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

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.

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.

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"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.

Male, author of "100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden," began growing antique tomatoes and other hard-to-find vegetables out of a desire to preserve genetic diversity. "Because of my biology background, I was taken with the idea that I could help preserve these varieties by growing them and sharing them within Seed Savers Exchange. In that organization, members can purchase, for a very small amount of money, seeds from others."

Soon she was cultivating 150 to 200 varieties - 600 to 900 plants - each summer and sharing seeds not only with Seed Savers but also some of the proliferating number of seed companies that are offering heritage seeds and plants.

"My interest was genetic - until I started eating them," she says. "The best of the heirlooms far exceeds the hybrids when it comes to taste. And that's what tomatoes are all about - drippy, delicious, mouthwatering taste."

The lack of flavor in modern hybrids is a major reason for the increasing interest in heirloom vegetables, says Michael Weishan of Southborough, Mass. Too many of today's vegetables and fruits were bred to look good, to be easy to ship, or to last a long time, not for their tastiness.

The story is similar with roses. Recent hybrids are beautiful and disease-resistant, but often lack fragrance. Old garden roses began making a comeback when the public discovered that not only do antique roses emit delightful aromas, they also resist pests and disease.

That's true of many heirlooms, says Dean Norton, horticulturist at Mount Vernon, George Washington's Virginia estate, where as many as 150 varieties of antique flowers are grown. These are proven plants, he declares. "They've been around for 200 years. They have wonderful qualities to them."

If they're so wonderful, why did they almost become extinct?

Some blame it on changing fashions and on the home gardeners' desire for following the latest trend. "Change is inevitable," writes Tovah Martin in "Heirloom Flowers."

Gardeners "welcome the introduction of a new phlox that promises to be mildew-resistant, or a hardy strain of sage from Germany with rich, zesty, evergreen leaves," she notes. But the old plants the newcomers replace had their virtues. "They shouldn't be lost. Someone's got to keep the past alive."

There's little agreement on how to define an heirloom plant. Is it one passed down to you by your grandfather? Is it from the 1800s? Is it a plant that's no longer grown commercially, or that was never grown commercially?

"To me, it's probably all those things," says Kunst. "I think the definition of an heirloom plant is one that's headed toward extinction, or that's becoming difficult to find."

The Historic Iris Preservation Society is devoted to irises that are 30 years old or older. And Kunst has no problem with that: "Why wait till everything is gone and then track them down? Let's hang onto everything from 30 years ago and back."

Many garden preservationists feel the same way about the landscapes of the past. At one time, even historic properties paid little attention to their grounds, instead lavishing care on the interior and exterior of the buildings. There's something incongruous about a historic home with a garden that doesn't fit the period, notes Weishan. And it doesn't give people a true picture of the past.

Providing a window on the past is the main reason that gardens such as Mount Vernon's are so important, says Mr. Norton. "Things were done at that time for a reason. You didn't just plant a garden to be pretty. The kitchen garden was a ... necessity. If you didn't have it, you didn't survive, or at least you didn't eat very well.

"The upper garden, or pleasure garden [at Mount Vernon], was created [solely] for the pleasure of the visitors.

"The serpentines [mazes constructed of dwarf evergreen shrubs] were intended to be relaxing, to [let the visitor] walk with nature ... and not to worry about anything else for a little while," Norton adds.

"The nursery was for fruit and [to provide plants] for future projects. Visitors can't believe so much thought went into a plantation makeup."

Since World War II, Americans have gotten away from the idea that a house and its grounds are two parts of a seamless whole, says Weishan, a garden designer who specializes in historic landscapes.

He suggests that today's homeowners can learn from gardens such as Mount Vernon and Monticello is to ask themselves before landscaping their yards, "Why are we doing this?"

Whatever the reasons that gardeners and horticulturists are now paying homage to the past, they have made a difference. Many historic gardens and heirloom seeds would have disappeared without their efforts.

"There are many plants that, if it weren't for the fact that a lot of people saved them, propagated them, and passed them along to their friends," says Bender, "we wouldn't have them."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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