Old-fashioned, Elegant Flowers

Seek out flowers from days gone by for a touch of old-fashioned elegance.

Credit: John Glover

Myosotis sylvatica ‘Music’

Seek out flowers from days gone by for a touch of old-fashioned elegance

As a young child I was often taken to visit gardens of stately homes, plus I had two aunts and an uncle who worked for families with large, elegant gardens, so early encounters with certain plants – ones with what I would call old-fashioned elegance – are most definitely etched in my mind.

Let’s start with spring. Daffodils and narcissi (which, botanically, are all Narcissus, of course) were and still are a joy to behold. Seeing them naturalized in large drifts on lawns was always a thrill. All the big showy ones come out with a flourish in April and then, just when it all seems to be over, the poet’s narcissus begins to bloom, wafting its heavy perfume throughout the garden.

Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus was known locally as pheasant-eye narcissus because of the intricate colouring of the corona, or cup, in the centre: green, then yellow, and edged with bright red. The surrounding petals (the perianth) are pure white and, as the name suggests, are slightly recurved. Each flower is borne singly on a 35-cm (14-in.) stem.

According to the Reader’s Digest A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants, this species is native to Switzerland. Like all narcissi, it prefers an open sunny spot in moderately fertile, well-drained soil that has adequate moisture during the growing season. It is, of course, much more spectacular if planted in clumps. Plant the bulbs in fall, covered by 7 cm (3 in.) of soil.

Parrot tulips (Tulipa) are the other magical bulbs of spring. In fact, both poet’s narcissus and parrot tulip are featured in those old Flemish paintings of what look like giant, make-believe flower arrangements in elegant porcelain vases. Such pictures were often hung in stately homes and, as a young child, I didn’t believe some of the flowers were actually real! Imagine my amazement, then, when I saw clumps of parrot tulips in a long border. Their red-and-green tepals looked just like parrot feathers.

The beauty I first saw so many years ago was called ‘Rococo’. Parrot tulips aren’t to everyone’s taste. The flowers are 15 cm (6 in.) or so across and are borne singly on 40-cm (16-in.) stems. The intricately feathered edges of the petals catch rain and cause the blooms to fall over, particularly in coastal B.C. gardens. But they are wonderful as cut flowers – and still magical to me. Parrot tulips prefer the same kind of soil and planting conditions as narcissi.

Other cultivars to look for include Tulipa ‘Orange Favourite’, which looks good enough to eat – like a giant orange Jell-O! Tulipa ‘Black Parrot’ is also stunning – a deep-maroon colour. And a more recent introduction is Tulipa ‘Texas Gold’, which, as the name suggests, has bright-yellow flowers.

Another classic bulb that was always featured in those paintings was the crown imperial lily, Fritillaria imperialis. It is found growing naturally from southern Turkey through to Kashmir and is a hardy plant that prefers fertile, but well-drained, soil in a sunny spot. The bulbs, as many of you probably know, have a distinctive odour, a bit like skunk! Your nose will let you know exactly where they are in the nursery or garden centre in the fall. The strong scent from the roots and bulbs will deter moles in the garden.

fritillaria imperialis 'Garland Star' Fritillaria imperialis ‘Garland Star’

But back to the grandeur of this plant: the stem can be up to a metre (39 in.) in height with whorls of lance-shaped, light-green leaves all the way up. The flowers, borne near the top in three to eight bell-shaped umbels, can be orange, yellow and sometimes red. Each pendant flower is some 6 cm (2 to 3 in.) in length with white stigma and stamens protruding from its centre. The top of the stem is crowned with yet another whorl of leaves, which gives the plant its common name. If you can, turn the bells up carefully so you can see inside, where each petal has a large drop of nectar at its base. These are magnificent plants, so don’t let the smell put you off growing them!

One more tip about all spring-flowering bulbs: once they start to flower give them a shot of fertilizer, then, as the flowers fade, pick them off but keep watering so the foliage grows strongly for about three weeks or so. Trust me – that shot of fertilizer will ensure good flowering the following spring.

Forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica) definitely falls into the old-fashioned elegance category, and there are many different cultivars of this short-lived perennial that is usually just grown as a biennial. Some hardier forms will reseed themselves year after year if happy in your garden.

They are native to southern Europe and grow well in moderately fertile to poorly drained soil. I believe they are happier in partial shade, possibly where there is morning sun and protection from the hot afternoon heat. They bloom in spring and were the common underplanting for tulips in stately garden borders. My absolute favourite combination is deep-blue Myosotis sylvatica ‘Music’ planted with apricot/orange Tulipa ‘Generaal de Wet’.

To get the best results, sow forget-me-nots where they are to bloom, although some of the named cultivars can be sown in pots of not-too-fertile potting soil mix with equal parts of soil, peat and sand, preferably with no added fertilizer. Otherwise the seedlings become too soft and leggy, which makes them susceptible to mildew and other fungal diseases.

Right up there with forget-me-nots are pansies. I have an old framed picture of Queen Victoria from an almanac commemorating her golden-jubilee year. The date and month squares are hidden by two little Valentine’s cards that not only feature cherubs, but also pansies and forget-me-nots.

My grandmother grew pansies in her garden, and when I served my apprenticeship years we bedded out pansies every spring – always Swiss Giant forms. But let me tell you, it wasn’t until I was head gardener at Chateau Lake Louise that I discovered what Swiss Giant pansies could really do, I guess because the parents of these plants originated in the mountains of Europe. The high altitude, brighter sun and cool nights really make these plants perform.

