popular among Britons, where the bright scarlet flowers of bee balm became more a feature of the decorative border than the kitchen garden.
A member of the mint family, bee balm has a strong flavor that is desirable as seasoning in cooking. Bee balm was also traditionally used to soothe stomachaches and sore throats, and to reduce fevers.
The genus name Monarda was chosen for Dr. Nicholas Monardes, a Spanish physician, who published an important book on plants of the New World.
The species name, didyma, is from a Greek word meaning "paired," and refers to the twin stamens in each flower.
Bee balm is among the few plants that possess not only fragrant leaves, but also brilliant flowers. The small tubular flowers, arranged in whorls, form a dense cluster, 2 to 3 inches wide. Blooms are mostly red, but also come in pink, white, or purple. Bee balm blooms from late June into August. Bee balm's red flowers and the tubular arrangement of the blossoms attract hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. The foliage forms dense clumps of erect, square stems, 2 to 3 feet tall. Bee balm leaves, like other members of the mint family, are aromatic when crushed. Bee balm is particularly effective when massed in loose clumps or in other informal arrangements.
Hardy bee balm plants thrive in any ordinary soil, provided it is cool and moist. Plant in full sun or part shade; part shade is best for longer-lasting flowers. Bee balm is not drought tolerant, so soil should be kept moist; without moisture, the plants become susceptible to powdery mildew and rust. Bee balm is vigorous and can spread rapidly. Withhold fertilizer to slow rapid spreading. Divide the plants in spring every three to four years to avoid tall, lanky growth. Sow seeds outdoors in spring or fall for bloom the following season. Purchased plants should be spaced 18 to 24 inches apart.
Bee balm is readily propagated by its creeping roots.
Comments: Monarda fistulosa, known as wild bergamot, grows in dry soil as well as moist, making it a better choice for drier climates.
Position: Sun or part shade.CHAPTER 5
Lady's Locket, Dicentra spectabilis
The name bleeding heart aptly describes the little rosy-red, heart-shaped flowers with their extension that looks like a drop of blood. Other common names for this plant are lady's locket, lyre flower, and lady-in-the-bath.
The bleeding heart was imported from the Orient to Europe by the Jesuit missionary d'Incarville around the middle of the eighteenth century, but it was not cultivated until 1847, when Robert Fortune, an English botanist, found it on the Japanese Isle of Chusan and sent it back to England. Within a very short time, bleeding heart could be found in virtually every Victorian garden.
Bleeding heart was also popular among nineteenth-century gardeners in the eastern United States. But as pioneers moved West, bleeding heart seeds grew harder to come by, and the native fringed bleeding heart (D. exima) and Pacific bleeding heart (D. formosa) became attractive substitutes.
The genus name Dicentra comes from the Greek words dis (twice) and kentron (spur), and means "doubled spurred." Spectabilis means "remarkable."
Bleeding hearts are graceful plants with long racemes of drooping, heart-shaped flowers in either reddish-pink or white. The elegant foliage is green with a slightly gray cast and deeply cut leaves. The plant forms dense clumps up to 2 feet wide, and from 2 to 3 feet high. The brightly colored blooms appear in early April and last until the end of June.
An excellent plant for the shade, bleeding heart blooms even in full shade, although sparingly. The foliage dies down in summer. To mask the spent foliage, plant annuals or perennials, such as hosta or ferns, over it.
Plant in warm, light, rich, well-drained soil in partial shade. Bleeding heart will do nicely in full sun, but the leaves tend to fade. Place plants 1 1/2 to 2 feet apart. Water regularly and fertilize in early spring. Propagate by division in early spring. Starting bleeding heart by seed is moderately difficult, and requires both work and patience. Seeds can be started indoors in flats, but must be refrigerated for 5 to 6 weeks before germination. Seeds can also be sown outdoors in late fall or early winter; keep the soil moist until the ground freezes. For greatest ease, purchase plants in early spring.
Comments: D. exima, the fringed bleeding heart, and D. formosa, Pacific bleeding heart, are native to North America and are much smaller plants than D. spectabilis. Fringed bleeding heart grows from 12 to 18 inches. Although not quite as brilliant in color as common bleeding heart, it is hardier, blooms off and on all summer, and readily self-sows. It also comes in pink and white.
Position: Part shade or shade.CHAPTER 6
Pot Marigold, Calendula officinalis
Dedicated to the Virgin Mary and known as Mary's gold, calendula is described by Shakespeare in The Winter's Tale as the "winking Mary-buds" of Cymbeline. The Elizabethans cultivated the pot marigold almost exclusively for medicinal applications. Among the ills calendula purportedly soothed were smallpox, measles, fevers, and the sting of a wasp or a bee. An ointment made with calendula was used to dress cuts, burns, and sores. During the U.S. Civil War, surgeons used calendula to treat wounds. It's often recounted that Gertrude Jekyll, the famous English gardener, grew an abundance of calendula during World War I and sent it to first aid stations for treatment of injuries. Calendula has also been used in cooking as a seasoning for broths, wine, and salads, and the calendula petals were often substituted for saffron.
The genus name is from the Latin calund, which refers to the first part of the month. In Roman times, calendula could be found in bloom in almost every month of the year.
Despite its common name and appearance, calendula is not a true marigold at all. It belongs to the same family, but is of a different genus. Unlike true marigolds, calendula leaves are undivided and do not have the distinct odor of today's marigold (Tagestes).
Calendula are hardy garden annuals. They are easy to grow, and they produce a vivid display of color over a long growing season. The flower heads are 3 to 4 inches across and come in lemon, gold, orange, and cream in single, daidy-like flowers, or in double, chrysanthemum-like flowers. The foliage is dark green. Calendual's long stems grow 10 to 24 inches, making trhem ideal for cutting. Generously blooming from July to frost, calendula are excellent for containers and planters.
Hardy enough to withstand several frosts, calendula seeds may be sown outdoors as soon as the soil can be worked. Seeds can be started indoors 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost, but take care not to disturb the long taproots when transplanting. Move seedlings or purchased plants to the garden two weeks before the last frost, spacing 10 to 15 inches apart. Calendula adapts to most any soil, but thrives in light, sandy, and moderately rich ones. Fertilize when planting and keep the faded flowers picked off for continuous bloom. Calendula performs best in temperatures under 85 °F, but can be used as a spring or fall plant in hot climates. Make a second planting in July or August for fall color and winter blooms. In mild climates, blooms can last all winter long. Calendula self-sows readily, although doubles sometimes revert back to the single-bloom parent.
Position: Sun or light shade.
Propagation: Seed.CHAPTER 7
Candytuft is not named for a sweet, as the name might suggest, but rather drew its moniker from its place of origin, Candia, the ancient name of Crete. First found growing on the shores of the Mediterranean, the plant has been cultivated since 1596, and has ever since been a familiar plant in cottage gardens.
In Elizabethan England, candytuft seeds were used to make mustard for meat. Candytuft was also thought to aid indigestion, and was used to treat rheumatism and gout. Candytuft mixtures were also made to treat asthma and bronchitis. In fact, candytuft was favored as a medicinal, rather than an ornamental plant.
Excerpted from Fifty Easy Old-Fashioned Flowers by Anne M. Zeman. Copyright © 1995 Irving Place, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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