A Garden Built to Last

Residents of the Deep South know a classic Southern garden by sight and smell, where blooms and bulbs evoke memories of time in the garden with loved ones.

vintage picture of an azalea garden in Mobile, AL

Above An early postcard of azaleas in bloom in Mobile. Image courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History

It takes just the slightest scent of a staple bloom to take you right back to those sunny days spent in your grandparents’ yard playing amongst azalea bushes, sitting in the shade of magnolia trees and learning how to properly get the nectar from honeysuckle flowers that climbed over the fence. Or perhaps you once bought an older home with an established, if not overgrown, yard full of classic shrubs and bulbs that were lovingly planted and tended by someone decades before. The pleasure found in keeping a Southern garden has endured from one generation to the next. After all, there’s something beautiful about a history that literally lives on. 

Alabamians have valued gardens since their earliest days. In fact, in the 1800s, the state began developing land grants and an education and research system to help folks identify the best plants and practices for home gardeners. They are essential parts of our state’s life and culture, providing both food and beauty throughout the centuries. Today, beautiful old homes that are no longer occupied still boast rows of thriving spider lilies lining the crumbled front sidewalk or old-timey mature azaleas in showy pinks and reds.

The gardening enthusiasts among us know that choosing the right plants, as our great-grandparents did, is crucial to establishing gardens that will thrive for decades to come and create a green space that truly feels at home on the Gulf Coast. Mary Jo Broussard, an agent assistant with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System in Mobile, shares what she considers some of the most lasting garden “old timers” that continue to do well in our coastal Alabama yards, bringing visions of gardens past to mind, but also paving the way for current homesteads of beauty and an enduring garden for the future.

Crinum Lilies

Crinum Lilies

Let’s start with a state favorite. What coastal Alabama gardener doesn’t love a camellia shrub or two? Both sasanquas and japonicas have lavished beauty upon our landscapes for a long, long time. Japonicas’ presence and importance are further embedded into the identity of Alabama as the state flower. Although most camellias have no fragrance, they provide a welcoming sight.

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Crinum Lilies
Many old Alabama homesteads boast the long-ago planted bulbs of the crinum lilies with their bright blooms in shades of pink, red, or striped red and white. Most of these sun-loving flowers have some fragrance and you can find them poking out of ditches in the springtime, gifts from years past.

Sweet olive
These trees and shrubs have been enjoyed for many years because of that old-timey sweet fragrance that often begins in the wintertime when everything has quit blooming. With its small, light apricot or cream flowers, one tree blesses an entire block with sweetness.

Four-o-clocks were often planted along the porches of many houses where folks enjoyed sitting back after a day’s work to watch the flower’s habit of opening in the afternoon with their pretty colors. 

A white gardenia

Mentioned in books as early as 1806, gardenias or Cape Jasmine could be found at nearly every old home. They were planted judiciously near the outhouse or underneath a window to freshen the pre-air-conditioned air in the days of no indoor plumbing. Today, their beautiful white blooms and luscious fragrances continue to beautify our yards and cemeteries.

Back in the day, many Alabama gardeners loved the hardiness of daylilies even though their blooms only appear for, well, a day. But they are replaced the next day by new flowers in the early shades of copper or tawny yellow. These resilient plants are a worthy addition to any Bay-area garden.

That lovely climber, the flame or coral honeysuckle, can be found gracing old gardens with its tubular flowers filled with sweet nectar for the birds and a delightful fragrance for anyone who comes near. Many honeysuckles have been found on old homesteads covering fences, turning them into blooming partitions.

Spider Lilies
Spider lilies seem to live forever, regardless of changes in environment or care. Often, the surprise of red spider lilies out in an empty field or gracing a curvy crumbled sidewalk from years past jolts passersby, as the blooms tend to show up before the leaves mark them. These fragrant flowers do well both as container plants and out in the garden.

Who among us doesn’t love the full-headed old French hydrangea, with its large blue mophead blossoms that fascinate everyone and do so well in our climate? The soil’s pH can be manipulated to bloom out flowers of pink, blue, purple or white. The creamy white blooms on Alabama’s Lacecap hydrangeas with their two types of petals have delighted Alabama gardeners for a long time.

Day Lilies in a garden
Day Lilies

Old garden roses, heirloom roses and antique roses have been around for over 200 years. Many of these beauties continue to thrive out at old country homes or cemeteries without care. Classic favorites include Old Blush, Mrs. B.R. Cant and the beautiful Lady Banks. Confederate Rose was used abundantly in old gardens because they were easy to propagate and were hardy. It has the charming habit of opening white in the morning and then changing to a deep pink by the end of the day. The blooms of Althea or Rose of Sharon, a small tree that has been around for ages, range from white to blue and purple and they are members of the hibiscus family.

What plant identifies the South as the South better than the magnolia tree with its clean, white fragrant blooms, and dark green and brown leaves? We all know how stunning they are in full bloom. The banana shrub or banana magnolia, with its smallish blooms that smell just like ripe bananas, shares a fragrance not soon forgotten. As children, we plucked the blooms from our schoolyard shrubs and carried them all through the day to sniff between classes.

Perhaps unsurprising to those in the Azalea City, Alabama’s old azaleas, with their many colors and shapes, are found in nearly every local area and herald old springtime with their copious blooms. They consist of deciduous and evergreen varieties, both with hybrids native to our area. No matter which you choose to grow, they are a staple in Alabama’s gardens of yesterday and today.

Fig Trees
Fig trees, also a product of the early Alabama settlers from Europe, can become really large shrubs that are much-loved heirlooms. They were planted by our ancestors and still play a role in gardens across the state for their delicious fruit that comes back year after year and ripens during the summer months. Brown turkey is a standard favorite.

Citrus trees
With their special gifts of fruit and shade, citrus trees generally have done well in coastal Alabama. The state’s first European settlers brought oranges, among other plants, from the Old World to Alabama in the 1600s, and they have thrived here ever since. Farmers and home gardeners alike plant lemons, limes or satsumas for the delightful fruit and exquisite fragrances on a warm night.

These plants are by no means a complete list of what has charmed and enchanted Alabama gardeners over the decades. They are more of a delightful sample of what has sustained our gardening souls throughout our history, simultaneously familiar and legendary.

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