From time to time it’s fun to look back on gardening trends to appreciate how necessity and the social conversations of the day influenced garden choices. European flower markets, for example, influenced colonial flower gardens. Today’s flower conversations with an eye on trends leads to an interesting question. Should colonial flower gardens be classified as history’s weed gardens? Consider the benefits and costs associated with the following flower plants and then make your own decision.
From colonial times to the present, the labeling of flowering plants began to change. At one time the following plants were considered welcomed ornamentals. Today, in many regions of the country, they are labeled as invasive. Foxglove fits that description to a tee. The bright bell flowers of Foxglove appeal to many gardeners’ eyes. It’s no wonder that colonial gardeners might want these nice blooming flowers in the garden.
At the same time its also important to note that the flowers and plants are poisonous when ingested by both humans and animals. They grow aggressively in the wild and can crowd out native plant growth.
With its bright pink flowers, the Perennial Pea or Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus latifolius) easily fits into the nice looking weed category.
Technically called a flowering vine, perennial pea grows well in most sunny areas in the USDA Hardiness Zone 4 – 7 range.
Two hundred plus years later, the plant has spread across the country, growing aggressively enough in some areas to be considered a noxious weed. In other areas, it grows an an ornamental, turning walls, fences and trellises a shocking pink, red or white color during the summer growing season.
Scotch Broom (Cytisus scoparius), a member of the Pea family (Fabaceae), is labeled as an invasive plant, causing ecosystem disruption on both the East and West Coasts of the United States.
Depending on the variety, Scotch Broom produces large colorful flowers in shades of red and yellow. Colonists were less aware of the plant’s extra-hardy nature. It grows to heights of nine feet, develops a deep taproot, and is a prolific seed producer.
All these factors combined over time to help spread Scotch Broom over large areas of land, where it became the dominant species, effectively diminishing space for native plant growth.
Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum), one of many plants introduced during colonial times, now thrives to the point of being labeled an invasive in many areas of the United States. Growing up to six feet tall, it resembles a thistle on a corn stalk. Multiple small flowers bloom on the plant’s spiked flower heads, and today the stems and flower heads are often cut, dried and used in flower arrangements.
Like many weeds, teasel produces a long taproot. Removing the entire root, at any time during the plant’s growing cycle, removes the plant.
The cornflower or Bachelor’s Button (Centaurea cyanus), a native European species introduced into many a Colonial garden, including Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello, subsequently escaped into the natural environment and became established throughout the United States.
The bright blue flowers explain the plant’s ornamental popularity. Additionally, it brings with it a medicinal and food source history. Today, it can be classified as either a weed or an ornamental, depending on its growing location.
The Rose Campion (Lychnis coronarius), another very easy to grow garden perennial is native to Europe and North Africa, the plant was introduced to American during Colonial times, and it can now be found growing wild on both coasts.
It also grows in a variety of garden settings from low to high elevations, and depending on the species, produces dependable red or white flowers during the summer months.
Edible Flowers in Colonial Gardens
Colonial gardens were also great places to include edible flowers to supplement the vegetable garden. Records show Thomas Jefferson introduced Purple Salsify or Goat’s Beard into his garden. They are very showy plants, with some growing up to five feet in height. Add the fact that the plant is edible, many Europeans cooked it similar to other root vegetables, and you have the makings of a flowery colonial garden that provides a nutritional extra.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) also once held an honored place in colonial gardens.The plant’s blue multi-petal blooms place it squarely in the daisy family (Asteraceae). Young edible leaves have a history of use as a salad ingredient as well as cattle feed. Chicory also makes news in the beverage market. Dried, cut and placed in boiling water, the root produces a caffeine free coffee-like beverage.
So it goes with weeds, commonly characterized as the unwanted plants in any particular area of land, including lawns and gardens.