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Antique Flowers

Old-Fashioned Bloomers, Some Popular Since Victorian Times, are Best Planted now through the End of May

March 16, 1997|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate is a delightfully named, decidedly old-fashioned flower that has been kicking around gardens for a very long time. Described in the 1917 Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture as "an attractive old-fashioned plant growing as high as the fence," it has been in gardens since Victorian times, surviving the ages by being passed around.

The old flower, Polygonum orientale, is available in only one seed catalog, but you can still find it in gardens because many old-fashioned flowers are extra-easy to grow, especially from seed sown in spring or fall.

Most old-fashioned flowers are best planted during our spring planting season, which runs from mid-March until late May, because they are perennials that are readily available in spring or because they are summer annuals, like kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate.

It can be planted only from seed in late March or early April, but don't fret about starting with seed; it comes up readily.

Says the Standard Cyclopedia: "It is most easy of cultivation; in fact, it usually self-sows in old gardens."

Although an annual, it grows big and bushy, with long, droopy flower spikes of the brightest possible pink that will hang over the garden gate to welcome visitors with a buss.

It's what might be called a floral antique, one of hundreds that gardeners are rediscovering. Whether for ease of culture, their simple unhybridized good looks or their fascinating history, these old-timers are staging a comeback.

First came the rediscovery of old roses, then the interest in ancient herbs and heirloom vegetables; now it's the old-fashioned flowers' turn to be appreciated and planted again in gardens.

Some gardeners are simply fascinated by the old English names. "They're so much fun for people who like words and history," said landscape architect Shirley Kerins, curator of the Huntington Botanical Gardens herb garden. There she grows many of the old-fashioned flowers, like love-in-a-mist and honesty, also blooming in the nearby Shakespeare garden.

Names like bachelor's buttons, love-lies-bleeding, love-in-a-puff, ladies' cushion and cupid's dart "remind you of how fond people were of these flowers, and sometimes there are great stories behind the names."

Bachelor's button, for instance, is actually a bit of a misnomer. The name was originally applied to golden buttercups, whose flowers were like the polished brass buttons on young officers' uniforms. Somehow the name became associated with the flowers we call bachelor's buttons today, though cornflower is the better common name because they grew as weeds in English wheat fields.

The flower had an even earlier name, hurtsickle, because it "hindereth the reapers by dulling their sicles in the reaping of corn," according to a 16th century herbalist. In its long history in the garden, it has also been known as blewbottle or blue bottle for its clear blue flowers.

A few gardeners are growing these antiques in an attempt to save old garden varieties on the verge of extinction, searching out ancient types and propagating them from seed or cuttings.

Others are revolting against the trend by growers and seed producers to make all flowers short and tidy, so they will be in bloom when you buy them at the nursery.

"Hybridizers have done such a disservice by making bedding plants so short," say Mary Lou Heard of Heard's Country Gardens in Westminster, so Heard's has gone out of its way to offer seeds and plants of the more graceful old-fashioned varieties, as have some other nurseries.

They've found that many gardeners are no longer buying modern hybrids but are out shopping for antiques or good reproductions.

Sharon Milder is one. She has filled her Westwood frontyard with old-fashioned flowers, to make a convincing cottage garden full of old-fashioned charm. She has gathered old roses from obscure catalogs and scoured the nurseries for antique annuals and perennials.

Among the old roses are chinas, teas, noisettes and a lot of polyanthas. Growing all around them are old-fashioned flowers--Canterbury bells (including the storybook cup and saucer), sweet William, columbine, pinks, yarrow and valerian, once called Mercury's blood by the herbalists. In the 16th century, one said that "it growith plentifully in my garden, being a great ornament to the same," as it still does in the Southland.

One of the columbines she grows is named 'Grandmother's Garden,' a new name for an ancient type of "rose" columbine. In the world of antiques, it would be called a good reproduction.

Some old-fashioned flowers are still common at nurseries, but to be truly authentic, you must search out old-time varieties.

Bachelor's buttons, for instance, are common at nurseries in spring, but not the old-fashioned 3-foot-tall plants that made such good cut flowers. Those are harder to find and may need to be grown from seed.

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