Flowers of yore



Many of us will be starting seeds or (like me) ordering seedlings over the next few months. I mail-order annuals every spring, and to many of my friends—and, I am sure, to many of you—this must seem incredibly prodigal. Bad enough to spend money at local nurseries for the yearly filler for hanging baskets and planters, but to actually have annuals shipped in from such vendors as Select Seeds? Most of my gardener friends in Buffalo would never consider such a thing. The thing is, over the years, I have developed a nostalgic yearning for old-fashioned flowers such as white heliotrope, nicotiana alata, polygonun orientale (kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate) and reseda odorata (mignonette). I don’t know about you, but it makes me happy simply to type kiss me over the garden gate. Not to mention love in a mist or love in a puff.


Nostalgia is all very well—but how to actually grow these flowers? Here’s a Garden Rant fan who’s written a book about it: Lynn Coulter’s Gardening with Heirloom Seeds. (Chapel Hill, 2006) Some of you may be familiar, as the book has been out for a year, but it was news to me. Coulter organizes her survey of heirloom flowers and vegetables by season, beginning with beets, sweet peas, and larkspur and ending with winter squash and “green envy” zinnias.

I’ll be honest. I only rarely grow from seed, and therefore feel barely qualified to discuss this book, but I will say this: it inspired me to try. I was particularly taken by the discussions of old-fashioned flowers: sweet peas, unusual nasturtiums, and bizarre-looking zinnias. They made me think: “This is the year I’ll grow Black Knight sweet peas and Miss Jeckyll Rose nigella. Maybe even mignonette.” Coulter includes descriptions of various cultivars and hybrids, alphabetical (by common name with botanical name after) within each season, and then gives advice about how to grow them, with room for notes on the side.

The book is beautifully illustrated, though I would have liked to see seed packet graphics from other companies than Renee’s Garden. Not that I’m bothered by mentions of vendors; how many of us have told other gardeners about a plant we love without then being asked “Where can I get it?” I’d add Select Seeds, Annie’s Annuals, Jung’s, and a bunch of other companies to the list of those who could provide seeds (or plants) of many of the cultivars Coulter discusses.

Like I said, it’s inspiring. We’ll see how inspired I get in the summer, when I may or may not have pictures of love in a puff to show you (with a Buffalo News in the background to prove I grew it!).

And here’s an old-fashioned ending for an old-fashioned post.


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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Elizabeth, I grow sweet peas and nasturtiums every year. The great thing about them is that you don’t have to start the seeds in the house. The sweet peas simply go into the cold ground in late March or April. And the nasturtiums when all danger of frost has passed.

    My favorite sweetpea is the old-fashioned matucana, an interesting combination rust and purple with a stunning fragrance. With nasturtiums, I like the trailing ones. Last year, I let them grow up a tuteur. In previous years, I’ve allowed them to crawl out from the flower-beds over the lawn, which makes mowing tricky, but amuses me.

  2. I think it’s great that you’re trying new things. I’ve always found seeds very forgiving — I once upended a just-planted 14″ pot of morning glory seeds, and even though the soil went back in every which way, they sprouted and bloomed as if nothing had happened.

    Sweet pea, nasturtium, and morning glory were never-fail staples when I had a container garden that got 3-4 hours of northeast sun.

    Morning glories are fairly easy to grow. They need warmth to germinate, but they’ll do fine with limited sun and like to have cool ‘feet.’

    The great thing about Select Seeds is they tell you when the varieties were first introduced. My favorites are the ‘from an 18xx catalog’ types.

  3. Elizabeth, I’m happy that you liked my book! ‘Course, I was a Garden Rant fan before I saw your post today, too.

    For anyone who wants to ease into seed-sowing, I’d suggest larkspurs, which grow even when I fling them over the cement-like clay that passes for dirt in my Georgia garden.

    Marilyn Barlow, at Select Seeds, used to offer ‘Bunny Bloom,’ but I don’t see it in her 2008 catalog. But they do have ‘Giant Imperial’ larkspur seeds this year, which produce wonderful old-fashioned flowers that are full and dense enough to cut and bring indoors. Sometimes my larkspurs are too spindly-looking for a decent bouquet…but then we did have a record-breaking drought here last year.

  4. Fear not the seed, Elizabeth! The scent of the nicotiana, stock, and sweet peas alone is reason to give it a try. Nasturtiums like Michele mentioned are also great…but they’re wildlings in my gardens, so enthusiastic are they to procreate. And mignonette! Sigh! What leads ME down this path is I just can’t buy these things as seedlings: which for many of us is reason alone (thus our gardens are therefore not our other Home Depot-shopped neighbors’).

  5. Mostly I only plant vegetable seeds because you get so many seeds in a packet and I don’t have room for too many flowers. I don’t have much room for seed starting in the house either so I love seeds that go right in the ground like wonderfully fragrant sweet peas, rambunctious nastursiums, bright zinnias and morning glories. They are easy and dependable and a joy to behold.

  6. Since I’m in the school of gardening by benign neglect I like to grow frm seed by direct-sowing – basically just throw it down and let it grow – or not. Forthat I love the old standbys – hollyhocks, cosmos, alyssum, marigolds, zinnias, etc. I consider it a nice surprise with little investment of time or money if they make it and flower – and most usually do.

  7. Elizabeth,
    Thank you, thank you for a distraction from installing a new shop computer. I have few technical skills, so I am taking a break (possibly the entire afternoon or a month) to re-establish my self-confidence with a little garden designing and seed ordering. On my old, out of date, slow as-a-snail computer.

  8. Thanks all–though I meant to focus attention on a cool book more than congratulate myself on trying seeds for once. The few times I have before, the only ones I’ve had the least success with are nasturtiums. You need plenty of sun for morning glories and sweet peas. That’s my sense anyway.

  9. Thanks for the recommendation — I need this book right away! I went a little over the top ordering flower seeds last year (including mignonette). But was only successful with the zinnias.

  10. Love in a Puff ? what a great name. Not one I have heard before but one that I shall forthwith begin using at every opportunity. “Have you ever met my friend Love in a Puff?”, “Your Love in a Puff looks charming” or (if in Russia) “Sergei Loveinapuff, at your service, Madam”. So much more interesting than Love in a Mist or, indeed, Nigella.

  11. I’ll look again for ‘Bunny Bloom’ in the Select Seeds catalog, and thanks for the head’s-up. I kept meaning to order some, and then couldn’t find them again.

    Thanks too for the kind words about my book! So glad you liked it!

  12. Did anyone find the Bunny Bloom Larkspur (Consolida Ambigua Bunny Bloom) seeds? I have very fond memories of the flowers from my mother’s garden—in Mississippi, they never failed to bloom at Easter—and have been looking for them for some time but did not see them in the Select Seeds catalogue or on the Select Seeds website. Thanks for any leads!

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