Pioneer Flower Gardens
Nature Bulletin No. 268-A May 6, 1967
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F, Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
PIONEER FLOWER GARDENS
One day this spring, while following an abandoned trail through a deep
forest, we came upon a small clearing, At the north edge of it stood a
tall red cedar, two huge cottonwood trees, and behind them there was a
slight depression surrounded by a sod-bound rectangle of rocks marking
the site of some pioneer' s home. Close by there were two lilac bushes, a
snowball bush, and some honeysuckle -- all very old, large and
unkempt. There was a big patch of bright yellow-green shoots of the
Tawny Day Lily, some young hollyhocks, and a great colony of
crocuses which apparently no longer bloom. It brought nostalgic
memories of "the old home place" and grandmother' s garden of posies.
Around such forsaken homesites we often find decrepit fruit trees and
tangled thickets of lilac, spirea, honeysuckle, mock orange, snowball
bush, flowering quince, roses, trumpet creeper and other old-fashioned
ornamental shrubs and vines. Near the old dooryards we find clumps of
hollyhocks, sunflowers, morning glories, iris, lily-of-the-valley, phlox,
periwinkle and other flowering perennials that have managed to survive
and still bloom. Some like the Day Lily, Bouncing Bet, the Coreopsis or
Tickseed, and the Daisy have escaped and become conspicuous
nowering weeds along our roadsides and railroads.
All of these plants, like the immigrants who brought them, were
newcomers to America. Native wildflowers were admired in their
natural setting, as they are today, but few were considered suitable for a
flower bed. In those days, a garden had to be enclosed, usually with a
picket fence, to keep out chickens, pigs and other livestock, Flowers
and vegetables were both planted inside, with the perennials most often
in borders around the fence, Some flowers were grown for their
blossoms alone but many had other uses for flavoring, medicines,
perfumes and dyes. Lavender, with its straplike whitened leaves and
purple bloom, was dried and used to perfume stored bedding and
clothing if the dried fruits of the flowering quince were not available for
that purpose. Foxglove or Digitalis doubled as a flower and as a heart
remedy. The powdered roots of the fragrant lily-of-the-valley were used
as an effective substitute for digitalis. Flax, with its exquisite satiny sky-
blue flowers, produced seeds which were used for poultices and to
remove a cinder or a bit of chaff from an inflamed eye.
Nasturtiums furnished leaves and seeds for flavoring pickles and salads.
The poppy shed its gaudy petals to leave a pepperbox-like pod full of
seed used in baking. The sage had large purple flowers and its dried
leaves provided seasoning for sausage and dressing. The crushed leaves
and stems of the Bouncing Bet or Soapwort, with its lavender blossoms,
made an excellent substitute for soap.
Among the other old flowers, loved for just their blooms, are the
bleeding heart, cockscomb, mignonette, forget-me-net, daffodil,
larkspur, the rose moss or Portulaca in several colors, and many kinds
of petunias and sweet peas. Pansies were cultivated because of their
colorful "baby faces". The clove-scented pinks were frequently chosen
by our grandfathers for their buttonholes.
Among the thousand-odd varieties of roses grown in America today, a
few hardy old favorites have come down to us from those early gardens.
The fragrant cabbage rose, with its flat solid flower in hues of pink and
white, is one. The tall yellow rose with small petals and very thorny
stems -- Harrison's Yellow -- is another. Some places, we still find a
purplish-black broad-petalled single rose in dense low thickets.
These are living remnants of the dreams of those pioneer men and
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Update: June 2012