The Storytelling Garden

Sometimes a good story behind the name of a flower is reason enough to grow them in your garden

Credit: Flickr / AnneTanne

The hardy geranium Mourning Widow

Exploring a garden full of whimsy and tales

Good gardens boast thoughtful colour schemes, varied height, proper soil management, even strong “bones.”  Mine is more higgledy piggledy: tied together by narrative rather than architecture.

Naming the Plants in Your Garden

The names of plants take precedence in my plot. Along the front fence grow, in order: grieving widow (Geranium phaeum), braveheart mallow (Malva sylvestris), and kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate (Polygonum orientale). Those three plants already tell a tale – one I’ll not verify in detail. 

Perhaps I need to add love lies bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus) or bleeding heart (Dicentra)? Actually, I have just planted an entire packet of Catananche caerulea seeds, otherwise known as Cupid’s Dart. These were used in love potions in ancient Greece. I’m happy to report that the plant is perennial, which seems much more auspicious than an annual love plant.

Outside the back fence, much to my dismay, sprawls morning glory (Calystegia sepium), which is called bindweed in England.

The English name is much more evocative. I now imagine myself to be tussling with pythons as I dig into my regular losing battles with the dreaded strangler. Though it might wish to be unbound, alas, my back garden is all tied up.

Storied Exploits

For other plants, it may not be the name that tells the story but the plant itself that begs the story to be told. A good story, in my book, is reason enough to plant a plant. Costmary (Tanacetum balsamita) leaves were traditionally pressed into hymnals by ladies anticipating attacks of drowsiness in church.

Should such adversity strike, the leaf could be withdrawn, rubbed into aromatic life and used to arouse attention. Lordy! Such a divinely magical herb belongs in my garden, even if I don’t attend services. It lives tucked up above a stone retaining wall.

Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) were grown traditionally around latrines so that refined ladies visiting grand houses in the summertime didn’t need to ask the location of the privies. Mine grows along the fence and my terrier, Skookum, has taken the hint. Lady apples date back to the Romans but my favourite story about them was told to me by a Fraser Valley apple grower and concerns the French court of King Louis XIV.

In those days, women wore tight corsets that left them little room to breathe or even to eat. Lady apples are so tiny (the width of two quarters) that a constricted lady might still manage to eat a whole one at a single sitting and yet remain within her stays. In that time before pockets, she would store the diminutive apples in her sleeve, ready to be taken out and enjoyed when she felt she had just enough space to permit it.

Once Upon a Time There was a Garden

Beaded belts, knotted ropes, patchwork quilts and stained-glass windows have all served to remind storytellers of the next event in the tale to be told. Me, I can stroll my garden, trailing a hand along the fronds and petals, divining tales that are illustrated by pressing herbs and flowers into visitors’ hands: Taste this, smell this, look at this; let me tell you what it says. Once upon a time, there was a garden.