In Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play, “Our Town”, heliotrope blossoms connect two groups of figures who come together to inhale their intoxicating moonlight scent. Heliotropes, then common, are, indeed, wonderfully fragrant. Yet somehow they fell out of favor in American gardens.
Many staples of the Victorian era through the 1950s have been replaced by hybrids and compact bedding plants, many of which lack the charm, aroma and simple nostalgia of their predecessors.
Here are eight vintage garden flowers worth revisiting:
Four o’clock (Mirabilis japala, Mirabilis multiflora)
The fragrant white, red, pink, purple, yellow, or bicolor trumpet-shaped flowers open daily in the late afternoon and bloom from spring to frost in full or partial sun. The plants are low-maintenance, drought-tolerant, and perennial in zones 8 to 10. Treat as annuals elsewhere, though they self-seed easily. Their sweet, lemony scent and shape attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus)
Daisy-like flowers bloom profusely on lacy foliage plants from early summer until frost. Some varieties are perennials in warmer climates, while others are annuals everywhere, but all self-seeded, ensuring repeat performance in most gardens for years to come. Plant them in full sun, except in the southernmost areas, where they will appreciate some shade. Available in yellow, pink, orange, red, purple, white and brown.
Sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus)
Clusters of dainty, ruffled pink, purple, red, white or bicolor flowers bloom on annual vines in spring and early summer. Sweet peas perfume the air with a scent reminiscent of grapes. Plant in full sun in northern areas but provide some afternoon shade in the south.
Kiss me over the garden gate (Persicaria orientalis)
A favorite of Thomas Jefferson, this easy-care annual, which quickly reaches 6 feet tall, is perfect for back of the border. Eye-catching clusters of pendulous pink flowers self-sow to ensure a steady supply of plants for years to come. In regions with cold winters, sow the seeds directly in the garden in autumn; in frost-free climates, put them in the freezer for a week before sowing them outdoors.
Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea)
Pink, purple, peach, red, white, yellow, or nearly black flowers completely cover 8-foot stems from top to bottom. Large-leaved plants are biennials, meaning they live two years and don’t flower until the second year, but they self-seed, so there will always be more on deck. Plant them in full sun in the north and partial shade in warm climates, and provide a fence, trellis or stake to support them.
English primroses (Primula vulgaris)
Although there are nearly 500 species of primroses available in many colors today, your great-grandmother’s spring garden probably included these yellow flowering stems. Short-lived perennials are hardy in zones 3 to 8, preferring moist, partially shaded conditions. Grow them in winter in the deep South; spring elsewhere.
A grass named for its use in soap making, this late, summer-blooming perennial ground cover reaches 1 to 3 feet in height. Sow seeds directly in the garden in a sunny spot in spring and dead plants regularly to avoid too vigorous self-seeding. For a fun project, make liquid soap by simmering 1 cup of the tightly chopped leaves and stems in 2 cups of water for 15 minutes. Strain through cheesecloth and pour into a glass jar. Store in the fridge for up to a week and use as an all-purpose cleaner or hand soap.
Heliotropes (Heliotropium arborescens)
With a wonderful, strong scent reminiscent of cherry pie, almond, and vanilla, these tender shrubby perennials are grown as annuals in all but zones 9-11. Although available today in several colors, the dark purple variety was the classic of the country garden familiar in Thornton Wilder’s day. Plant them in full sun anywhere except the deep south, where they will benefit from some afternoon shade.
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