Posted by Juliana Szucs on May 29, 2014 in Ask Juliana

Julie 1976cropIn addition to growing my family tree, I’m also a gardening enthusiast. OK, maybe that’s a bit of an understatement. I’m a gardening freak. It is my sanctuary, my dirt therapy, and the place I get my best brainstorming done. I love growing heirloom tomatoes and peppers and have a good selection, as well as Japanese eggplant, cucumbers, zucchini, onions, chard, lettuce, and a wide variety of herbs in my garden.

And then there are the flowers.

I love my flowers. And certain plants evoke memories of family. I remember the marigolds that did so well in the house I grew up in and the peonies that bloomed every year. I remember having my picture taken with the huge blooms on my 8th grade graduation. My mom taught me to leave the big ants alone on the peonies because they help the buds to open.

IrisBut perhaps my favorites are the irises. When we were young we used to take vacations to Texas to see my mom’s family. They had a cabin in Riudoso, New Mexico. I loved the few visits we had to the cabin. Although we didn’t stay, I can remember the wonderful smell of pine and the thick layer of needles all around the cabin. On one trip, my mother harvested some irises that needed separating and we brought them home and planted them. The blooms don’t last nearly long enough for me, but for that short time, they are gorgeous. I’ve planted several varieties at my home now and they still bring back memories of Riudoso, even though I never saw them bloom there.

My paternal grandmother was a gardener too, and I must have gotten at least some of my gardening genes from her Polish side. When I’d see her in the summer she would always compare her gardening tan to mine and despite the fact that I spent tons of time outside, she always had the better tan. Her favorite flower was an inside plant though. She had beautiful African violets in her house and she taught me that “they don’t like to get their feet wet,” so I should never over-water or get water on the leaves.

She, in turn, inherited that love of flowers from her mom. In an interview that my mother recorded of my grandmother in 1992, my mom asked her what she remembered of her mother who died when Grandma was only ten and a half.

“She was very good to us. She never went anywhere – nor did my father – never went anywhere without bringing us a bag of candy and hugging us and kissing us. And our mother loved flowers – oh, did she love flowers. And she loved oleanders, and as a surprise, my father got her two. On the porch we had two wash tubs, like this, and one pink and one white oleander. And my father says when they stopped blooming that something’s going to happen. And when they stopped blooming, my mother died.”

While they might perceived as “just decoration,” the look, scent, and traditions of flowers and plants evoke strong memories.

Now it’s your turn. The scent of my neighbor’s lily of the valley remind her of her mother and every spring she takes a bouquet to the cemetery. Do you have a ritual like that? Did you have a gardener in your family? What was their favorite thing to plant? Did you have a garden growing up? What plants were around your house? What is your favorite plant and why? Do you have any plants that have been passed down through your family? After this past winter, we deserve a trip down memory lane—decked in our favorite flower stories.

Juliana Szucs

Juliana Szucs has been working for for more than 19 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program.


  1. Meg Mcinnis

    My grandmother loved bleeding hearts, so when they bloom in spring I think of her. I also have a Boxwood that travelled from Poland to Germany and now Canada.

  2. Glenna Boswell

    Peonies grew in profusion in front of our home in rural Colorado. The home seemed huge to me as a child, but when my sister and visited that house years later we couldn’t believe how small it was!
    Anyway every Memorial Day we would gather peonies and take them to place on the grave sites of our grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.
    The little town I lived in is Paonia, CO. The history is that peonies grew abundantly there and when choosing a name for the little town they chose Peony only they didn’t know how to spell it so they spelled it Paonia, and that remains its name today. On a research trip to Kentucky, i visited a little town named Peony. They knew how to spell the name.
    Peonies have always been one of my favorite flowers and they do remind me of my ancestors.

  3. Lois Griffith

    I also love to garden and was thrilled to find the Knockout roses a few years ago. They seemed like the answer for someone who doesn’t want to fuss! They are great and throughout the summer I save the spent blooms, dry them and scatter them on the gravestones of my family who are buried are quite far away. It seems like a better solution than fresh flowers and gives me a chance to remember and honor that person as the breeze blows the petals over the stone.

  4. Bridget Swahlen

    What a small world, my grandparents lived in Ruidoso, NM for many years. I remember my grandmother’s garden full of irises, redhot pokers, and holly hocks. She also had pots of geraniums that were on the car port all summer, and she brought them into the house for the winter. One plant, I don’t know the name of, my grandmother transplanted from her mama’s garden in Texas, in about 1940. Her mother had moved into her house about 1900 and the plant had been at the farmhouse as long as my grandmother could remember. My grandmother gave me a cutting about 1980, and I still have it growing at my house, and I’ve given some of that plant to my kids. Those flowers always remind me of my grandmother and her garden in the mountains.

  5. Susan Wentzel

    My grandmother, a farmer’s wife in Ohio died in 1961. Sometime before that she had dug up Irises, from her garden, and given them to my mom to bring home to New Jersey. Mom planted them in our garden and they continued to delight us each spring with their petite delicate flowers. Always a reminder of grandma! At some point mom dug up some for my garden and I’ve enjoyed them for the last 30 years! Nice memory!

  6. Chris

    Thank you for bringing back many lovely memories of the scent of lily of the valley on the front lawn of my childhood home and the beautiful roses my father grew on our postage stamp size back yard surrounded by city concrete and the harsh sounds of city traffic. Each year, we would plant radishes, lettuces and squash and the ritual of caring for them continues to be a part of my life some 45 years later. I have special memories of my grandmother’s purple irises. From the time I was very young, I loved them and had thoughts of having my very own purple iris garden one day….and I do!

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