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Plants of the past

The spirit and romance of heirloom flowers and vegetables - as well as their fragrance and flavor - are capturing the attention of Today's gardeners.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 29, 2000

Two decades ago, when Scott Kunst moved into a small house built in 1870, he had no idea that the move would eventually result in a new career and put him in the vanguard of a new gardening movement.

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The changes started before he began to restore the house: He looked at the privet hedge across the front of his yard, a single white peony, and a tiger lily that were barely surviving, and wondered how long they had been there.

Had they been planted by a previous owner in the 1950s, or were they as old as the house? He had no idea, and wasn't sure how to find out. At the library, the Ann Arbor, Mich., resident was able to find only one book on historic plants.

"At the beginning of my interest, I felt there was no one in the Midwest who was interested," he says. "Then I found that the Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation had been in existence a few years." So he knew that others were intrigued by heirloom plants and gardens, but most had not connected with one another.

His experience would be different today. Antique roses, heirloom vegetables, period perennials - all the plants of the past - have become the darlings of the garden world. Organizations now locate plants that almost disappeared. A growing number of small mail-order catalogs now distribute seeds and plants popular with previous generations.

What's driving the growing attraction to plants of the past? Reasons range from nostalgia to preserving genetic diversity.

These are also feel-good plants.

Gardeners are beguiled by a sense of romance when growing old plants such as the Jamestown lily, which dates to the Virginia colony of the early 1600s. Or when they forego Boston lettuce for its predecessor, Tennis-Ball lettuce, which Thomas Jefferson grew at Monticello and noted "does not require so much care and attention."

There's also the excitement of the chase, the elation at discovering a plant that few people know existed. Michael Shoup of Benham, Texas, says he didn't start his horticultural career as a rose lover. "To my thinking, roses were just one bush with a thousand different flowers."

But when he began to search the Lone Star State's highways and byways for native plants to introduce to his nursery business, he often came upon everblooming roses "surviving without any apparent care in rather desolate surroundings," he says.

Before long, he joined a group of Rose Rustlers, which took cuttings of "found" roses. At first, not knowing the true names, he named the old roses according to where they were discovered, a common practice with heirlooms.

But he wanted to know more. So he enlisted the help of rosarians, botanical gardens, and garden literature to correctly identify the once-abandoned roses, some of which turned out to be 150 years old.

Like Kunst, who eventually founded Old House Gardens to supply heirloom bulbs to the gardening public, Mr. Shoup's infatuation with old roses led to the creation of The Antique Rose Emporium, which gave him a way to share what he was finding with gardeners as delighted with these plants as he is.

Steve Bender, of Birmingham, Ala., co-author of "Passalong Plants," sees an increasing interest in genealogy as fueling the fascination for period plants.

"You remember something that grew in your parents' or grandparents' garden, and when you realize you've got the same plants that have been passed along for five or six generations, you feel a connection to all those people."

Mr. Bender mentions that some people have made it a tradition that when a family member marries, he or she gets a division of a special plant that has been grown by the family for generations. "There's a lady in Tennessee who told me about what she calls a black daffodil. The flower wasn't black, but the papery sheath around the bulb was. She passed it along to her children, and they passed it along to theirs."

Another family that he knows in Alabama saves seeds of a special okra plant and gives them to each new generation.

Older people often cast a fond gaze backward to a variety of vegetable they may have eaten in childhood or a flower they grew in their younger days.

Heirloom-vegetable expert Carolyn Male of Salem, N.Y., was recently delighted to reunite an 84-year-old man with Golden Bantam corn, and two tomato varieties he knew as a child.

He, like many others, had no idea that these old seeds were still around. He thought they had disappeared years ago, crowded out by modern hybrids.

That they are available again is due to tireless efforts of many people, including Dr. Male and Kent and Diane Whealy, founders of Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa.