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In Search of Historic Plants

Excerpt from Marian Coffin's "Draft Plan #4" for the King's Garden
An excerpt from Marian Coffin’s “Draft Plan #4” for the King’s Garden

Creating a garden or recreating an historic garden is a constantly evolving process. Since restoration of the King’s Garden began in 1995, careful research has guided the garden’s curators to restore it as closely as possible to designer Marian Coffin’s Colonial revival-era scheme. Over 100 annuals and perennials are listed on Coffin’s plan which is housed in the Fort’s archives. You can view the 1921 planting plan list here.

Locating specific cultivated varieties that were popular in the earlly 1920s can be challenging.  The King’s Garden has successfully located numerous heirloom plants to add to the living collection over the years.  The garden’s first curator, Delight Gartlein, relied on networking with historic plant growers, collectors, and researchers to identify and locate sources for plants and seeds. Today the wealth of information available online has made it easier to seek out cultivars missing from the historic garden.

Iris flower
Iris ‘Mrs. George Darwin’ dates from 1895

Several elusive bearded iris cultivars were located and planted in August 2011. The bearded iris is featured in sixteen beds throughout the garden. Two of the eight types listed on the 1921 planting plan existed in the King’s Garden at the onset of restoration, ‘Iris King’ and the species iris Pallida dalmatica. Acquisitions of ‘Mrs. Horace Darwin’, ‘Mrs. George Darwin’, and ‘Juniata’ are celebrated additions.

It is interesting to note that Coffin’s planting plan names one of the irises “Mrs. Darwin”, yet does not list which Mrs. Darwin, as two distinct cultivars are known to exist from the period. They date to the 1895 and 1888 and would have been readily available for use in Sarah Pell’s garden. Growing both cultivars in the King’s Garden assures that the Darwin that Marian Coffin intended is represented.

Unraveling the historic planting plan is complicated by plant names that have changed since the plan was made. As botanists learned more about specific plants and how they are related to each other, changes in classification and nomenclature have taken place. Clarkia, an early blooming dainty annual was listed in the genus Godetia and known commonly as farewell-to-spring. It is now classified as Clarkia amoena. It is directly sown in several beds in the King’s Garden. Clarkia is considered an underused annual that is worth adding to your flower repertoire.

Siberian meadowsweet
Siberian meadowsweet grows nearly three feet and acts like a shrub in perennial borders

Two plants formerly considered related to Spirea that Coffin used in the King’s Garden are now known as Aruncus dioicus (formerly Spiraea aruncus) – Goatsbeard, and Filipendula palmata (formerly Spiraea palmata) – Siberian meadowsweet. Look for the meadowsweet or “false spirea” to be reintroduced this season in its white form.

Where the map doesn’t specify a particular variety or type leaves the plan open to interpretation and allows some liberty when making plant selections. One case in particular is the simple designation of “ferns” used in the shadiest corner of the garden. Cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamonea) and Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) will join the Ostrich ferns and Japanese Painted ferns already established there. The complete 2012 Plant List for the King’s Garden can be accessed here.

The King’s Garden is open June 1 – Columbus Day from 9:30 to 5:00. Learn more about the historic gardens by following this link.

Heidi Karkoski
Curator of Landscape