|By Jay White
Cemeteries can be like schools. When I was young, I spent time in Cade Cemetery (in Streetman, Texas) and learned about service, dedication and family traditions there. As I grew older, several of my horticultural friends realized that there were forgotten, old-timey plants in cemeteries that were so tough and so beautiful that they could use them to start businesses and create a whole new category of plants that we now call cemetery plants.
Many years ago, Mike Shoup noticed that there were beautiful old roses growing completely untended in many neglected rural cemeteries. He took cuttings from those old roses and used them to help him build the very successful Antique Rose Emporium. Greg Grant has an affinity for poking around in country cemeteries, too. Some of his most successful plant introductions (‘Henry Duelberg’ salvia and ‘Mrs. Henry Duelberg’ salvia) were found in an old cemetery outside of San Antonio.
More recently, Chris Wiesinger noticed that each spring and fall, forgotten bulbs burst open and filled many rural cemeteries with color. Chris began cultivating these forgotten treasures and used them to start The Southern Bulb Company.
The term “cemetery plant” refers to any type of plant that has been used to beautify a cemetery or graveyard and survived. People in the South love to beautify their cemeteries. Because of this, just about every type of plant imaginable has been used at one time or another. Some of these plantings were successful, and some weren’t. The plants that have survived droughts, floods and total neglect are the plants that we now call cemetery plants.
People like Bill Welch, Greg Grant, Mike Shoup and Chris Wiesinger understood that cemetery plants were special enough that they needed to be shared with the general public. They realized that if a plant could survive in a Texas cemetery with no supplemental water, no fertilizer, no pruning or dead-heading, it could survive anywhere. While I respected, and purchased, the cemetery plants that my friends brought to market, I really didn’t think about them too often. That changed this spring when I was asked to create and install a landscape plan for — a cemetery!
My family has been directly involved in the care and support of Cade Cemetery since 1947. That’s the year my grandparents (Ralph and Louise Sims) helped create the Cade Cemetery Association. Because of their commitment to this organization, Cade Cemetery has been an important part of my family for several generations.
For most of the 1960s Cade Cemetery was my playground. Each summer the adults in my family helped host a potluck dinner and cake sale that raised the money needed to maintain the cemetery. Part social event and part business meeting, the cake sale was the big event of the year in Streetman. For the kids, the cake sale was a couple of hours of lightly supervised fun. While the adults were busy spending way too much money on pies and cakes, we were free to play tag among the headstones (as long as we didn’t step on the graves) or engage in some serious hide-and-seek in the old cemetery chapel. After we were completely run down, we would join our parents for fried chicken and coconut pie, watch the end of the auction and use an honest-to-goodness outhouse!
The cake sale was not the only time I went to the cemetery. My grandfather volunteered to help take care of it, and I went there with him quite often. While he mowed or sprayed wasp nests in the outhouse, I wandered through the cemetery and learned my family history by reading headstones. Each holiday, I learned the stories of the people that rested under those headstones from my parents, aunts and uncles as they replaced the faded plastic flower arrangements that were always on my ancestors’ graves.
Just like the cotton gin and the soda fountain at Gilbert’s Grocery, the cake sale that meant so much to me as a child is now gone. It died along with all of the people from my grandparents’ generation. Once my grandparents died there was no reason for our scattered family to gather in Streetman. While everyone continued to come “home” each summer for the Cake Sale, it just wasn’t the same. Attendance began to decline as more and more of the people who had supported the event became full-time residents in the cemetery. While we tried to keep the tradition alive through the 1990s, we finally accepted the fact that the tradition had run its course. Now we mail in our donations and gather once a year in the fellowship hall of the Baptist Church to eat catered BBQ and conduct the business of our cemetery.
Even though the cake sale is now a distant memory, this story has a happy ending. Seventy years of dedicated giving and management has turned the money raised at those cake sales into a perpetual care fund. This means that through the years people donated enough money to create a fund that has grown large enough to cover the cost of cemetery upkeep for a very long time. The fund is now large enough that the Association voted to use some of our money to begin a multi-phased landscaping project that will pass a more beautiful cemetery to the next generation of caretakers.
In order to honor the memories of the many people who have spent their lifetimes maintaining this place, I decided to use plants that would be familiar to them. While there are many great, drought-tolerant plants available to Texas gardeners, these old-timey survivors evoke a sense of nostalgia that you just can’t find in your local big box nursery. Here are the cemetery plants that will be incorporated into the final design.
Crapemyrtles. Crapemyrtles are by far the most popular ornamental tree in Texas. They work as well in the cemetery as they do in the home landscape. They come in several colors and several sizes. They can be pruned into a multi-trunk tree or left to bush, and they are basically bulletproof once they are established. While they can be bothered by aphids and scale insects, they are basically care-free plants that require little from a gardener. Baby them by providing a little fertilizer and regular water, and they will grow more than a foot a year and bloom from summer until frost.
I have visited many rural cemeteries. I have noticed that crapemyrtles are just about as common in cemeteries as are headstones. I really don’t believe I have ever been in a cemetery that didn’t have at least one. While the current landscape at Cade Cemetery is pretty short on ornamental plantings, it does have several white crapemyrtles in it. Our cemetery has a large, black metal entrance gate. To accentuate this, and keep a consistent feel throughout the property, I will use 24 white flowering ‘Acoma’ crapemyrtles. ‘Acoma’ is a medium-height (12-to-15 feet when mature) crapemyrtle that does very well in Central Texas.
Iris albicans. Before there were cemetery plants, there was the “Cemetery Iris.” Iris albicans originated in the Middle East. Legend says that the Moors used it to mark the graves of their fallen soldiers during the invasion of Spain. Slowly the plants spread through Europe and made their way to colonial America in its earliest days. While it is a popular landscape plant all over the country, it has been used in cemeteries for so long that many think of it as only a cemetery plant.
While Iris albicans is the iris I most think of as a cemetery plant, it is not the only iris that works well in them. Unless they are a water-loving variety, such as I. pseudacorus, most irises will do well under cemetery conditions. They are drought tolerant, and they will bounce right back if a careless landscape crew trims them to the ground.
Irises are some of the most versatile landscape plants around. With their spikey, upright foliage they are the perfect companion to clipped shrubs, plants with a round form and freeform plants like lantana and salvias. They also look good in large clumps all by themselves. I really believe that every home landscape (and cemetery) should have lots of these outstanding plants.
Althea. Althea, or Rose of Sharon, is an upright perennial shrub in the hibiscus family. This shrub comes in cultivars that produce hibiscus-like flowers from summer until the first frost. Like crapemyrtles, Althea flowers come in a variety of colors that include white, pink and lavender. When grown in well-prepared soil and given plenty of water, these plants will produce thousands of flowers over the summer season. However, each of those flowers produce lots of viable seeds and this can make this plant a little invasive in the home garden. In the cemetery, it is seldom watered or fertilized. This stress reduces its flowering, so it is not nearly as invasive in a dry environment.
Salvias. If you are looking for a drought-tolerant plant that produces lots of color from early summer through late fall, salvias are the plants for you. Because salvias are such great bloomers in low-water situations, they have been extensively hybridized. The flowers of the native and old-fashioned varieties are generally red, white or lavender. However, thanks to plant breeders, you can now find them in just about every color of the rainbow (except yellow, for some reason). In fact, some cultivars, such as ‘Hotlips,’ have flowers with two colors. ‘Hotlips’ produces red-and-white flowers. Not only has hybridization given us many color choices, it has also created sages that have mature heights that range from one foot to four or five feet. Because of all of these variations, there truly is a salvia for every situation.
I love salvias and use them a lot in my home landscape. They are truly drought-tolerant plants and, as far as I can tell, they have no pest issues at all. About the only bad thing I can say about them is that the native varieties are very invasive. While I grow the Texas native scarlet sage (S. coccinea), I do a lot of weeding in the spring to keep it in check.
Color in the Cemetery. Most home landscapes have planting pockets, or entire beds, reserved for “seasonal color.” Seasonal color is a landscape term that means “annual flowers.” Because annuals complete their entire lifecycle in one growing season, they need ample food and water to produce the showy flowers that we all love. Most cemeteries do not have the infrastructure or budget to plant flowers, much less supply them with ample food and water. Due to these limitations, the only way to get seasonal color into a cemetery is to use bulbs.
There are many beautiful bulbs that do well in Texas. I have several varieties and all of the ones I have are often found in cemeteries. Due to our extreme heat and unpredictable rainfall, the bulbs that do well in Texas flower in either the spring or the fall. These bulbs have learned to lay dormant during the hot, dry times of the year and then send forth their blooms when the temperatures are bearable and the rains are more plentiful.
While it is hard for me to pick a favorite, there are several “cemetery bulbs” that will do as well (or better) for you in your own landscape. If you live in East Texas, you are lucky to be able to grow many varieties of narcissus, daffodils and jonquils. While all of these are in the same genus, the daffodils and jonquils need acidic soil to thrive. I like the older varieties of daffodils and jonquils that have been grown in East Texas for well over a hundred years. One of my favorites is Campernelle.
If you are not in East Texas, you will have your best luck with narcissus. Narcissus are early-blooming, white bulbs that generally smell terrific. I have hundreds of these, and they are the first things to bloom for me every year. Some of my favorites are N. italicus, ‘Erlicheer’ and ‘Grand Primo.’
In my opinion spider lilies (Lycoris radiata), and their other cousins in the Lycoris genus (L. aurea and L. squamigera), are the most beautiful bulbs available to Texas gardeners. These fall-blooming bulbs are stunning. Look for them to appear on single stalks after early fall rains.
Crinums and hymenocallis are evergreen bulbs that are commonly found in Texas cemeteries. Both grow large mounds of glossy, tapered leaves that drop either to (crinums) or almost to (hymenocallis) the ground. While hymenocallis generally bloom in the spring, crinums can bloom several times throughout the year. These plants are extremely hardy and thrive in our climate. If left in place they can create bulbs that are extremely large.
The best hymenocallis for Texas is the native H. liriosme. This plant is often called “The Texas Spider Lily.” While the small flowers of this plant are lovely, it is the plant’s foliage that makes it one of my favorite bulbs of all time. The glossy leaves of this plant are so big, and so pretty, that it works great as a foundation plant around buildings.
While the foliage of crinums is not as nice as the foliage of hymenocallis, its blooms cannot be beaten. Crinums have been popular in the U.S. for a very long time. They are easy to breed and many hobby breeders have created absolutely stunning plants. Most crinums produce clusters of trumpet-shaped flowers several times a year. You can find crinums in just about every color. Along with iris, crinums are one of the few plants that I feel should be in every yard and cemetery in the state.
Texans are survivors. As I wandered through Cade Cemetery as a child, I noticed that turn-of-the-century Texas took the lives of many young women and their children. I also learned that war and accidents and disease took many more of my forebears. Despite all of this, my family survived. I am proud to be part of a family and a community that has understood for a very long time that a cemetery is much more than a bunch of graves. I am proud that the Association asked me to use my skills to be the continuation of this legacy of service. It is my sincerest desire that this plan, which uses tough, horticultural survivors from the past, is a fitting tribute to the dedicated men and women of Streetman, who always understood that this place has always been more than a cemetery.
This article is dedicated to my aunt, Sarah Louise Sims Chandler (Feb. 28, 1928–Aug. 25, 2015). My Aunt Sarah was a lovely and accomplished woman who was equally at home attending the theater or working the cows that she loved so much. Her lifelong love of gardening, canning and cooking from the garden is the reason I garden today. Aunt Sarah taught me the value of land, the value of hard work and the value of family. She passed away while I was writing this article. She is now at rest with her husband and her parents in Cade Cemetery. It was her coconut pie that I ate at all of those cake sales and every other family event that I attended over the past 52 years. She would be thrilled that I am sharing this with you.