A. Galveston Island is a remarkable place--rich with diverse cultural and environmental history that reaches back to the Karankawa Indians. These Indians used the barrier island as a hunting refuge up to the 1830's when immigrant visitors and artisans passed through the Galveston port on their way to a new life. By 1890 Galveston Island was recognized nationally as a prosperous coastal city with a beauty and sophistication unique to the American west. Along with the diverse population came fine homes, which are today national historic treasures with a Victorian style long lost in most turn-of-the-century towns. The gardens and public plantings, which adorned homes and esplanades, were all part of the graceful ambiance of this mostly "Southern" city at the turn of the century. While much has been written about the history of the Island and its industrious people, little has been recorded about the gardens and plantings, which played a role in the quality of life in the late 1800's to the early I900's.
The Island is 32 miles long and varies in width from .5 to 2 miles. The soil is sandy but has been enriched with organic material brought in from the mainland of Texas after the storm of 1900--a catastrophic event in which almost 6,000 lives were lost and seawater covered much of the Island.
The only known surviving plant was Borden's oak; the lush oleanders, live oaks, palms, roses and perennials had to be replanted. A heart-rending letter from Sarah Davis Hawley to her mother, Sarah Davis, describes the damage as follows:
"In the yard all trees are down except for four or five. The palm in front of the living room still stands. Arbors down, one fig tree the closest is fallen almost on top of Buddha who still stands by the Lanterns, which have fallen to pieces but the boy/cat, is saved. The palms are still standing but my opinion is that everything will die on account of the salt water."
From 1911 to 1912, members of the Women's Health Protective Association (WHPA) raised funds and purchased 8,000 sycamore, cottonwood, elm, oak, and hackberry trees, 2,500 oleanders, and 2,000 palms.
Raising the grade and construction of the seawall has held back most storms in this century, and the Island's gardens are somewhat stable once more. Summers are long and hot and may have periods of drought but always have strong humid salt breezes, which make for a stressful climate for most plant life. Galveston Island has been known to have cold spells (locally called "Northerns") where the temperature drops below 32 degrees for 4-5 days. Records show that snow occurred in 1886 and damaged much of the plantings.
The growing season is about 310 days, and the average rainfall is 45 to 50 inches per year.
Darrel L. McDonald, a geography professor at The University of Texas at Tyler whose doctoral dissertation is the most professional summary of plant life at the turn of the century has published the most thorough review of residential gardens. Like him I researched the photos in the Rosenberg Library's history collection to determine what the pre-storm plantings looked like, the landscape designs, types of trees, and annuals and perennials used. The best observations and educated guesses I can offer are as follows: Oleanders (brought to the Island in 1841) many variants, and Pittosporum tobira (Thumb), ligustrum, and Ait (a native plant) were used as shrubs and sometimes hedges. Trees at the turn-of-the-century were largely live oaks and Washingtonia and Phoenix palms. Magnolia grandiflora L. was used but was less prominent in the landscape than other trees. The esplanade running down Broadway in the center of the Island was a beautiful center completely planted with live oaks and oleanders and palms to form a tropical entrance to the historic districts.
Roses were certainly a valuable plant in 1900 and can be used with care if you select the proper varieties. Roses which do well in the climate are largely the ones imported from China in the early 1800's and are as follows: Old Blush, a pink hardy rose sometimes called Old Monthly, Chestnut Rose and Fortuniana Louis Philippe, Archduke Charles, Hermosa, Banksia and Harrison's Yellow (sometimes identified as the "Yellow rose of Texas") are still good selections for the Galveston Garden. They are hardy and withstand
the humidity and therefore blackspot is easier to manage. La France, a hybrid tea introduced in 1890, was popular since the high-pointed buds of the hybrid teas were preferred to the flat, open shapes of the older roses. Climbers which do well in the Galveston area include Lady Banks (yellow climber) Mermaid and Climbing Souvenir de la Malmaison. All of the above were popular in gardens in Texas during the 1900's and should do well in today's gardens.
Perennials consisted of groupings of day lily, crinum lilies, the Madonna lily, the tiger lily, Asiatic hybrids such as Enchantment, Harmony, Corsage, Prosperity, Amver Gold, Sutter's Gold do well in Galveston gardens and were around the Houston area during the 1900's. The Easter lily (I.longiflorum and the gold band lily do well in this area as well and may have been used in the early gardens. Other perennials included ferns, iris, dianthus, verbena, and columbine, carnations phlox were used in gardens during this era and most likely were used on the Island as well. (Not verified from the photographs.) Other popular Gulf Coast plantings include ginger, lantana, New England Iythrum and native Texas flame acanthus and Gregg's salvia. Biennial French hollyhock and impatiens were also popular and still excellent additions to today's gardens. Jasmine and ivy were common ground covers as was wild ginger. Many other plants were used but these are some of the more prevalent ones that have stood the test of time and may be used successfully. Fruit trees were popular and used extensively. Knowledge of the specific varieties (figs, oranges, peaches, lemon, pecan, etc.) appear to be limited.
When selecting plants, consider the type of landscape effect you want to create and select plants according to their height, color, leaf texture, leaf color, blooming periods and hardiness to the area in your garden. At the turn-of-the century Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson were encouraging "drifts of planting" repeating and integrating interesting plants in groupings which were natural in appearance. The more formal geometric design of Victorian gardens was given way to more casual garden designs. (Judging from the photographs of early Galveston residential gardens, it appears that they were formal.)
All of the above-mentioned plants have a proven record in this area, and if planted and watered correctly, they should give you years of happy gardening.
All digital photographs are the property of the Galveston County Master Gardener Association, Inc. (GCMGA) © 2002-2013 GCMGA - All Rights Reserved.