Old South favorites continue spring dazzles

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 20, 2010

Visitors and residents are often captivated by the abundance of spring-blooming shrubs, trees and bulbs in older Vicksburg neighborhoods. Many were planted by homeowners many years ago but bloom today as lovely as they did when first planted.  The old favorites make good sense for modern gardens just as they did when grandmother chose to plant them in her garden.

The founding of Vicksburg and the construction of some of its oldest homes occurred in the latter part of  the era known as the golden age of plant introduction. Between 1750 and 1850, tens of thousands of new plants were brought into this country from all over the world.  Collectors were particularly successful in finding exquisite horticultural specimens in China and Japan.  At the same time many American native plants were collected and transported to European gardens where they were hybridized and returned in later years as improved hybrid forms. 

The mainstay plants found in Southern gardens have changed relatively little in the past 150 years, according to Dr. Neil Odenwald  and John Feltwell in their book “Live Oak Splendor.”  Some of the most significant Chinese imports introduced in that golden age are roses, bridal wreathe spirea, crepe myrtle, gardenia, privet and tea olive, a plant used by the Chinese to perfume tea that we know today as sweet olive. Camellias, azaleas, flowering almond, cryptomeria, boxwood and kerria were popular Japanese imports.  These excelled in our climate and their numbers grew fast as gardeners propagated them and shared cuttings and divisions with family and neighbors.  

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Miriam Jabour, a Master Gardener and Master Flower Show judge, has been active in the Openwood Plantation Garden Club for more than 35 years. Write to her at 1114 Windy Lake Drive, Vicksburg, MS 39183.

These were not the only introductions that found a home in Southern gardens. Chinese wisteria, introduced into Europe in 1816, became a major hit when it found its way into Southern American gardens around 1860. Popular for arbors or as a trimmed-up small tree, the purple flowers that appear before the leaflets  make it a magnificent addition to a spring landscape.  A relative of kudzu, it requires a strong support and can get out of control if not pruned frequently after the blooms fade away. Modern cultivars are available now that are more easily controlled in a landscape.

Scottish plant collector Robert Fortune, quite famous in the mid-19th century, brought back scores of plants including weigela, a member of the honeysuckle family. It is a prolific, colorful spring bloomer more frequently seen in years past but just as dazzling in the modern landscape. The funnel shaped flowers are borne in vivid clusters  in shades of pink, white or wine tones on graceful arching branches.

Quince, the multi-trunk shrub or small tree, was a fixture in gardens of the late 1800s notably because it blooms so early. Long before the other flowering shrubs bear blooms, the bare branches of the quince shrub  come alive with tiny salmon-pink, white or light-pink blooms. Tree quince, known as Chinese quince, has a single trunk and produces an abundance of tart fruits that was quite popular for jellies. According to  William Welch in his book “The Southern Heirloom Garden” the tree type used to be listed in every nursery catalog in the South but is surprisingly rare today due to fire blight and other diseases.

No discussion of old favorites is complete without mentioning the narcissus family and other spring bulbs. They abound around old home-sites throughout the South. The older daffodils are not the large modern bulbs we buy from nurseries today but a mix of small jonquils and daffodils that were brought over from Central Europe and the Mediterranean region in the 1700s. Thomas Jefferson grew many of them as did gardeners throughout the South, so much so that they have naturalized in many settings. I just returned from Texas where they are using thousands of the older variety in naturalized plantings along Interstate 20. William Welch says these low growing  types are a natural hybrid known affectionately as  “Texas star” jonquils and they are much easier to grow along the highways than are wildflowers. They finish blooming before the highway department starts cutting, never die and just get better each year according to Welch.

Leucojum or Snow Drop  is another old-fashion bulb that still shines in a garden. It naturalizes as well as old daffodils and are quite fragrant. Clumps can remain untouched for years without sacrificing their tiny bell-like blooms but they are very easy to divide and share with others.  French Roman hyacinths  also graced many old home gardens. These are not what we see called hyacinths in modern Dutch catalogs that have to be replanted yearly. This is a small flowered fragrant bulb native to France introduced to Southern gardens in the early 1900s.  They come in several shades of blue, ranging from a light to almost purple blue, pink and white.  Mrs. Shelby Farris’ garden was the first place that I saw these delightful blue bulbs many years ago.  Becky and Brent Heath are one of several commercial sources now specializing in the old bulbs and new gardeners are finding them as delightful as those a generation ago.