Gardener Propagates Posies From The Past

July 28, 1991|By Lynn Williams

Some plants are indubitable antiques: towering sequoias, mighty oaks centuries old, the cherry trees of Williamsburg which, despite their gnarled, ancient appearance, still manage to bloom every year.

But can something as delicate and ephemeral as a flower merit the "antique" designation?

As Katherine Whiteside uses the term, antique flowers are those old-fashioned species that flourished in the Colonial gardens and English cottage borders of a bygone age, but which have been neglected in this era's search for larger or showier blooms.

Floral antiques (which have been in propagation for over 100 years) are still with us, though. And gardeners are beginning to realize that the old varieties (which often bear delightful folk names: dame's rocket, wee-folk's stockings, bachelor's button, love-in-idleness) are often more fragrant, more disease-resistant and more just-plain-charming than modern hybrids.

"Gardens definitely look better when they have older species in them, and it's more exciting to garden when you use flowers that have a history," says Ms. Whiteside, author of "Antique Flowers: A Guide to Using Old-Fashioned Species in Contemporary Gardens" (Villard Books, 1990), an engagingly written coffee-table volume that is packed with history and folklore, and was intensively researched with the assistance of antique gardening guides and some notable authorities in the field, including John T. Fitzpatrick of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants at Monticello.

Still to come is "Classic Bulbs," also a collaboration with her British husband, photographer Mick Hales.

The author has carved herself a secure niche as one of the country's best-known gardening writers, traveling around the world (frequently with Mr. Hales) on assignment for such publications as HG (House and Garden), Garden Design, Historic Preservation, Metropolitan Home and Landscape Architecture.

One prestigious project for the pair was the chapter they did for the book "Gardens of the World" (Macmillan, 1991); they also served as consultants for the affiliated PBS series starring Audrey Hepburn. As the youngest team on the project, they were assigned the most demanding segment, on tropical gardens, which took them to Hawaii, Bali, Singapore and Sri Lanka.

"We went around the world, and photographed 15 gardens that had never been photographed before," Ms. Whiteside remembers. "We were in some very rugged situations -- elephants would be walking by, and there were monkeys in the trees, and we would have to get out and work after some very hairy car rides on little dirt roads. It was amazing. I've never been so tired, though."

Ms. Whiteside and Ms. Hales have been approached to do any number of books, but, she says, "There are an awful lot of garden books, and I decided I wasn't going to do books just to do them."

The "old-fashioned flowers" idea took hold, though, and wouldn't let go.

However, the terminology needed spiffing up. "Old-fashioned" can have negative connotations as well as positive ones, and instead of calling to mind country-garden perennials -- old, yes, but ever-fresh -- it just might suggest the dusty petunias growing next to grandma's garage. "Antiques," on the other hand, keep their class and their charm whatever their age.

The flowers which appear in the pages of "Antique Flowers" have been cherished since antiquity in some cases, and for centuries provided food, medicine, aesthetic pleasure and spiritual sustenance to our ancestors. But many, alas, went out of fashion. They may have been too simple and cottagy for the formal gardens of the exotica-loving Victorians, or may have been nearly hybridized out of existence, or perhaps just succumbed to the doldrums that hit the gardening world after World War II.

"Grand gardening still existed between the wars, and gardening was an everyday part of people's lives," Ms. Whiteside explains. "After the war, people stopped. Older people kept up with it, but our mothers didn't do it so much. They had their hostas and their azaleas and their dogwoods, but they didn't do borders.

"It seems that life had just gotten exhausting for people of that generation. They'd been through a lot, and right after the war they started raising children. I'm sure some social historian could explain it."

"But then our generation came along," continues Ms. Whiteside, who is in her 30s. "I think being hippies has everything to do with why people like to garden again. We did a lot of backpacking, and enjoyed being outside."

Mix the hippie reverence for nature with the yuppie hard-work ethic and nesting instinct, and you have a full-scale gardening revival.

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