Annuals Garden History Gardening

Old-Fashioned Annuals

Forgotten Annuals Our Grandmas Used to Grow

If you could travel back in time to your grandmother’s or great-grandmother’s time, you’d probably be surprised at what she grew in her flower garden. 

Annuals were the most popular ornamental plants in home gardens from the 1830s until after the Second World War, but you wouldn’t have found grandma growing today’s ankle-high impatiens or begonias. She grew her rather rangy impatiens (Impatiens walleriana) as windowsill plants, calling them Busy Lizzies, and never thought of planting them outdoors, while the wax or bedding begonia (Begonia sempervirens-cultorum) was indeed popular in public flower beds at the time, but not in home gardens (few homes had the heated greenhouse needed to grow them from seed). 

Tall, scented snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) were classics in pre-WWII gardens. Photo: http://www.crocus.co.uk

She did grow snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) and flowering tobaccos (Nicotiana spp.), but not the neat little dwarf scentless varieties of today, but rather tall, often gangly back-of-the-border types with strong perfumes. Her pelargoniums (Pelargonium x hortorum), which she called geraniums, were not the compact border plants we know, but shrubs she would have overwintered in a cold room. Her pansies (Viola wittrockiana) had small flowers, not big ones, and she probably called them heartsease rather than pansy. 

Cosmos ‘Sensation’ (Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Sensation’), still widely available, was a All America Selections winner back in 1936! Photo: silverfallsseed.com.

Of course, there are some annuals we grow today that she’d recognize in a flash. Modern cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus), nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus), zinnias (Zinnia spp.) and marigolds (Tagetes patula and T. erecta) may be longer-bloomed than the old-fashioned varieties or produce more flowers, but they’re still much as she knew them. And petunias (Petunia x atkinsiana) of all sizes and shapes were already widely available by the early 1900s.

Scent Matters

If the post-WWII effort in hybridizing annuals seems to be mostly dedicated at getting bigger flowers on shorter plants, pre-WWII, scent still mattered.

Old-fashioned sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) were climbers and actually had a scent! Photo: http://www.beansandherbs.co.uk

We’ve all pretty much forgotten that the sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) got its name from its delicious fragrance, since most modern sweet peas have no scent it all, but the sweet peas of grandma’s time were all highly scented. Less ruffled and smaller than those of today, they still came in the full range of colours we now expect: reds, pinks, whites, purples and much more. There were no bush-type sweet peas back then, they were all climbing plants, using tendrils to grip trellis supports. And Grandma grew them differently than we do now. The general advice at the time was to sow them outdoors in the fall for early bloom in spring, then to cut them back severely after their first flush of bloom to stimulate a second flush in the fall.

With heliotropes (Heliotropium arborescens), the duller the colour, the more intense the perfume! Photo: Stan Shebs, Wikimedia Commons

Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens) was highly popular in grandma’s day under the curious name of cherry pie. Its perfume was known by all and remains today the scent used in baby powder. It was not the most beautiful of annuals, with its clusters of wishy-washy lavender-blue flowers, but oh, what a fragrance! It was hard to grow from seed, so Grandma would overwinter a plant or two in a barely heated room, then take cuttings for her summer garden in spring. Modern cultivars are more compact and have attractive dark purple flowers, but practically no scent.

Mignonette (Reseda odorata) creates just about no visual impact, but what a powerful fragrance… if you can find an old-fashioned clone! Photo: http://www.impecta.se

Mignonette (Reseda odorata), as your grandmother knew it, had insignificant greenish flowers, but was incredibly fragrant: a plant or two in a flower bed would stop passersby in their tracks. Sadly, most modern cultivars have little or no scent.

The Name Game

Kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate (Persicaria orientale) is a garden giant. Photo: http://www.frozenseeds.com

Modern gardeners have become rather matter-of-fact about plant names and prefer few-syllabled ones our spell checkers won’t mangle, but in the past, romantic or amusing names held great sway. Kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate (Persicaria orientale, formerly Polygonum orientale), for example, won’t even fit on most plant labels, but you’ve got to admit it is charming. This giant of an annual, from 5 to 10 feet (1.5 to 3 m) high, bears weeping strands of bright pink flowers. It was sown outdoors in the fall for bloom the following summer. 

The light and lacy foliage of love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) practically surrounds its flowers. Photo: Wildfeuer, Wikimedia Commons

Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) is a fast-growing annual with blue, pink or white flowers in a “mist” of fine filagree foliage. After it blooms, it produces an inflated seed capsule that can be included in dried arrangements. 

