Tag Archives: history

10 Weird, Fun Historical Flower Facts

Flowers bring so much life and joy to our gardens. Many flower varieties have interesting and somewhat surprising histories. From revered medicinals to religious symbols, flowers have played a role in different cultures throughout the centuries. Here are a few of the unique ways people used flowers historically.

  1. Delphiniums are named after dolphins.

    Larkspurs or Delphiniums are a colorful favorite for cottage-style gardens. The name Delphinium originated with the ancient Greeks. It’s derived from the Greek word “Delphis,” which means dolphin. The Greeks thought that the flower bud resembled the shape of a dolphin’s nose. Do you see it?
  1. German Chamomile has been revered by many cultures.

    One of the few medicinal herbs still in everyday use, German Chamomile has been used and revered for centuries. We love it for its soothing, anti-inflammatory effects. The Egyptians dedicated it to their sun god, Ra. In Slovakia, you were supposed to bow to the plant when you came across it, and the Saxons believed it was one of the nine sacred herbs. 

  2. Morning Glories were once used in divination rituals.

     First cultivated by the Aztecs, Morning Glories were used for divination rituals. They made a preparation from the seeds, which contain d-lysergic acid amide, or LSA, which has similar effects to LSD. The seeds were ground and then filtered with water which was drunk to produce visions. They are still part of some shamans’ practices today.

    They also used it medicinally, and healers would take the brew to determine the cause of an illness. The seeds were ground into a paste with tobacco leaves and rubbed on affected body parts to treat pain.

  3. Hollyhocks signified outhouses.

    Now characteristic of quaint, cottage gardens these tall, long-blooming flowers once symbolized something different, outhouses. People planted hollyhocks to screen the view of outhouses while also signifying to guests where they were. The phrase “visit the hollyhocks” was a polite way of letting others know you needed to use the outhouse. 

  4. Petunias used to be lanky with small flowers that were either white and purple.

    Most of our modern Petunia varieties come from two species, Petunia axillaris and Petunia violacea that are native to South America. Breeders worldwide worked through the late 1800s and 1900s to breed larger, double, and more colorful flowers that bloomed for longer periods. In 1953 PanAmerican Seed introduced the first truly red petunia, a multiflora called ‘Comanche.’ The first yellow petunia was bred by Claude Hope and introduced in 1977 by Goldsmith Seeds. These and many other introductions have created all the petunias we know today.

  5. Job’s Tears were used to make beer in 3000 BC.

    Today we mainly grow Job’s Tears as an ornamental. They’re gorgeous in the flower garden, and their seeds make lovely, natural beads. Archeologists found their residue along with barley and other plants on pottery found at a Neolithic site in north-central China, indicating they were used to brew beer. 

  6. Marigolds were used to treat hiccups.

    The Aztecs cultivated marigolds for medicinal purposes and bred them for larger blooms. The De La Crus-Badiano Aztec Herbal of 1552 recorded that the Aztecs used marigolds for hiccups, being struck by lightning, or “for one who wishes to cross a river or water safely.”
  1. Bachelor’s Buttons were found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb.

    Archeologists found intact wreaths of Bachelor’s Buttons in the boy king King Tutankhamen’s tomb, including a wreath of Bachelor’s Buttons, olive leaves, and water lily petals around his head.

  2. Sunflowers became popular in Russia because their oil wasn’t banned for lent.

    While the Native Americans had been cultivating sunflowers for food, medicine, dye, and oil as far back as 3000 BCE, they weren’t brought to Russia until the turn of the 19th century.

    A diktat issued by the Russian Orthodox Church in the 18th century banned the consumption of foods made from various oils and fats during Lent. The list of banned foods omitted sunflower oil resulting in a boom of sunflower cultivation and the eventual breeding of the popular variety, ‘Mammoth Russian.’

  3. Zinnias used to be considered hard on the eyes.

    The Aztecs referred to zinnias as an eyesore. The Spanish agreed, calling them “mal de ojos” or evil eyes. At the time, zinnias were small with scraggly foliage and muddy orange or yellow flowers. Despite attempts by companies to sell seeds in the U.S. and Europe, they didn’t become a popular garden flower until the 1880s, when French horticulturists began experimenting with breeding zinnias.

Flowers have played important roles throughout history. These are just 10 of the unique ways they’ve been used. Have you heard any of these unusual flower facts?

Heirlooms of the Americas

In all the history that it’s jammed into a school education very little of it involves plants. You get the big names quickly glanced over as you go through the history of the United States. The Native Americans cultivated corn, beans, and squash and shared them with the Pilgrims. There may even be a mention of the “three sisters garden.” Tobacco and cotton will also be mentioned but on a whole the role of plants in history is largely understated.

Though it may be poorly recorded there is more to American history than conquests, battles, and political upheaval. There’s all the everyday folks and the plants that sustained them and they’re important too. Knowing where crops came from can better connect us with the land, history, and culture. These are some of the plants that evolved in the Americas along side its people and will continue to grow and evolve to face the changing world if we continue to protect them.

Sunflowers

The sunflower is one of the many crops that was first cultivated by Native Americans. Evidence suggests that it may have been grown in what’s now Arizona and New Mexico as early as 3000 BC. In our edible flowers post we discuss its versatility as a food crop.

Amaranth

Golden Amaranth

Like tomatoes, amaranth is in fact an ancient Aztec grain. It was so important it is estimated that it made up about 80% of the Aztec’s diet at the time the Spanish arrived.

Potatoes

If you’re anything like me it can be tough to imagine a world without French fries but like many American crops, potatoes didn’t make their way into the European diet until the 16th century even though it is estimated that they were cultivated for over 10,000 years. Potatoes are actually indigenous to the Andes and were being grown in what’s now southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia when the Spanish were first introduced to them. 

