Growing a Memory Garden

How to grow a memory garden for genealogy

When Thomas Fuller, an 18th century British scholar, wrote, “many things grow in the garden that were never sown there,” I doubt he included memories in his harvest. But, memories grow as deep as family roots, particularly in the gardens that preserve our ancestors’ plants and flowers.

Memory—or heirloom—gardens are an under-cultivated branch of genealogy. While faded photos, delicate wedding dresses and tarnished medals are the stuff preservationists are made of, it’s the flowers planted by ancestral hands that bring the sweetest memories to heirloom gardeners.

My first foray into memory gardening came after finding the graves of my great-great-grandparents. Their plots, which had been lost over time, were discovered in a stand of timber, deep under fallen limbs and waist-high weeds. Violets and asters grew near the fallen tombstones, along with wild iris and day lilies. I picked a violet for pressing, and took a lily that would become the first of my heirloom plants. Was the lily I took planted by my family? I’ll never know.

What Goes into a Memory Garden?

Although all of us would love to have “direct descendant” plants, we may never be that lucky. Our memory gardens may be filled with bulbs from old cemeteries (if allowed), plants found near an ancestral home, or seeds from flowers carried by mom at her wedding. For me, the smell of Sweet Williams will always remind me of home and family.

There are a lucky few, however, like amateur genealogists Karen Patchett and Sue Peeler who have “the real thing.” Patchett’s pink rain lily is a descendant of the one planted by her great-grandmother on the family homestead in Carroll Co., Ind. Peeler’s treasure is a white iris that originally came to the Midwest with pioneer ancestors in the early 1800s. “To me,” says Peeler, “the irises are every bit as precious an heirloom as the sterling silver and hand-painted china that one of my sisters inherited.”

Some people, like Renee Karas, include plants that bear the names of her family members. Her garden boasts a Queen Elizabeth rose in memory of her mom, Joseph’s coat for her brother, and a lamb’s ear because her mother called her ‘Lambie.’

Another way to honor your ancestors is to grow plants from what gardening-folks call “heirloom seeds.” These are plants grown from seeds that can be generations old. For example, some of the seeds planted at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, are descended from plants Jefferson himself grew. Interestingly, gardeners can be as keen about the pedigree of a seed as you are about your ancestors.

One reason to include heirloom plants in your garden is to savor something from the past. For example, if you grow a tomato from a seed whose parent plant grew in 1840, it’s possible your ancestors ate the very same variety. With names like Abraham Lincoln and Arkansas Traveler, who could resist?

If you plant heirloom seeds, it’s possible you’re saving a variety of extinction. Our ancestors didn’t go to the local nursery and buy seedlings every year—they cultivated plants from seeds saved from year to year. However, in the last generation or so, that practice has gone by the wayside. According to Clemson University’s Extension, “many varieties, which had been prized and maintained for generations, have been lost in recent decades as fewer people save seed year to year. For many gardeners, saving an heirloom cultivar is a connection to their heritage.”

Whichever approach you take—whether planting direct descendant bulbs, heirloom seeds, or flowers from a cemetery—they all have a place in your memory garden.

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