The Southern Heirloom Garden

By Dr. William C. Welch
Professor and Landscape Horticulturist
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas

oth immigrants and Native Americans played their parts in building our nation, and both have contributed greatly to the beauty of our Southern gardens. The immigrants contributed diversity, and with it the fruits and flowers of many different cultural, economic, and religious traditions. Each immigrant brought from a distant homeland a mental picture of what a garden ought to be. Of course, new gardens were often simpler due to frontier conditions and priorities for food and shelter. But gardens also served new arrivals as links to the life they left behind. For each group brought treasured seeds and cuttings – remembrances of homes and family that were sometimes oceans away.

We sometimes overlook the traditions and contributions of Native Americans, who had lived in relative harmony with the natural environment long before colonists arrived. The impact of Native Americans on our land was important both for the physical changes they made and for their philosophy of respect for the land. Native Americans domesticated many of the plants that are still central to the Southern garden, and in many ways created the outlines along which the Southern landscape developed.

Research relating to garden design and heirloom plants involves many academic disciplines. History, geography, archeology, and language are some examples.

The resources at a major land grant university such as Oklahoma State University or Texas A&M offer many opportunities for collaboration. An example is that of our Texas A&M modern languages department, which has a faculty member with a specialty in colonial era Spanish who was willing to provide useful guidance for my research. The work I did relating to the Spanish influence on our gardens led me to primary source documents written by Spanish missionaries to Mexico who observed gardens there in the 1530s.

The plants grown by our ancestors are heirlooms, or living antiques, because they are tangible symbols of success for generations of Southern gardeners. Many have been lovingly handed down from generation to generation within and among the families that contribute cultural diversity and richness to our gardens. The fact that these plants have been time-tested in our Southern climate an soils over a long period makes their use in today’s gardens a compelling choice. In addition to being adapted and easy to grow, many of these plants add fragrance, color, and historical importance to our gardens.

As we become more and more a nation of gardeners, the successful traditions and plants of our ancestors offer a unique opportunity from which to reflect and build our future. The most meaningful gardens of our past are those that reflected the life-styles of their times and the individual styles and tastes of their owners. It is my hope that you will find as much pleasure in remembering your own gardening heritage as I have had in collecting and presenting the material to you.

Heirloom Plants for Texas Gardens

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