The purplish red tassels of love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus) drip right down to the ground. Photo: Tubifex, Wikimedia Commons 

Love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus) is a big shrubby annual that produces long ropes of purplish-red flowers that sometimes dangle to the ground. Grandma knew the secret to growing it: start in indoors only 3 to 4 weeks before planting out time. This gives a young plant that will burst into growth when planted out in the garden.

The flowers of the four o’clock (Jalapa mirabilis) only open at the end of the afternoon. Photo: C T Johansson, Wikimedia Commons

Four o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa) got its name from its flowers that pop open quite quickly at around 4 pm (5 pm under daylight saving time). The trumpet-shaped blooms, white, magenta red or yellow, often splashed with a secondary color, perfume the night, but close before noon the next morning.

Bachelor’s buttons or cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) is an easy-to-grow old-fashioned annual. Just rake the seeds into the soil and water once: it will do the rest. Photo: silverfallsseed.com

Bachelor’s buttons or cornflower (Centaurea cyan’s) has blue (in the original form) to white, pink, red or purple flowers and blooms in just weeks from spring-sown seed. 

Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) is both ornamental and edible. Photo: theherbarium.wordpress.com

Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) is the original marigold: the word “pot” was only added after the French marigold (Tagetes patula) usurped its name. Grandma grew this as a dual-purpose plant, as its flowers were ornamental, but could also be added to soups and other recipes to replace saffron. It too grows quickly from seed sown in situ. 

Perfidious Poppy

The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) produces beautiful flowers, edible seeds and attractive seedpods. Photo: worldoffloweringplants.com 

I’m sure Grandma never realized that those big gaudy poppies she loved to grow were the source of opium, laudanum, heroin and other drugs. In fact, she loved to sprinkle seeds from the beautiful opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) on cakes and biscuits and—my!—didn’t you feel nice and relaxed and sleepy after eating them? The opium poppy, then as now, comes in a wide range of colours and in single and double forms (the latter often called P. paeoniflorum). Sow outdoors just once and it will self-sow annually. The seed capsule is great in dried arrangements.

Many More

Once popular, the easy-to-grow garden balsam (Impatiens balsamina) is now rarely seen in home gardens. Photo: http://www.caribbeangardenseed.com

Of course, there are many more old-fashioned annuals, including garden balsam (Impatiens balsamina), crown daisy (Chrysanthemum coronarium), Joseph’s coat (Amaranthus tricolor), spider flower (Cleome hassleriana), sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), flower-of-an-hour (Hibiscus trionum), mournful widow (Scabiosa atropurpurea) and sweet sultan (Centaurea moschata). (Don’t you just love those old-fashioned names?)

While you may rarely see these flowers in nurseries these days, they’re all still available by mail from seed houses … which is exactly how your grandma ordered them! So take a trip down memory lane and grow some old-fashioned annuals this summer. Grandma would be thrilled!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. After studies at the University of Toronto and Laval University where he obtained his B.A. in modern languages in 1978, he succeeded in combining his language skills with his passion for gardening in a novel career as a garden writer and lecturer. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He is a regular contributor to and horticultural consultant for Fleurs, Plantes, Jardins garden magazine and has written for many other garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening, Rebecca’s Garden and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 50 other titles in English and French. He can be seen in Quebec on French-language television and was notably a regular collaborator for 7 years on the TV shows Fleurs et Jardins and Salut Bonjour Weekend. He is the President of the Garden Writers Association Foundation and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. An avid proponent of garden tourism, he has lead garden tours throughout Canada and to the gardens of over 30 countries over the last 30 years. He presently resides in Quebec City, Quebec.

7 comments on “Old-Fashioned Annuals

  1. The flower you refer to as ‘Batchelor’s Buttons’ are better known in the UK as the Cornflower (and is incidentally, France’s equivalent of the poppy, with regard to commemorating the war casualties & fallen…. )
    Batchelor’s Buttons, in the UK, is the common name given to Ranunculus acris Flore Pleno, a water marginal.

    • I suppose I did know that Batchelor’s Buttons was also Cornflower, but I had no idea that Ranunculus acris Flore Pleno even had a common name! Thank you!

  2. I think sometimes common names are given just because the official botanical latin names are such a mouthful!

  3. Actually, my Iris pallida came from the garden of my maternal-maternal great grandmother. I also grow the same rhubarb that my paternal-paternal great grandfather gave me before kindergarten. I have never found iris or rhubarb that I would prefer.

  4. Hi, I just ran across this article and saw there is mignonette seeds for sale on the Thomas Jefferson Monticello Shop website. I just might try some!

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