Down South: Grandma’s Petunias

By Tom Poland

Vintage petunias. I had forgotten them, those flowers grandma loved. Surely I saw them in youth. As I sort through my mental album I think I recall them. Pale colors, pastel petals of white and pink, possibly lavender, and a delicate softness. Seems Grandmother Walker grew them on her porch, a wide, columned porch destined to burn. There, on that doomed veranda, they grew in pots, over-spilling, upside down, their blooms a bit like inverted antebellum skirts. In the flowers’ throats, dark veins converged, a floral case of perspective.

How long ago did I forget about those old timey petunias. A lot of time passed, then suddenly I couldn’t escape them. A woman down Florida way spotted them in my photograph of a country store along old US 1. “Did you notice the old timey petunias by the store’s steps?”

I brought up the photo and there they were, a cluster of ten or so, frozen by the shutter, flowers dancing in an old Disney cartoon classic. For some reason, all faced away from the sun, gazing at their own shadows. And then I discovered vintage petunias a week ago at an old homeplace. Discovered them in person in a large field adjacent to the ruins of an old tenant home.

Just this week I worked on a story about a woman who loved trains and the trainman who visited this woman who waved at the trains said this: “I walked through Miss Johnnies’ fragrant purple old timey petunias; the perennial kind our southern grandmothers grew in their yards.”

Yep, that would be correct.

Old fashioned petunias, what I refer to as Grandma’s petunias are still out there, straight from childhood. This hardy, aromatic heirloom flower hints of old home places, and indeed that’s where I stumbled upon them. Think of them as vintage flowers. I recall my late Mom talking about old-fashioned petunias and a flower that has a beautiful name, delphinium, oh, and plumbago too. Finally, I saw old petunias in person and this time recognized them for what they are, vintage flowers.

That hot afternoon in the big field, I leaned over and breathed in their scent. I can best describe it as a green spicy peppery fragrance, similar to something you might cook with. It didn’t overpower me and I liked that. I had to work to gather in its incense. Modern hybrids, alas, seem odorless.

So, what happens to these old flowers when the people who planted them are no more? They keep on keeping on. Perched atop long stalks, they reseed themselves. And reseed themselves. Things change. Homes burn. Homes suffering abandonment decay. People die, but the flowers keep on keeping on. Old homeplaces and forgotten cemeteries still harbor these flowers. Deprived of someone to water them, fertilize them, and keep harmful insects away, they get by on their own.

I say it’s time we planted more petunias, the kind grandma loved. You could say grandmothers bequeathed the parents of modern petunias to us. Old-fashioned petunias possess a heritage. They’ll be here when you and I will not.

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Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press released his book, Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It, in November 2015 and his and Robert Clark’s Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II in 2014. The History Press of Charleston published Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia in 2014. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions.

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