Penchant for the Past
text by Ann Wilson
Nestled in colonists’ traveling bags and immigrants’ satchels, heirloom flower seeds made their way across the sea to the New World. Many of the seeds adapted to unfamiliar soils and climates, and as seasons passed, seeds and cuttings were swapped with neighbors and handed down from generation to generation. Although huge numbers have been lost to hybridization, many heirloom flowers are available today — with the forms and fragrance Mother Nature intended — thanks to horticultural preservationists and gardening families who won’t let a good thing die.
Some experts say “heirloom” defines plants that put down roots in American soil between 1600 and 1950. Others describe heirloom plants as old-fashioned favorites or as those growing from open-pollinated (pollinated in nature, not by hybridizing) seeds that have been selected throughout the centuries as the best of the best. But, Susan Stone, perennial buyer for the Growing Place in Aurora, sums it up nicely.
“Heirlooms are plants that have stood the test of time,” says Susan. ” These are plants that people grew a long time ago, and they’re still here.”
Direct descendants of our forebear’s gardens, heirlooms thrive in borders across the Midwest. And in fact, most accomplished gardeners may already have a few heirlooms growing in their yards. Four hundred years ago, ornamental perennials such as columbine, musk mallow, and monkshood sprouted alongside biennials like canterbury bells, dame’s rocket, and hollyhocks. Everlasting pea vine and scarlet honeysuckle vine provided a lush backdrop for bachelors’ buttons and Johnny-jump-ups.
Gardeners like incorporating heirloom flowers in their gardens because they’re hardy, colorful, and fragrant reminders of days gone by. Generally, these seeds have been saved from extinction. Heirlooms can be started in the garden either by plants or seeds. There is more interest in the annuals; a lot of the heirloom annuals re-seed and come back for a couple of years.
Heirlooms don’t need chemicals or pesticides; these plants survived for fifty years before the advent of pesticides. The old varieties — without any tampering — are more fragrant. They’re wildlife attracting — birds and butterflies recognize them when they might not recognize hybrids. They attract pollinators to the garden. They’re beautiful and fragrant and don’t need much care. They’re plants you remember from your childhood and that also grew during someone else’s long-ago childhood.