We tend to categorize English gardens as romantic and idyllic spots where we can wander about and enjoy clematis, delphiniums, foxgloves and pansies, among other plants. They are such places of beauty. But from earliest times, they have also served practical purposes, providing ingredients for food, medicine and fragrance in everyday life.
The forget-me-not (Myosotis) was a favorite among the Victorians, symbolizing everlasting love. The flower's name is linked to the tragic tale of a knight and his lady who were strolling along the bank of a river, and the knight stooped to pick some flowers for her. Somehow, he lost his footing and plunged into the river, armor and all. He apparently threw the flowers to his lady in the process, crying out "Forget me not." Legend has it that the inconsolable lady cherished and tended the flowers and took them with her to a nunnery where she spent the rest of her days.
Forget-me-nots are a traditional choice for an English garden. Their mounds of grayish-green leaves accommodate masses of sky blue blooms with yellow centers. Forget-me-nots prefer a shady spot and well-drained soil. Since they are perennials, planting them around a tree is ideal, because they can be alternated with other flowers. Today there are more than 100 species from the original Myosotis genus. Happily, they supply sustenance to butterflies in the garden.
Sweet violets (Viola odorata) are synonymous with English gardens, thriving under rose bushes and filling the garden with fragrance and splendid, violet-blue colors against a backdrop of bright green leaves. They prefer rich, well-drained soil and shady nooks, although these hardy perennials will grow in full sun, sometimes to a height of 12 inches.
The Victorians loved violets and believed that to dream about them was a sign of good luck. They were also frequently used in bridal bouquets, symbolizing love and faithfulness. From ancient times, Roman and then English gardeners favored violets for medicinal purposes and for making perfume and wine.
Today violet petals ornament drinks, ice cubes and cakes, and the leaves supplement salads, soups and stews, a result of their "edible" classification. (Do not try this with commercially purchased violets, because edibles must be grown under controlled conditions to ensure that they do not contain pesticides or other harmful substances.)
No English garden would be complete without the English rose (Rosa).
The David Austin Rose Gardens at Albrighton, U.K., are home to the National Collection of English Roses. The gardens are set out to showcase the wide array of English roses, from old roses to modern shrub roses to climbing and rambling roses, all of which are ideal for an English garden.
English roses were at the heart of Victorian and Renaissance gardens. Today, it is possible to replicate these elegant garden settings with specially cultivated English roses. Examples are the deep pink rosette-shaped blooms and old rose scent of "Gertrude Jekyll," honoring the famous garden designer, or "Golden Celebration," with giant, cup-shaped flowers and a tea scent. There is an extensive selection based on fragrance and flower shapes.