Tuesday, November 10, 2020


I worked as the head gardener on a private estate for a family that owned a major corporation. I only did it for a short time, and the family decided to turn the whole thing over to a commercial company for upkeep once we got the gardens to a certain point. But I got to work with an older gentleman who I knew and respected as a landscape architect and botanist. One of the many things he taught me was how to look at old photos. Trees that are about four years old will keep branches, or they will keep the scars from those branches. For instance, there was a Southern Magnolia on the property that was old and matches exactly to an old family photo from the late 1800s. We also had access to records of the original owner who bought certain bushes, trees, and plants for the gardens. With knowledge of what should have been, it didn’t take much to decode the original gardens. Yet we were unable to figure out quite a few plants when looking at photos. Magnifying glasses would give us leaf shapes. Knowing the colors of certain plants helped. Plus, older plants often were not as pretty as the ones we see today. Ever see a picture of a geranium from the 1800s? Straggly, it looks nothing like today’s geraniums. But when you learn the “color” of the geranium in the black-and-white photo, you can look at other plants and recognize the red in those plants. It took a long time to decode the flowers, and then we spent hours searching catalogues for heirloom seeds. A few local historical gardens often shared seeds with us, such as windflowers.

It was an experience of a lifetime. And to work with this wonderful man who taught me so much about gardening, Victorian gardens, and plant identification was totally awesome.

So what’s the difference between a landscape architect and an architect? Not much. Maybe two years of schooling. He would laugh and say I can build the mountain and put the house on it, and the bridge and road to it.

A friend’s husband had a PhD in historical reclamation. Interesting. He worked for the parks service as a ranger. He turned down a job worth millions, offering for him to rebuild Babylon. As an American Indian, he was more interested in preserving land. The park that he oversaw for most of his career has Indian burial grounds on it. Did he tell anyone? No. To him, they were sacred places. If he ever opened up and said there are these burial mounds, they would have had dozens of people digging up those graves, looking for answers. For what, he didn’t know.

When hurricane Floyd ripped through my area in 1999, it dumped so much water in this area that coffins popped to the surface and spilled their contents. DNA helped to send the remains back to their proper resting grounds.

Life keeps changing, things evolve, and old photos often give us a peek into the past.

Chrysanthemums from China in the late 1800s changed our landscape. Screw ships changed what came to America. (They have propellers and look very much like today’s screws. Water went through the propeller and turned the screw and suddenly the sail ships were going much faster.) A plant taken from China could arrive in the USA in a matter of days, and when put on a train, it made it to remote places in the west in a few more days. It was the start of international commerce.

So many of our plants in the USA have been imported. Our forefathers brought dandelions over as the settled the New World because they knew they were hardy and would be a source of lettuce. Now they crop up everywhere. I really don’t mind them. They make me smile. Those pretty, yellow, composite flowers show up every spring. They remind us of our past and our imperfections, even with their perfect yellow flowers that smile back at us. Put a little nitrogen on them and those flower heads are twice their normal size.

Many folks will do anything to rid them from their yards, I’ll encourage them. What child hasn’t wished upon their seeds and blew those white puff balls with the same enthusiasm as a birthday cake full of candles? Photos give us clues to our past, but we must recognize and decode them.

Are photos faked? Yes. And they were faking them in the 1800s. Really! But those photos in that family album probably aren’t faked.

I’d love to see your family photos and the plants in their gardens, especially Victorian gardens I’ve studied gardens from Victorian to Shakespearean gardens and I have a special place in my heart for them. I have a bookcase filled with books on perennials, bi-annuals, and annuals along with shrubs and trees. A big thank you to Virginia Tech and the Extension office for giving me the skills that I’ve used in ways that I never thought I would! Never did I think I'd be applying so many things to historical novels.


  1. This is really interesting. I am a master gardener and now I have some incentive to look for plants in our old photos. It will be interesting to see how plants have changed from then to now.

    1. I've never looked at old photos the same again. Check leaf shape, arrangement, and bark. You'll be surprised how many things you will recognize.

  2. Beth Trissel uses heirloom seeds in her garden. She also has taught several classes on medicinal plants. I'm very impressed with your botanical skill, Elizabeth!


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