Recalling a timeless Southern gardener

The amaryllis family of bulbs was Lawrence’s favorite group of flowers. One member of this botanical family is St. Joseph’s lily.

Elizabeth Lawrence, the Sunday gardening columnist for The Charlotte Observer between 1959 and 1975, was born May 27, 1904, in Marietta, Ga.

A natural curiosity about plants, an impressive memory, and a gift for language made her one of the most revered gardeners and garden writers of the 20th century.

Lawrence learned, or maybe inherited, a love of gardening from her mother. After earning a B.A. in English from Barnard College, she obtained a degree in landscape architecture from North Carolina State University, graduating in 1932 as the only woman in the first class.

Her first, and most famous, book, “A Southern Garden,” was published in 1942. Two more books were published during her lifetime, and three were published posthumously, edited by colleagues (www.winghavengardens.com/PublishedBooks.asp).

Many of her newspaper columns focused on particular plants: summer-blooming perennials, ferns, camellias, magnolias, viburnums and, what I think were her favorites, flowering bulbs such as heirloom daffodils, crocuses and crinums.

Other columns covered familiar gardening topics, such as bees, pesticides, urban wildlife, drought-tolerant flowers, mulch and frost. These plants and these topics still interest gardeners today, 50 years later.

Although the Latin names of some plants have changed, and the cultivars Lawrence wrote about may no longer be available, her keen observations, historical references and practical advice are timeless.

I feel a kinship with Lawrence, not so much because I am an amateur garden columnist, but because I identify with her love of plants and her gardening style.

She liked a variety of plants, particularly blooming ones. “In the South, there is bloom for every month of the year,” she wrote in “A Southern Garden” (UNC Press, 1942).

During an unusually mild winter, 20 different plants bloomed in her Raleigh, N.C., garden on Jan. 11, 1937.

In October 1944, the garden included firethorn, chrysanthemum, Mexican sunflower (tithonia), calliopsis and marigold.

In November of the same year, some of her favorite flowers were still blooming: rose, ageratum, crotalaria, marigold and alyssum.

She was an experimental gardener. Her lifelong quest was to find plants adapted to Southern gardens.

Constantly trying new plants inevitably leads to the jumbled, cottage-garden look that my yard shares.

Lawrence bemoaned the fact that, in order to try as many new plants as possible, she had to forego a formally organized garden.

“The garden has been so lovely. I have never known it to be so lovely. And entirely by accident,” she wrote to her best friend, the playwright Ann Bridgers, in October 1944. The letter was reprinted in “Becoming Elizabeth Lawrence: Discovered Letters of a Southern Gardener” (John F. Blair Publisher, 2010).

She was methodical. When I visited Lawrence’s house in Charlotte (winghavengardens.com), I saw the old file cards and daily desk calendars that she used to record the days when plants in her garden bloomed.

I imagined her sitting at the desk along the back wall of the house, which had several windows, gazing intently at her garden and noticing a spot of color that was the first bloom that season of a particular plant. I also record the first day on which my plants bloom.

Lawrence was keenly aware of the challenges of gardening in the South.

“The caprices of the climate are a problem to Southern gardeners. In the Middle South the difficulty is not that it is too hot or too cold, or too wet or too dry, but that the changes from one extreme to the other are so frequent and so sudden,” she wrote in “A Southern Garden.”

Charleston also has variable weather and a climate that demands gardeners choose hardy plants if they don’t wish to replant frequently.

I could not explain my motivation for writing this column any better than by quoting Lawrence, who explains her motivation for her garden writing in the foreword to “A Southern Garden”: “I am writing, then, not for those who want to grow rare and difficult plants, but for those who want to grow a variety of plants in an average garden, giving them a reasonable amount of care and spending a reasonable amount of intelligence upon them.”

Anthony Keinath is professor of plant pathology at the Clemson Coastal Research & Education Center in Charleston. Contact him at tknth@clemson.edu.