Butterfly Weed

It may not be an important food crop for humans but butterfly weed plays an important role for pollinators as the name suggests. It’s native to North America and adding some to your garden can help attract butterflies. 

Tomatillos

Today in the United States tomatillos are largely overlooked except for the occasional salsa verde. However historians believe that they were probably a major part of both the Mayan and Aztec diets for at least 1000 years prior to Spanish colonization.

Sweet Potatoes

Carolina Ruby Sweet Potato

Today sweet potatoes seem to be a bit underrated in the United States. They’re mostly reserved for thanksgiving meals and we can find just a couple varieties on the supermarket shelves. However sweet potatoes have a long history. We know that they were cultivated in South America and the Caribbean by 2500 BC and that members of the Columbus expedition were the first Europeans to taste sweet potatoes in 1492. Interestingly, scientists were able to radiocarbon-date sweet potatoes to the Cook Islands (part of Polynesia) as early as 1000 AD. The working theory is that the Polynesians who have a maritime culture probably traveled to South America and brought sweet potatoes back with them. 

Peppers

Peppers actually have a rather blurry history. Though we know that they were first encountered by Europeans during the Columbus expedition when they were domesticated and by whom is still unknown. On a broad scale peppers have long been cultivated in South America however it seems as though peppers were domesticated at different times by different groups.

Tomatoes

If you ask someone to guess where the tomato comes from they might guess Italy and because almost every dish you purchase in any Italian restaurant in the United States comes slathered in tomato sauce that really is a fair guess. However it’ completely incorrect. The tomato is actually native to South America and wasn’t brought to Europe until the 16th century! Though its history is relatively unknown it’s believed that it was being cultivated by the Aztecs in what’s now southern Mexico as early as 500 BC.

Avocandos

Avocado trees (Persea americana) can be found in both standard and dwarf varieties. Guatemalan, West Indian and Mexican are the three main species of standard avocado trees. While they vary in fruit size, texture and maturity rate, these types of trees all reach an average avocado tree height of between 30 and 40 feet, though they can grow up to 80 feet tall. Dwarf varieties, such as the Wurtz avocado, reach an average height of 10 feet.

Bergamot

Also called monarda or bee balm, bergamot was grown and used medicinally by many Native American tribes. It’s also a favorite of hummingbirds and butterflies.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of American varieties. There’s the aforementioned squash, beans, and corn as well as a host of other crops like blueberries, papas, avocados, cacao, chia, and quinoa. These are just a few varieties whose history is often overlooked that can easily be incorporated into a family garden. Growing, eating, and saving seed from these plants can help keep history and culture alive.

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How to Choose Plant Varieties

It’s so easy to flip through the seed catalog each winter circling varieties you want to plant only to flip back through and realize there’s more circled than not.

Despite the fact that common advice for the new gardener is, “start small.” There’s not a whole lot of good advice about how to make the tough calls when it comes around to seed order time. Hopefully these ideas will make the decisions a little less difficult.

Location, location, location.

While some varieties do well almost anywhere others need a little special consideration. If you’re from Vermont you’ll probably have better luck with a watermelon like Blacktail Mountain (73 days) than Amish Moon and Stars (100 days). This is not to say it’s impossible just that it’s easier and having some successes will inspire you to keep growing.

Grow what brings you joy.

Amy’s Apricot Mix Cherry Tomato

Another classic tidbit of advice is “grow what you know your family will eat” but sometimes I think that’s a bit over-rated. Don’t feel obligated to grow a ton of paste tomatoes just because your family eats a lot of spaghetti sauce if you hate canning so much you won’t be invested in the plants. If you’ve only got space for a few varieties and seeing a rainbow of cherry tomatoes or slicers is what inspires you and your kids to get out in the garden opt for them instead!

Consider your how much room you have.

If you want to try a ton of varieties but only have a small garden just make sure you select space saving varities. Opt for a bush type squash like Table Queen instead of letting Burgess Buttercups sprawl all over your garden. If you have a fence you may want to grow pole beans up it instead of growing rows of bush beans.

Plan out your space.

On the same note if you have at least a general plan of what your garden will look like this year you can write down a general idea of what you need before opening the catalog to help you stay on track. For example you’ll know how much space you have dedicated to carrots and therefore a better idea about how many varieties you may want to try. You can find Southern Exposure’s garden planner here.

Ask local gardeners and farmers.

Other growers in your area will know about certain varieties that work well or don’t in your specific location. They’ll also have ideas about their personal favorite varieties that you might want to try.

Grow what’s hard to get.

If you’re short on space or time you may want to pick varieties that aren’t readily available in your area. For example if you know there’s a lot of organic spring greens and radishes available at your farmers market you may want to use an area of your garden for snap peas instead.

Fall in love with a story.

Belle Isle Cress

Not every variety comes with a really cool history but some do. If there’s a story that really stands out in your mind like how “Radiator Charlie” paid off his house after developing the Mortgage Lifter Tomato or how shipwrecked Portuguese sailors survived a Canadian winter on Belle Isle Cress pick that variety. Your excitement will help keep heirlooms alive everytime you share that story with someone visiting your garden.

Try to find a variety that connects you with your heritage and culture.

Not that far in the past everyone had a garden and cooked from scratch. If you can find out what your grandparents favorite varieties were or more generally what varieties you share some heritage with you can help re-awaken cultural food ways. You may even find yourself more inspired to maintain family gardens and recipes.

 

Above all else choose what you love. Don’t let worry about having a “good” garden control your choices. If you love spending time in your garden with the varieties you’ve chosen that’s really all that matters.

 

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