Lately when heirloom plants are mentioned, what might first come to mind are vegetables, especially tomatoes whose quirky shapes and colors (and names) can be found even in local groceries. Yet there is also an abundance of heirloom flowers still gracing landscapes, from annuals to perennials, shrubs, vines, and bulbs. In fact, you might already have some “living antiques” in your garden without even realizing it.
What makes a plant an heirloom? The generally accepted definition is a plant that has been in cultivation for at least 50 years. For certain types of plants, the definition also specifies that heirlooms be “open-pollinated,” meaning pollen is moved about by natural means (wind, bees, butterflies) and seeds grow into offspring that resemble the parent. Though for other plant types, there are plenty of hybrids that are heirlooms as well. For antique roses, the cut-off date is 1867 when the first hybrid teas were introduced.
But beyond the textbook angle, what really gives an heirloom flower meaning is its history and connection to gardens and gardeners of the past. This could be an association with a famous person or place, such as Thomas Jefferson and his beloved Monticello, or your own grandmother, who just loved, loved, loved her fragrant petunias and saved seeds to give to friends and family. Which is where the more colloquial term for some heirlooms, “passalong plants,” originates.
Many heirlooms have in fact bounced around gardens for hundreds of years. Like ‘Lac Van Rijn’ tulip, which dates back to Tulipomania in 17th century Holland, when tulip bulbs sold for outrageous sums of money. Hollyhocks, brought from the Middle East to Europe during the time of the Crusades.‘Granny’s Bonnet’ columbine, tucked into many a cottage garden in Shakespeare’s day. Or Amaranthus caudatus, with the curious common name love-lies-bleeding, an annual with dreadlocks of red flowers grown by Early American gardeners.
Heirloom flowers have come to us in several ways. Some are species found growing wild and brought into gardens many years ago, like Virginia bluebells and black-eyed Susan. On this list are plants that might have initially had a purpose, like medicinal or culinary uses, but were later appreciated also for their beautiful flowers.
Other heirlooms are naturally occurring varieties, like the double-flowered Lady Banks rose, originally from China. Then there are cultivars and hybrids developed by breeders and plant enthusiasts, like ‘August Pioneer’ daylily, introduced in 1939 by that father of modern daylilies, A.B. Stout.
Often heirloom flowers present a slightly wilder look, and a charm unlike more recently developed plants that have a cookie-cutter consistency of flower size, shape, and color, belying assembly-line production and shipping needs. It’s the difference between rows of identical red salvias and a border filled with a romantic collection of bachelor’s buttons, nasturtiums, four-o’clocks, Johnny-jump-ups, and gladiolas.
That’s not to say you need a cottage garden or meadow to grow heirlooms. For any type of landscape, formal to informal (even an herb or edible garden), there are heirlooms that will fit in perfectly.
Heirlooms can even have qualities, like fragrance, that have been lost during breeding efforts that emphasize brighter colors or bigger blossoms. Having survived for so many years, heirlooms can also be tougher plants, able to withstand the vagaries of weather and other environmental stresses.
Below is a short list of heirloom flowers that can still hold their own in modern gardens:
ANNUALS & BIENNIALS
- Rose Campion
- Bearded Iris
- Summer Phlox
- Shasta Daisy
- Four O'Clock
- Bridal Wreath Spirea
- Flowering Quince
- Antique Roses
- Mock Orange
- Carolina Allspice
- Morning Glory
- Sweet Peas
- Dutchman's Pipe
- Peruvian Daffodils
- Resurrection Lily
- Milk-and-Wine Lily