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Cultivating the Past: Growing Heirlooms

Martha Stewart Living, March 2008

Whatever you call them -- heirlooms, heritage plants, classic flowers -- the old-fashioned annuals and perennials that have brightened gardens for centuries exert a powerful appeal. 

In a world inundated with plants touted as "new and improved," they're a living link -- with beloved relatives and friends, with our childhood, with generations of gardeners long gone. In fact, many heirlooms have survived only because they're passed from hand to hand as cuttings or seeds.

It would be a bleak garden that didn't include at least a few of these welcoming flowers. Even if you can't live without the latest sunset-hued coneflower, your new treasure will shine all the more if it's partnered with the chartreuse froth of lady's mantle or the bold spires of foxglove or hollyhock.

Indeed, the simplicity of form of so many heirlooms gives them a welcome versatility, both in the garden and in a vase. But companionability wouldn't be nearly as appealing if heirlooms weren't also tough and relatively easy to grow.

Then, of course, there's fragrance -- the spiciness of phlox, the musk of herbaceous peonies, the vanilla-tinged scent of stocks, the all-enveloping voluptuousness of old roses -- a trait that, perversely, has been bred out of many modern flower strains. Why even bother having a garden if you can't wander through it in the cool of the morning or the evening, breathing in great lungfuls of sweetness?

The gentle palette of many heirloom varieties is another point in their favor. A few, such as bee balm, may venture into the bolder reaches of the spectrum. But for the most part, heirlooms are simple to combine, resulting in scenes of a satisfying, but never cloying, richness. Peonies offer a hundred gradations of pink, from tender shell-like tints to robust shades of cherry and coral, with pure white and deep crimson bracketing them at the ends of the scale. Blues, mauves, and lavenders are endlessly accommodating and can be had from many sources: perennials such as salvias, cranesbills, and baptisias; annuals including loves-in-a-mist, stocks, and ageratums. Plants with soft lemon-yellow flowers (achilleas, hollyhocks) provide contrast to the dominance of white, pink, rose, mauve, and blue. Skillfully deployed, this range of color creates what the great French gardener and rosarian Odile Masquelier calls a camaieu effect, a term borrowed from painting and textiles that denotes a color graduated into a series of harmonious tints and shades.

Although most heirlooms have humble origins that accord with their unassuming appearance, there are a few aristocrats that bring with them a sense of drama. Old roses are, of course, heirlooms by definition, and lovely things they are, with their silken form and ravishing scents. Many of them bloom only once, producing several weeks of spectacular flowers in early summer, but some modern hybrids have managed to retain the charms of the old roses while offering continuous bloom. So many hybrid teas and floribundas have sacrificed fragrance and gracefulness to massive bloom. Stick with Rosa rugosa hybrids such as 'Fru Dagmar Hastrup,' or David Austin's creamy English roses, or the sensual Romantica series.

As for delphiniums, what can one say? No, they're not easy -- they need staking, watering, liming, feeding, and heroic measures against slugs. But there's nothing like those towering spires of blues, from sky to ultramarine. Time and again we throw reason to the wind in the hope of getting them to thrive. They make us realize -- more than any other heirloom -- that gardening isn't just a matter of choosing plants and combining them in a pleasing way; it's an affair of the heart.

If you can't bear to cut lots of flowers from your garden, highlight just a few precious stems by spreading them out in a variety of vessels. 

1. Rose | Rosa 'zephirine drouhin' 
2. Dame's Rocket | Hesperis matronalis 
3. Clematis | Clematis 'blue boy' 
4. Peony | Paeonia 'red charm' 
5. Butterfly Bush | Buddleia alternifolia 'argentea' 
6. Ornamental Onion | Allium moly 

No garden can evoke simple charm without flowers in abundance, whether or not they are true heirlooms. 

1. Foxglove | Digitalis purpurea 
2. Clematis | Clematis 'The President' 
3. Dahlia | Dahlia 'alloway candy' 
4. Rose | Rosa 'lichfield' 
5. Bee Balm | Monarda didyma 
6. Foxglove | Digitalis purpurea 'excelsior hybrids' 
7. Asiatic lily | Lilium and black mullein | Verbascum nigrum 'album' 
8. garden phlox | Phlox paniculata 'bright eyes' 
9. Hollyhock | Alcea rugosa

Early-Summer Glossary 
1. Rugosa rose | Rosa rugosa 
2. Delphinium | Delphinium 'black knight' 
3. Bloody cranesbill | Geranium sanguineum 
4. False indigo | Baptisia australis 
5. Snow-in-summer | Cerastium tomentosum 
6. Honeysuckle | Lonicera 'goldflame' 
7. Sweet Woodruff | Asperula odorata 
8. Lady's mantle | Alchemilla mollis 
9. Clematis | Clematis 'Dr. Ruppel' 
10. Peony | Paeonia 'festiva maxima'

Late-Summer Glossary
1. Flowering tobacco | Nicotiana 'antique lime' 
2. Rose campion | Lychnis coronaria 
3. Love-in-a-Mist | Nigella 'Miss Jekyll' 
4. Pot Marigold | Calendula 'Nova' 
5. Snapdragon | Antirrhinum 'Rocket Yellow' 
6. Bee Balm | Monarda didyma 
7. Cosmos | Cosmos 'pink sensation' 
8. Floss flower | Ageratum 'blue horizon' 
9. Garden phlox | Phlox paniculata 'katherine' 
10. Hollyhock | Alcea rosea