Remnants of the Old South
Learn about the plants in the gardens of Old South farmhouses.
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By Maureen Gilmer, DIY — Do It Yourself Network
Gramps called it "the home place". By the time we saw it in the 1970s the forest of Plain Dealing, La., had reclaimed the land. This wild bit of high ground between bayous had fed generations of Gilmers.
Gramps pointed out where he was born in the last decade of the 19th century. The house had gone to rot after the old folks died and Gramps' generation moved away to find work during the Great Depression. The well caved in and the cleared fields had grown back dog-hair stands of pine. Springing out of foundation stones was honeysuckle gone wild and the remnants of a camellia.
This was a window into the Old South, a land of small farmers eking out an existence on recalcitrant red clay despite biblical insect infestations and oppressive summer humidity.
They were not plantation owners. They never knew the assistance of slave labor. They hoed their own fields — man, woman and child. This land was in their blood. Thomas Meriwether Gilmer would tend a garden every year of his life, and only doctor's stern warnings on his 85th birthday could stop him.
The truest gardens of the Old South are not Monticello, Middleton Place, Magnolia Gardens and Rosedown. The truest gardens are clustered around old farmhouses with rusting corrugated roofs and listing foundations. These survivors have earned their place in the southern landscape. They stood up to the scrutiny of small farm families who had no time to pamper their shrubs when there was laundry to be done and children to feed. If a plant survived to offer beauty and fragrance to their work-weary lives, it was surely cherished.
Camellias, known simply as "japonicas," became the stock in trade of Fruitlands Nursery in Augusta, Ga. After the Civil War it was the only camellia supplier left in the South. Camellias were easy to grow. They enjoyed heavy, acidic soils, which are common in these regions of high rainfall. The plants grew so popular they marched across the South to Texas, appearing at hardscrabble farm and mansion alike. It's difficult to know what species or variety grows at many sites, but suffice to say that camellias become the quintessential southern evergreen shrub.
In his book, The Southern Heirloom Garden William Welsh writes: "Almost every abandoned homesite in the South is marked by at least one surviving crape myrtle." This beautiful tree can be traced back to Andre Michaux's nursery near Charleston, S.C., where it was first grown in America. By 1860 Lagerstroemia indica plants were available in Montgomery, Ala., and by 1885 it was standard stock at Pearfield Nursery in Texas. These trees with their multi-hued bark and vibrant summer flowers are as southern as the magnolia. It has been said that crape myrtle is to the South what lilac is to the North.
While we all know the beautiful mophead flowers of Hydrangea macrophylla, it was the native oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) that came into southern gardens early on. Native to a large range in the Southeastern states, it is super-adapted to local conditions. Once established, it required very little attention. This spring blooming hydrangea produces large white panicles followed by fiery foliage color in fall.
The vine-cloaked cabin or farmhouse is the essence of southern charm. These plants are so well adapted they will live a century or more. Trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), wisteria, Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) and Lady Bank's rose (Rosa banksia) offer incredible color and fragrance.
Other treasured heirloom shrubs include Confederate rose (Hibiscus mutabilis) and golden kerria (Kerria japonica). Oddly enough, the evergreen azaleas so pervasive in southern gardens today weren't widely available except to affluent gardens until after the turn of the century.
Like most of America, the South is composed of many cultural groups, but what is most consistent is the life of the small farmer. As these families struggled to farm worn-out cotton land, the rocky hills and the shady hollows, they all left their mark in one way or another.
Much of it is gone, but nothing reminds us of the "home place" like a crape myrtle springing out of the ruins of a well-used root cellar.
(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of "Weekend Gardening" on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit : www.moplants.com or www.DIYNetwork.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)
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