Green Scene

Creating an heirloom garden

By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, January 2, 2010

Many gardeners are confused by what constitutes an heirloom plant. For me, there is no set definition.

They can offer a sense of nostalgia -- think bearded irises, foxgloves or hollyhocks randomly arranged along a mulched path, edged with forget-me-nots, hostas and fragrant white flowers of sweet woodruff in spring. Or they can be plants grown for their longevity and dependable flowering, such as daylilies, or fragrance, like old-fashioned varieties of peonies or plants in danger of vanishing for future generations.

Almost all heirlooms are considered products of natural pollination, generally not derived from hybridizing, grafts or other human intervention.

A century or two ago plant collectors from North America and Europe sought variety -- unique foliage, ferns, and brilliantly colored flowers. These plants were passed from one generation to another. They became "old friends," states Jo Ann Gardiner in her book, "Heirloom Flower Gardens: Rediscovering and Designing with Classic Ornamentals" (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2001). Her definition is that heirlooms are plants we know because we grew up with them.

The American cottage garden, popular from the late 1800s to early 1900s was a style of flower garden planted with heirlooms. Many of these continue to be available to gardeners. Here are some ornamentals that still work well in the garden:

-- Jackman clematis (Clematis jackmanii) is included as an heirloom even though it is an early hybridized plant. Introduced in 1860, this vine is still very much in commerce. In 1860 no one had ever seen clematis with such large flowers. Gardiner calls it, "an era when art and science were beginning to produce new hybrid forms never seen before."

-- Daffodils (Narcissus) are true bulbs that flower in spring and are planted in fall. They have been cultivated since Egyptian times and have been found in crypts and tombs, preserved after 3,000 years, according to Allan M. Armitage in his tome titled "Herbaceous Perennials Plants" (Stipes, 2008). Introduced in 1899, King Alfred remains the most popular of large yellow daffodils. Check Bayou City Heirloom Bulbs.

-- Dahlias were grown by Aztecs for use as animal feed and medicinal plants. Armitage writes, "Passion for dahlias in the 1840s matched the tulip mania of the seventeenth century." There are three Mexican species from which all modern garden dahlias originated: "D. pinnata, Aztec dahlia, with double purple flowers; D. coccinea, fire dahlia, with single, red flowers; and D. rosea, old garden dahlia, with single pink flowers," according to Armitage. Old House Gardens has heirloom dahlias. Call 1-734-995-1486.

-- Gladiolus (G. communis ssp. byzantinus) is a summer blooming corm that's been grown in the south for years, often found around old homesteads and cemetery plots. In the North, dig corms in fall, store in cool dry place and re-plant in spring. Information and selections are available from Brent and Becky's Bulbs at

-- White foxglove (Digitalis purpurea f. albiflora) is a stately upright growing biennial that continues to be an impressive form after more than a century of cultivation. Since its introduction in 1823, it has naturalized and become a common plant to find colonized in areas of woodlands. Ever since William Withering in England discovered in 1776 that digitalis helped dropsy, a disease related to the heart, it has been used as a heart medication. It is a toxic plant -- even deer don't eat it.

-- Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) are plants you would expect to see in old-fashioned gardens. Single red flowers on tall, sparsely branching stems describe their trademark heirloom appearance. Gardeners have been growing these deer resistant, five to six foot tall biennials for centuries. Crusaders returning to England are believed to have introduced hollyhocks to the west.

-- Peonies in flower make a beautiful show and when you see them you will want some in your garden. They first appeared in writing in 370 BC when Theophrastus, considered by many to be the "father of botany," recommended this Mediterranean native for healing wounds. Its common name was the female peony (Paeonia officinalis). It had single crimson flowers and grew about three feet high and wide. The first double peony to appear in writing was white and written-up in the publication "Herbal" in 1597. One source for heirloom varieties is Old House Gardens.

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