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The lilac is one of the prettiest flowers of spring. And just to confuse you entirely, lilacs are really syringas, a name usually given to the mock orange or Philadelphia.
Syringas belong to the ancient olive family, and the name comes from the Greek syrinx, which was first applied to the mock orange. They have a long life span and have been grown since ancient times.
Gardening has a monumental past record of achievement, and there is little that is new in its world, such as the terraced gardens of skyscraper apartments in big cities. Those hark back to the hanging gardens of Babylon. The stepped-back style of city architecture traces its roots to the Aztecs, Incas and Biblical times. In addition to providing sunlight and air, it crates terraces for gardens.
The history of gardening follows exploration, discovery and colonization. It is a living genealogy of human record. No wonder one of the world’s more popular flowers is the forget-me-not.
The story of our country’s early gardens lies before us as a documentary we can follow and observe as we travel highways and make note of roadsides and meadows along the way. This is particularly true in New England states.
We see descendants of plants our earliest settlers brought with them to this country, and they serve as living clues to the daily lives of our founders.
These flowers, described as being introduced by botanists or wildflower collectors, have been termed “adventives” or “escapees.” They were brought to the New World by people who knew they would have a need for them.
Some of them go back in time to antedate bronze or stone artifacts of an earlier civilization.
Some traveled on Norse barges, or Roman or Greek sailing ships. Some came from medieval monastery gardens to Europe and were traded from caravans from Turkey or Armenia.
Brought to the New World on tall ships like the Santa Maria, the Arabella and the Mayflower, these plants were grown in the settlers’ first gardens for use in medical and culinary concoctions.
There is yarrow, originally recommended to Chiron the centaur who, in Greek mythology, is credited with inventing medicine. There is also the prized teazel, valued by clothiers as a special tool and used to this day to fluff wool.
There is St. John’s wort, the oldest of all charms against witches. It is used today as a remedy for rheumatism. And there is scarlet pimpernel, a long-used remedy for whooping cough.
They — and many others — are still there. Some are even dignified today by modern medical use.
How sad is it to think that so often we pass such history by. As we furbish up historic homes, we restore with gardens of herbs and flowers which the original owners never knew.
Perhaps the first garden to be planted by a newcomer was that of Samuel de Champlain, who left an account of what he planted and a sketch of garden plots at his settlement at St. Croix, now a part of Maine.
A few years later, Capt. John Smith planted a garden upon a rocky island near the coast of Maine. His crops grew while he sailed down the coast and claimed land for England.
He discovered cranberries, which he thought would be good to make red dye. The early Norsemen had also been charmed by these red berries and their culinary uses. They named the land Vinland, which had nothing to do with grapes.
One primitive — and possibly prehistoric — belief that governed the choice of medicinal pants was a conviction that whatever the affliction, the remedy would be found close at hand.
For rheumatism aggravated by living in damp, swampy areas, there was willow tree bark. This discovery paid off, since the main ingredient of aspirin is a chemical substitute for the salicylic acid in willow bark.
Digitalis, used in treating heart conditions, is derived from foxglove flowers.
But some plants have been absorbed into mere superstition. One example is stonecrop, which grows mostly on stone roofs.
It was thought that it must grow there for a purpose, and that it surely was a way to ward off witchcraft. And since it only grows on roofs, it was believed to be a preventative of being struck by lightning.
Rue and snakeroot are other plants in this category.
Collecting magical plants used in medical remedies and cooking was called sampling. A marvelous book, “The Art of Sampling,” was published in London in 1657. It rejoiced in the long and extremely convoluted subtitle, “An Introduction to the Noeledge (sic) and Gardening of Plants Which Teacheth the Understanding of All Drugs and the Physical Ingredients, but Especially Plants, Their Divisions, Definitions, Differences, Descriptions, Places, Names, Times, Virtues, Uses, Temperatures and Signatures.”
Of course, it was not only the French and English who influenced the gardens of early America. People from other regions of the world were settling elsewhere in the New World and using their own methods.
Father Junípero Serra established a mission in San Diego in 1796. Other missions were started along the Pacific coast within a few years. Orchards were their specialty, and they brought along olives, pomegranates, figs, lemons, oranges, apples, pears, peaches and grapes.
Father Serra planted date palm seeds in 1770. Other missions were begun about that time. By the beginning of the 19th century, the San Diego Mission was cultivating more than 200 fruit trees.
French settlements at New Orleans, Quebec and along the Mississippi River grew excellent fruit and exotics, while clipper ships fresh from Chinese waters brought their gathered souvenirs form the Orient to the East Coast.
Gardening’s monumental record of achievement has no sign of slowing down for many generations to come!
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.