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Down memory lane

20 June 2024
Snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus)

Rediscover the charming, old-fashioned blooms our grandmothers grew and loved.

Next time you fossick through a pile of old family photo albums, try looking past the people in those shots taken outdoors. Let your gaze linger and focus on the plants in the background. Discover ‘grandma plants’, the kind we seldom see in many of today’s gardens with their low-maintenance features and plenty of hard landscaping. Zoom in on the joyful, often self-sown, abundance of annuals and perennials greeting visitors at the gate and generously bordering the path to the front door. Our great-grandmothers and grandmothers were absolute flower growers and would probably scoff at modern minimalist garden ideas. It seems that nostalgic plant varieties have made a return. Perhaps the simple pleasure of cutting a bunch of old-fashioned heritage flowers for your home goes with the increasing popularity of growing your own heirloom veges and fruit – a return to slow living.

Snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus)
Easy to grow and great for picking, snapdragons have an undeniable charm. The unique, two-lipped tubular flowers snap open when pinched, and when visiting my grandmother’s garden as a child, I’d always make a beeline to them. I loved the squishy feel of their soft petals, and I’d squeeze them until they opened their ‘mouths’. Naturally, I wasn’t exactly encouraged in this pastime! Although snapdragons are classed as perennials, they are best treated as annuals (sow seeds from autumn to spring for spring and summer displays). They prefer moist, well-drained soil in full sun. Cut the stems back to 5–7cm when the flowers fade to encourage a second flush. They come in a wide range of shades, from white and pink to warm reds and oranges, and will often bloom for three months or more. Taller varieties were the preference in days gone by but today you can choose from a range of compact dwarf varieties such as ‘Tom Thumb’. If you fancy growing taller heritage types, try the heirloom variety ‘Black Prince’, which has bronzy foliage and produces dark burgundy flowers with a gorgeous velvet-like sheen.

Granny’s Bonnets (Aquilegia)
One of the first cottage perennials to appear in spring, Aquilegia has blue-green, fern-like foliage that sends up bonnet-shaped flowers on slim stems. The blooms later transform into quaint seed pods that are great for floral work. Granny’s bonnets grow best in semi-shade, in moist, humus-enriched soil. Larger forms grow to around 75cm high x 50cm wide and dwarf varieties to 25cm x 20cm. Blessed with an uncomplicated nature, they self-seed with promiscuous ease and come back year after year without any special attention or TLC. Producing a profusion of pure white flowers with long spurs about 4cm long, ‘Munstead White’ is a favourite, growing to around 50cm tall. It is reported to have been selected by early 20th century garden writer and designer Gertrude Jekyll for her garden at Munstead Wood in Surrey, England.

Growing up in Auckland, not far from the harbour, I remember many ‘old school’ driveways lined with the perfect, showy daisy-like blooms of zingy-coloured gerberas. The plants prefer full sun and a light, well-drained soil (gerbera crowns tend to rot otherwise). Like many southern African plants, they tolerate colder conditions if kept dry over winter. Once a mainstay in Kiwi gardens, like dahlias, gerberas suffered at the hands of plant breeders persistently chasing bigger, bolder flowers at the expense of health. As a result, gerberas fell out of fashion, but today’s new strains, such as the robust Garvinea series, are excellent performers and grow well in pots. A good variety that’s perfect for containers is the clump-forming ‘Florist Patio Painted Desert’, which grows to 45cm x 45cm. Bred to yield large, daisy-like blooms up to 10cm across, it produces glowing two-tone yellow and orange flowers throughout summer.

The dianthus family includes perennials like clove-scented pinks (Dianthus plumarius and related species), which are charming in a border or rockery; florist’s carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus); and biennial bedding plants such as sweet william (Dianthus barbatus, which are usually treated as annuals. Sweet william is available in dwarf sizes up to 20cm, and taller varieties up to 75cm tall. Seeds can be sown in late summer or autumn, or you can plant seedlings in spring. All types grow best in full sun, planted in a light, almost gritty soil. Carnations, which are larger, require regular feeding with diluted fertiliser to keep them flowering well, and the long stems should be staked and cut back when the plants become straggly.
Many will remember their grandmother growing ‘Otaki Pink’, which was named after the rural Kāpiti Coast town where it was grown commercially during the 1940s and ’50s. The plant has large, soft pink blooms with a strong, clove-like fragrance. Tolerant of light frosts and drought once established, this lovely old-timer remains a popular cottage garden choice. I like to grow Dianthus ‘Dad’s Favourite’ (25cm x 25cm).
It’s an old variety that was cultivated in the 1800s and has fringed, double, bicoloured blooms of soft white and burgundy. A real showstopper, it’s great for picking and has the additional bonus of a lovely spicy fragrance.

Shrimp Plant (Justicia Brandegeeana)
Another face from the past is commonly known as the shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana) because the tubular pinkish-orange flowers with white stamens and black dots on the tips resemble the waving feelers and little eyes of a shrimp. This is a delightful evergreen shrub, which was once popular in Victorian conservatories, although I have memories of the plant flourishing in a pot on Grandmother’s sunny dining room table (it is well suited to container growing) where it was always covered in curved, quirky flowers – the blooms are soft stemmed and slightly weeping in form due to the large flower heads. A tough little shrub, it can reach 1m in height (although smaller in pots) and requires bright light, full sun and plenty of water when actively growing during the summer months (keep the soil drier in winter). Pinch out the growing tips regularly to keep the plant bushy and compact, and prune to maintain its form and reduce its size.

Stocks (Matthiola Incana)
The wonderful musky fragrance of stocks is one of the best-loved garden scents and an aroma many associate with heirloom flowers. The blossoms come in both single and double forms, bloom from spring to autumn and last well in a vase. Colours range from pastel pink and apricot to vibrant shades of crimson and purple. Double-flowered stocks have paler grey-green leaves than singles, so once the first true leaves have formed (if growing from seed), discard those with dark-green leaves if you want spectacular spires for picking. If you sow seeds of ‘Giant Perfection’ or ‘Perfumed Giants’ from late summer to autumn, you’ll have tightly clustered, showy columns of flowers 20 weeks later (the seeds germinate within a fortnight). Stocks are available as annuals and biennials, but have a reputation for losing vigour if they are grown repeatedly in the same place, so alternate them with other plants. They prefer a sunny spot and moist but well-drained soil. Take care when transplanting seedlings, as disturbing the roots appears to stunt their growth. The plants need shelter from strong winds (I’ve struggled to grow mine near our coast’s frisky breezes), and larger forms may need staking, particularly double varieties, as they tend to be top heavy.

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