The majority of bedding pansies are Viola x wittrockiana cultivars, of which there are many series. The Princess Series, for example, has smaller flowers in many clear colours with beautiful dark lines on the faces of the yellow or white ones. In recent years, the Jolly Joker Series was introduced, with stunning deep-purple and orange flowers.

There are so many to choose from, but the key to success with all of them is rich, well-drained soil and lots of sunshine. Then their bright little faces will bring smiles to yours. Again, they are best treated as biennials.

The really old-fashioned member of this family is Viola tricolor, or hearts-ease, which was used medicinally. It is a lovely, spreading, sometimes self-seeding plant with small 2.5-cm (1-in.) flowers; the top two petals are dark mauve, the next two are lavender, the bottom lip is yellow and all have the distinct black line markings.

Tulipa 'Texas Gold' Tulipa ‘Texas Gold’

Moving on to summer flowers, peony is a truly hardy and elegant late-spring/early-summer classic. Peonies tend to be susceptible to fungal and bacterial diseases, so are much happier in interior and northern gardens than on the wetter B.C. coast. Traditional stately homes had vast perennial beds, and peonies were always some of the earliest flowers to bloom. My favourites were the big single cultivars, in particular Paeonia lactiflora ‘Bowl of Beauty’, which has large, dark-pink flowers 15 cm (6 in.) or more across with a dense creamy-white centre composed of many crowded narrow petaloids. Paeonia lactiflora ‘Dawn Pink’ is another at the top of the list, with rich-pink petals and bright-yellow stamens in the centre. Its faint scent is an added bonus. This is just a tiny example of what is available: there are 30 or more species to choose from and dozens of named cultivars.

At planting time, peonies require rich, deeply worked, well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter added. They love full sun and, once established, seem to thrive on neglect. But in a mixed perennial border, an annual spring dressing of well-rotted manure or compost will definitely help produce good blooms.

Peonies don’t take well to being moved. If you have to do so, make sure they are carefully replanted at the same depth and, if possible, with the same orientation, that is, the same side of the plant facing the sun as it was in its original position.

Roses have always been known for elegance and charm. A classic rose bed at the house where my mother worked was composed of large, strong-growing pink roses underplanted with lavender. I have forgotten the name of the rose, but if I were to re-create such a border, I would go for Rosa ‘Fragrant Delight’, which is a hybrid tea of willowy habit and reddish-green foliage producing an abundance of salmon-pink scented flowers from summer to autumn.

If you can’t find ‘Fragrant Delight’, a wonderful substitute would be Rosa ‘Peachy Cream’, which has a rich peach/apricot colour and looks stunning with Lavandula angustifolia ‘Lady’. Roses tend to like heavier, clay-type soils with plenty of organic matter added to allow for decent drainage. Lavender prefers well-drained soil and doesn’t mind some organic matter. After all these years I still grow Lavandula angustifolia ‘Twickel Purple’ because of its low-growing habit (60 cm/2 ft.) and rich-purple flower spikes in midsummer. It’s a perfect complement for roses.

There are many other flowers that fall into the old-fashioned elegant category, and I haven’t even touched on climbing plants, honeysuckle being one. Seek out Lonicera periclymenum ‘Serotina’, the later-flowering Dutch honeysuckle, which has creamy-white, scented flowers with dark reddish-purple streaks. Clematis is another whole group of elegant climbers. I know I am such a traditionalist, but I still adore good old-fashioned Clematis ‘Jackmanii’. You can’t beat its hardiness, prolific growth and stunning, dark-purple flowers. For a perfect combination, let it clamber over an arbour along with the climbing Rosa ‘Albertine’ or with the old-fashioned rambler ‘Dorothy Perkins’, as seen in the gorgeous photo leading this article.

The bottom line is, we all have our own memories of those perfect, old-fashioned, elegant plants, and gardening is a very personal endeavor, so go ahead and include your own reminiscences in your garden.

The following plants are hardy to the zone numbers indicated (turn to page 6 for our zone chart): Clematis ‘Jackmanii’ – zone 4 • Fritillaria imperialis (crown imperial lily) – zone 5 • Lavandula angustifolia ‘Twickel Purple’ (lavender) – zone 5 • Lonicera periclymenum ‘Serotina’ (late Dutch honeysuckle) – zone 5 • Myosotis sylvatica ‘Music’ (forget-me-not) – zone 5 • Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus (pheasant-eye daffodil) – zone 5 • Paeonia ‘Bowl of Beauty’, ‘Dawn Pink’ (peony) – zone 4 • Rosa ‘Albertine’ (climbing rose) – zone 5 • Rosa ‘Dorothy Perkins’ (rambler) – zone 5 • Rosa ‘Fragrant Delight’ (hybrid tea rose) – zone 5 • Rosa ‘Peachy Cream’ (shrub) – zone 5 • Tulipa ‘Generaal de Wet’ (single early tulip) – zone 4 • Tulipa ‘Rococo’, ‘Orange Favourite’, ‘Black Parrot’, ‘Texas Gold’ (parrot tulips) – zone 4 • Viola tricolor (hearts-ease) – zone 4 • Viola x wittrockiana (pansy) – zone 4

David Tarrant is a well-known gardening expert, author, and host of “Spring” on HGTV. Read his blog.

PHOTOS: John Glover: Myosotis sylvatica, Viola tricolor, Viola x wittrockiana; courtesy of Netherlands Flower Bulb: Fritillaria imperialis, Tulipa ‘Orange Favourite’, Tulipa ‘Texus Gold’.