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Where in the World are Your Posies From?

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Spring is coming—honest. Soon we’ll head to the nurseries for flowers so familiar (petunias anyone?) you’d think they’ve been here forever. Turns out, most of our garden favorites hail from distant, exotic places. Here are a few…

Rose.  Fossil records show the much-loved rose is an ancient flower, probably originating in Central Asia and spreading naturally across the Northern Hemisphere. It appears cultivation started about 5,000 years ago in China.

Alexander the Great and Crusading knights are credited with introducing the rose to Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries, respectively. Hybrid tea roses descend from landmark rose-breeding efforts in 19th-century England.

Fun rose fact:  The Society of American Florists estimated that in 2022, more than 250 million roses were produced for Valentine’s Day, and that 83% of consumers bought red roses.

Pansy.  These multi-colored beauties have a complex history. They descend from the smaller viola odorata, native to continental Europe and Asia. Violas were a familiar flower in 4th-century B.C. Greece, where people cultivated them for herbal medicine.

Sometime after the 4th century A.D., the story goes that someone in France noticed a flowering plant similar to the viola growing in more open, sunny spaces, and named it pansy (from the French word pensee, meaning thought or remembrance). European and English cultivation led to the flower we buy to add a sweet riot of color along pathways and in pots.

Fun pansy fact:  According to the Farmers’ Almanac, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream “describes one legend surrounding pansies, which states that these flowers were originally pure white until they were struck by Cupid’s arrow. It’s the arrow wound that caused the dark purple color at the center of the flower.”

Petunia.  Native to South America, petunias are cousins (Solanaceae) to tomatoes, eggplant, pepper, the poisonous angel’s trumpet and tobacco. Wild seed was collected in the 16th and 17th centuries; in the late 19th century, breeders in Europe, Japan and the U.S. hybridized the species.

Fun petunia fact:  In 1934 Japanese breeders finally cracked the genetic code that would consistently yield double-petaled petunias.

Geranium.  Garden “geranium” is actually in the closely related genus Pelargonium, which has its roots (pun intended) in South Africa. Arriving in Europe in the 17th century, it has been widely cultivated since. The true geranium (genus Geranium), aka wild geranium and cranesbill, is native to eastern North America.

Fun geranium fact:  The American Botanical Council says, “In folk medicine geranium oil has been used as a pain reliever, sedative, antimicrobial, antifungal and to relieve spasms. Geranium has also been used to help with nervous tension and symptoms of menopause.”

Marigold.  Common bedding plants that may (or may not) keep bugs off our tomatoes, this flower held deep symbolism for the Aztecs, who thought it had magical and mystical powers.

Marigolds are native to Mexico and parts of Central America. Spanish explorers are said to have brought seeds to Spain in the early 16th century. Cultivated in monasteries, they were called “Mary’s gold,” eventually morphing into the current name. Plants were brought to America after the Revolutionary War.

Fun marigold fact:  Today, marigolds are the iconic flower of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, as well as many Indian weddings and festivals.

Garden flowers have often traveled far—geographically and historically—to reach us. Maybe they’re not so common after all.


Rachel Oppedahl is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County.