Historical Heirloom Gardening with Ornamental Plants

Heirloom gardening can combine ornamental plants into a variety of stunning landscape arrangements. Use this historical guide along with the MOTHER EARTH NEWS seed and plant finder to create your own heirloom garden.


| December 1991/January 1992



heirloom rose and sage fence

Picket fences and sidewalk borders are ideal locations for varying the color arrangement of old roses and purple sage (Salvia officinalis). 


PHOTO: iSTOCK/JORGEANTONIO

In 1970 we moved a Noah's Ark of animals — two horses, two cows, miscellaneous chickens, cats and a dog — 750 miles northeastward to a 100-acre farm at the end of a dirt road on a remote peninsula in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. After we had rebuilt the barn, plowed and planted the fields, restored the fences and established vegetable and fruit gardens, I turned my attention to the heirloom flowers I'd inherited with the property: herbs, flowers and shrubs planted on a knoll just beyond the front door. I found many varieties of ornamental plants decorating the landscape: There were lilacs, purple and white, their aging limbs spread over a wide area almost touching one another. At the base of one, the ground was entirely covered with spotted-leaved lungwort (Pulmonariaofficinalis) — displaying clusters of small pink and lilac-blue trumpets in the early spring — and nearby was an impressive clump of tawny daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva), once described as the floral symbol of our gardening past.

Struggling to survive on the same piece of ground were a few mock orange bushes and a group of daffodils — known locally as the French lily or white lily — most of whose buds never opened and later expired still in their papery covering. The few flowers I saw, though, were unforgettable: tight clusters of intensely fragrant, double-white blooms.

A rosebush sprawled in front of the house, just under a window, its suckers spreading in every direction. I knew virtually nothing about old roses then, but I later learned this was a 'Banshee', also known as the 'Loyalist Rose', common at Colonial sites all over the Northeast. When the flowers opened, I discovered old rose essence for the first time, deep within the layers of blush pink petals.

Yellow flag iris (Irispseudacorus) — with swordlike green leaves and small fleurs-de-lis blossoms in a classic design I'd never seen before — flourished in a large colony by the back door. In fact, I'd never seen the likes of any of these plants, having grown up in the suburbs and spent my gardening time hoeing rows of beans to feed our family. This small collection of ornamental plants opened up a new world to me. I was attracted to the plants' pronounced scents, variety of forms somewhat on the wild side and charming, often quirky ways.

These plants, I thought, with their simple grace and charm, were close to the wild, unspoiled by human intervention. But as I became more involved with the subject of old ornamental plants, I realized that curious gardeners have been tinkering with nature for centuries, and that the subject was much broader and more complex than I had imagined.

I've come to understand that what constitutes an heirloom ornamental is open to interpretation. Heirlooms change over time and are not fixed absolutely. They do, however, represent valued possessions at different periods in history. Those plants that deserve our attention as heirloom gardeners can be as varied as the truly antique 16th century double-flowered dame's-rocket, as well as hybrid creations that are deserving of attention. These unique blooms are becoming increasingly rare, and are in danger of being lost to future generations of gardeners — the 1950s rose known as 'Ma Perkins' comes to mind.





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